Report from Liberty Street
Charles Bernstein

I took a walk on Liberty Street today. Only it was not the same place as I had known before.

They thought they were going to heaven.

Large crowds surge inside the police barricades, stretching to get a glimpse of the colossal wreck. All that remains of the towers is two lattice facades standing upright amidst the rubble.

These vast and hollow trunks of steel are mocked by the impervious stare of the neighboring buildings that loom, intact, over the vacant center.

National guard troops, many no more than teenagers, stand guard over us, the dazzled onlookers, the voyeurs of the disaster, shouting gruffly, yet with a strange and unexpectable kindness, "move on, move on, can’t stop here."

We look on, perhaps not yet ready for despair, against our stronger instincts, which well up, boundless and bare.

They thought they were going to heaven.

There are so many troops that the metaphor of a war zone dissolves into an actuality.

Liberty Street is an occupied zone. We have occupied ourselves.

At Pier A on the Battery, there are two giant Apple "Think Different" ads with blown-up pictures of FDR and Eleanor Roosevelt, who preside over the scene with unflinching incomprehension.

Across the way, the sign on the almost completed "The Residences" at the Ritz Carleton Downtown says: "Live in Legendary Luxury / Occupancy Fall 2001 / Spectacular Views."

They thought they were going to heaven.

At the checkpoint at Bowery and West Street, four soldiers check the passes of every vehicle wanting to go north and there is endless stream of cars, busses (filled with workers), pick-ups, dumpsters, flatbeds. Even police in uniform show their IDs to the soldiers.

Battery Park has become a military staging ground, filled with jeeps and tents and soldiers in combat fatigues.

Because the park is closed, it’s impossible to get to the Museum of Jewish Heritage: A Living Memorial to the Holocaust.

They thought they were going to heaven.

If downtown seems oddly detached, out of time or frozen in it, one of the most affecting sites is at the Times Square subway station. Around the cold tile columns in the central atrium of the station, people have put up dozens of homemade signs, each with a picture of someone. They say missing, but not in the sense of "looking for" but rather—feeling the loss. The grief surrounding these columns is overwhelming and we look on as if hit by a wave of turbulence. Yet, despite the votive lights and candles in coffee mugs, which, remarkably, the Transit Authority has left undisturbed, these are secular shrines, in the most pedestrian and transient of all places in the city.

Now, in our aftershock, we are overwhelmed by explanations for things that, at the visceral level, can’t be rationalized. Anyway not yet or not quite. Almost everyone I know is on their own particular edge, our preset worldviews snapping into place like a bulletproof shield on one of James Bond’s cars. Only the presets aren’t quite working, which makes for an interesting, if unhinging, shimmer at the edges of things.

We hear a lot of one song from 1918 by Irving Berlin, but not a hint of "How Deep Is the Ocean" or "Let’s Face the Music and Dance" much less "You Can’t Get a Man with Gun."

They thought they were going to heaven.

The movies keep playing in my head. Not Towering Inferno; but, do you remember in Fail-Safe where the President, played by Henry Fonda, launches a nuclear attack on New York to show the Russians that the US attack on Moscow was a mistake? "Mr. Chairman," Fonda tells his Russian counterpart, "My wife is in New York today on a shopping trip and I have her on the phone right now. . . . Mr. Chairman, the phone has gone dead."

So it’s almost no surprise to see someone with a tee-shirt that says "What Part of Hatred Don’t You Understand?"

I guess when two planes filled with passengers and tanked up with more fuel than it takes to get my moped from here to Mars and back hits skyscrapers with 20,000 people in them, it doesn’t take a political scientist to know there’s a lot of hate there.

The scary thing is that maybe what they hated most about America is not the bad part.

They thought they were going to heaven.

I find myself walking around making up arguments in my head, but when I try to write them down they dissolve in a flood of questions and misgivings. I value these questions, these misgiving, more than my analysis of the situation.

A new sport is checking not what stores have put up flags but which ones don’t. Still, there is one Afghanistani joint in midtown that has no flag in sight. Stu and I head over to try out the lamb kebab.

In the media, there has been a good deal of flap over the use of the word "cowardly" to describe the people that commandeered the planes. I notice that on television this weekend the term of art is now "dastardly," though that is probably better applied to the villain in Perils of Pauline. Certainly these men were not timid nor did they turn and run like rabbits (the root of the word). But I think the fact that no one claimed responsibility has made it harder to react, which is part of the effect. The seeming cowardice is not in the action but in the refusal to take responsibility for the action; it’s strategic rather than tactical.

They thought they were going to heaven.

"We got what we deserved" a shrill small voice inside some seems to be saying. But surely not this person, nor this one, not this one, nor this one.

Nor this one.

No one deserves to die this way. I think that goes without saying and yet I feel compelled to say it.

Even if "we" and "they" have felled many, too many (any is too many) in this way.

Not people willing to die for a cause (a fairly large group), nor even those willing to kill for a cause (also a fairly large group), but people willing to do this (a relatively small group).

They thought they were going to heaven.

Not cowards. Men of principle.

Oh yes, you may say, what’s monstrous to one may be expediency to the other. I too have read Merleau-Ponty’s Humanism and Terror and watched Burn and The Battle of Algiers. But that makes it no less monstrous.

They thought they were going to heaven.

Still, I don’t think this form of monstrousness is only "out there." We have our own domestic product. We call it KKK or Timothy McVeigh, Lt. Calley or Dr. Strangelove.

They thought they were going to heaven.

Manhattan as transitional object: Both my parents were born and grew up in NewYork, their parents having found sanctuary here from places that proved . . . inhospitable. The ghosts of these transplanted souls, along with the ghosts of their many compatriots, haunt the Holy Warriors with a fury that drives them to seek refuge through the Gates of Hell.

The question isn’t is art up to this but what else is art for?

They thought they were going to heaven.

"The lone and level sands stretch far away."

(September 18—October 1)

Charles Bernstein is the author of many books of poetry and criticism including With Strings (University of Chicago Press, 2001) and My Way: Speeches and Poems (University of Chicago Press, 1999). This essay appeared on the UCP website in October 2001 and was later published in Bernstein’s Girly Man (University of Chicago Press, 2006).


Copyright notice: ©2001 by Charles Bernstein. All rights reserved. This text may be used and shared in accordance with the fair-use provisions of U.S. copyright law, and it may be archived and redistributed in electronic form, provided that this entire notice, including copyright information, is carried and provided that the University of Chicago Press is notified and no fee is charged for access. Archiving, redistribution, or republication of this text on other terms, in any medium, requires the consent of Charles Bernstein.
Return to The Days After, essays written in the aftermath of September 11, 2001, from the University of Chicago Press.