So we awoke again in New York to a terror warning last week, confirmation -- as if any was needed -- that the next three weeks leading up to the Republican convention, and from there to the November election, holds special peril for this most iconic of American cities. As I began to sort through the news and make phone calls and talk to friends and neighbors, I found myself posing variations on the same questions, in terms so simple as to risk a predictable answer.
What do you make of the latest warnings? Are you driven to distraction by rumors of catastrophic attacks on the New York Stock Exchange, and Citibank, and the United Nations, and the Prudential Financial Center in Newark?
The answers were striking in their complexity. A few spoke of fear and of immobilizing sadness. But, as has been true each time I've inadvertently plumbed the subconscious of my native city, many more spoke with anger that sounded edged with denial, insisting that the orange alert and the obsession with Osama bin Laden and his Islamist medievalists was largely a cynical exercise in election-year politics.
Richard Murdock, a thoughtful, mustachioed man of about my (middle) age, rode alongside me on the subway back to Brooklyn one evening. He jabbed at a New York Times headline about President Bush's planned attack ads against Democratic candidate John Kerry and attributed the orange alert to Karl Rove's fevered political imagination and a fear-mongering press.
"This is baloney," he told me as we rumbled through the East River tunnel. "I have zero worries."
Well, perhaps that's so. But not for the first time I looked at a fellow New Yorker and wondered at how resolutely we deny our unfortunate inheritance. Terrorists have come for us three times in the past 11 years. You are aware, I thought as Murdock talked, that almost 2,800 people died and the city's two largest skyscrapers disintegrated three years ago? That the same crew came within a few misplaced bombs of taking down at least one of those towers in 1993?
In the end, I didn't pose these questions, perhaps because they sounded too argumentative and perhaps because of my own uncertainty. Am I so confident of my own rationality in such matters? I rode the A-train to the World Trade Center stop that brilliant late summer day in 2001 and came upstairs to the collective gasps of reporters and rescue workers as they watched men and women tumble through the sky. I heard the terrible groan of a tower cracking, and saw a thick, gray eight-story-high cloud roll toward me.
Every New Yorker in his or her own way saw and heard this. For those like me, the day seemed to open a clarifying window into a realm of terrible possibility. To know what could come meant confronting all manner of questions, from how to defend ourselves to where my family might live.
For others, to go near that window promised a morbid future, filled with dread and repression of civil liberties and ill-considered invasion of foreign lands (views I fully understand). They turn away to remain human. Their description of alerts as naught but politics strike me as denial, but can I so easily argue it's irrational?
My own epiphany about the power of denial came four or five weeks after Sept. 11. It was that rare autumn day when I was able to leave behind the funerals and anthrax and despair and work on a piece about the struggling Jersey Journal. I rode the PATH train to Jersey City and strolled into one of those vast old public libraries that are monuments to the corruptions and glories of the early 1900s. I walked up marble steps to a small oak room, where the librarian handed me a clip file.
As I leafed through the yellowed bits of newsprint, I came upon stories not of the first attack on the World Trade Center, which I had covered for New York Newsday, nor of the recent Sept. 11 attacks. Instead I read of a different plot, the near-catastrophic plan hatched in the summer of 1993 by followers of Sheik Omar Abdel Rahman. Their plan had been to strike on July 4 of that year, using suicide truck bombs to blow up the United Nations building, the Holland and Lincoln tunnels, and the George Washington Bridge. The plot had come tantalizingly close to fruition. Police and federal agents had burst in on the sheik's followers as they stirred a toxic brew of fertilizer and diesel fuel.
In reading these pieces I was struck by how little I had remembered of this. I was living in New York at that time; my wife had just given birth to our second son in January 1993. Yet this conspiracy registered then as another of those obscure plots with an obscure one-eyed sheik out of central casting. The notion that the failed attempt to take down the World Trade Center and these thwarted suicide bombings represented the dark dawn of a new age for my city and my children seemed too far-fetched, and too grim, to contemplate.
Only in the fall of 2001, sitting in that library with a smoke plume spiraling up from the hole that was Ground Zero, did that long-ago plot take coherent and frightening form in my mind's eye.
So maybe denial is woven into the fabric of living in New York City. Maybe it's unreasonable to try to love and work and raise children and grow old without ignoring the horrors that lie just beyond the horizon.
A friend argues that we may as well worry about brain tumors or falling air conditioners as about terror attacks. And, oh yes, he sees in the most recent alert the hand of the Bush administration suspiciously at play.
Except that this argument sounds too reductive. Politicians may manipulate terror alerts for crass advantage, and perhaps more damagingly, intelligence agents may interpret new shards of information in a manner tailored to the worldview of their bosses.
We can beware of this and at the same time realize that al Qaeda seems likely to do its damnedest to hit New York City again, quite possibly during the convention or at some other symbolic moment before the election.
New York Police Commissioner Raymond Kelly, a fine and honest officer, is aware that his department expends a psychological chit or two every time we go to high alert. He has several times signaled his skepticism about overwrought terror warnings emanating from Washington. But he and Mayor Michael Bloomberg evinced no disbelief last Sunday. They mobilized this city, their response informed by the rationalist belief that we can take concrete steps to lessen the threat of terror, that we are not lost in fate's maw.
On Monday morning, as reports emerged that the Bush administration may have overstated the clear and present danger of the recent alert, my e-mail inbox filled with messages from friends and neighbors. I read their eloquent talk of Orwell and disinformation, and their expectations that those among us who had been worried must feel better now.
I called an old friend on this, writing him back that all this good cheer felt like foolish denial. He responded after a while with the suggestion that those of us -- myself and his wife, among others -- who came within the shadow of the falling towers on Sept. 11 had acquired an intimate view of terror. The question, which he was generous enough to leave entirely open-ended, is whether such experience renders us captives of irrational fear, or allows us to discern the terrible shape of a possible future.
For now, I feel confident about only this: Denial may well allow New Yorkers to live and love. But we should not fool ourselves into believing that it confers upon us any immunity.