|TRIBAL WARFARE - DECONSTRUCTING GROUND
ZERO MYTHS |
New York Post; New York; Oct 18, 2002; BOB McMANUS;
This guarantees nothing, of course. But it does inspire confidence in the reporting that comprises the most newsworthy, and controversial, part of the book - the section [William Langeweische] entitles "The Dance of the Dinosaurs."
There's a downside to this, as Langeweische perceptively notes: "The tribalism that grew up on the pile had origins so primitive that they can only be understood as instinctual. At the core was an us-versus-them mentality brought on by the mere act of donning a uniform."
here's where Langeweische takes it up a notch - explaining with a refreshing lack of euphemism an animating element in the tension: "The firemen's claims were based on an unspoken tribal conceit: that the deaths of their own people were worthier than the deaths of others - and that they themselves, through association, were worthier too.
There's a nifty little book just out on Ground Zero - spare and to the point, and already sparking bitter controversy.
"American Ground: Unbuilding the World Trade Center" will not be the final, definitive word on how the World Trade Center came down on Sept. 11, 2001 - and what happened next on the smoldering mountain of wreckage that came to be known as "The Pile."
But William Langeweische's tale is certain to take the debate over what happened at Ground Zero - and what needs to happen next - to a higher level.
The book itself is fashioned from a three-part series of articles that appeared in The Atlantic Monthly - and in this respect is reminiscent of another fine magazine piece that became a hard-cover best-seller, "The Perfect Storm."
That is, "American Ground" reeks of authenticity: Maybe Langeweische doesn't get everything right, but he apparently was the only journalist granted unlimited access to the site - and he made the most of his opportunity.
I made several trips to Ground Zero (some official, a couple not) in the weeks after 9/11, and Langeweische captures with precision what (relatively) little I saw.
Langeweische gets the sights and the sounds and (especially) the smells just right.
And, to the best of my understanding, he correctly identifies principal players in the drama, and describes in particular detail the roles they played in transforming "The Pile" from a crime scene to a construction site - ahead of schedule and under budget.
This guarantees nothing, of course. But it does inspire confidence in the reporting that comprises the most newsworthy, and controversial, part of the book - the section Langeweische entitles "The Dance of the Dinosaurs."
"On the morning of Friday, Nov. 2, 2001, seven weeks and three days after the Twin Towers collapsed, tribal fighting broke out at the World Trade Center site . . . when an emotionally charged demonstration turned violent, and firemen attacked the police."
New York, and the nation, saw the fighting - the TV cameras were there, of course - and read all about the arrests. Mayor Giuliani, tough as he was, had quickly to rescind his order restricting off- duty firefighters' access to the site - the command that sparked the melee.
Langeweische uses the incident to explore - with considerable sensitivity - the cultural imperatives underlying the fight.
That is, the firefighters were not prepared to leave retrieval of their dead comrades to others - and particularly not to construction workers operating heavy-duty hydraulic extractors and behemoth backhoes.
This instinct is beyond admirable. Firefighters couldn't do what they do without implicit trust in each other - without the knowledge that no one is left behind, no matter how extreme the circumstances.
But there's a downside to this, as Langeweische perceptively notes: "The tribalism that grew up on the pile had origins so primitive that they can only be understood as instinctual. At the core was an us-versus-them mentality brought on by the mere act of donning a uniform."
It was, more to the point, cops vs. firefighters - a rivalry that "across the years . . . had led to frequent arguments over turf, and occasional bouts of outright obstructionism at emergency scenes."
Again, not news.
But here's where Langeweische takes it up a notch - explaining with a refreshing lack of euphemism an animating element in the tension: "The firemen's claims were based on an unspoken tribal conceit: that the deaths of their own people were worthier than the deaths of others - and that they themselves, through association, were worthier too.
"This was difficult for the police and civilian workers at the site to accept."
To put it mildly.
And then Langeweische really turns up the heat.
He writes about the dirty little secret of the firefighting trade: The tendency of material objects to go missing after the fires are out, and the lives have been saved.
This phenomenon isn't limited to firefighters, of course. Cops see their opportunities, and take 'em, all too often as well.
So it was on The Pile.
"The looting was shadowy, widespread and unsurprising . . . it started in the shopping complex, with the innocuous filching of cigarettes and soda pop, and expanded into more ambitious acquisitions . . .
"Firemen were said to prefer watches from the Tourneau store [and] policemen to opt for kitchen appliances."
Then came the morning that yet another crushed fire truck was recovered from the South Tower wreckage:
"[When] the hulk of the fire truck appeared, rather than containing bodies . . . its crew cab was filled with dozens of new pairs of jeans from The Gap, a Trade Center store . . .
"It was hard to avoid the conclusion that the looting had begun even before the first tower fell, and that while hundreds of doomed firefighters had climbed through the wounded building, this particular crew had been engaged in something else entirely . . ."
Langeweische sandwiches all this between a lot more context than is possible here - but that story, and others, have been floating around for awhile.
It's time they were told to a wider audience - that is, it is time to begin a deconstruction of the myths attending what happened downtown on Sept. 11 and thereafter.
These myths are impediments to a rational reclamation of the World Trade Center site - animating, for example, Rudy Giuliani's insistence that the entire 16 acres be devoted to a memorial.
Some of the early reaction to "American Ground" has been venomous; this is not surprising, for good reporting can be painful.
But out of pain can come progress - and if downtown Manhattan is in need of anything right now, it is progress.[Illustration]
Turf fight: Firefighters scuffle with cops at a protest over the number of firefighters at the WTC site last November. N.Y. Post: Bolivar Arellano
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