Volume 19 • Issue 18 | September 15 - 21, 2006

Talking Point

The war did begin before 9/11

By Jerry Tallmer

September 11, 2006. God was unkind this morning. He gave us a beautiful day. Blue sky. Balmy breeze. A few friendly little clouds. Too blue, too balmy, too friendly. The traffic and transit guy on the radio — 1010 WINS — around 8 a.m. suddenly said that nothing was going in or out of Penn Station “because of a police investigation.” My heart stopped. Fifteen minutes later, whatever it was at Penn Station had cleared up. The trains were moving again.

Five years ago this day I was headed to my then job at a magazine that had offices straight across Seventh Ave. from Penn Station. A cashier in the bank next door to Penn Station had a radio going. I asked her if they’d estimated the casualties. She said: “Yes, 40,000 dead.” I crossed the avenue to the building that housed the magazine, got in the elevator — and for maybe one-fifth of a second, passed out, my knees buckling. A girl in her 20s gave me a hand up. Never told anyone this, not even my wife, not even when, three years later, it became necessary for me to get a pacemaker.

Twenty-seven hundred and ninety-five dead are quite sufficient, gentlemen of the scimitar. Forty thousand would have surpassed Iwo Jima, surpassed Antietam. Forty thousand, and an impetuous young friend of mine in Washington, D.C., would, I am sure, have had his way. For each act of terror like this, he e-mailed me (I paraphrase) the next day, we turn one of their central cities into a parking lot. But that would have been the start of World War III.

Trouble is, in the opinion of Henry J. Stern, the former commissioner of Parks of the City of New York and current cybercolumnist, World War III has already started. Henry writes his own headlines, and his headline of Aug. 4, this year, looked like this:
WW III Began 10-23-83
But We Were Unaware
Of That Until 9-11-01
“To us,” his column specified, “it began in Beirut on Oct. 23, 1983, at 6:20 a.m., although we had no idea of it at the time. Oct. 23, is a date which should have been proclaimed to live in infamy. It is the date when a Hezbollah truck loaded with explosives was driven into a barracks at the international airport killing 241 American servicemen and women, primarily Marines.

“Rather than pursuing and eliminating the attackers, as was done with the pirates of Tripoli in the early 19th century, President Reagan responded by withdrawing all American forces from Lebanon, which became a Syrian protectorate.”

I swear — not Henry, but I myself — I never did understand how Reagan got away with it, without blame and howling and editorials and finger pointing from all over these United States. The Teflon president. All done with smoke and mirrors, like George W. Bush’s unremitting and revolting exploitation of 9/11 to this very day and hour, from his Megaphone Minute (three days late) in 2001 to this morning’s Lower East Side firehouse where he is having a Media Moment even as I am downing my coffee and hearing how the trains have been stopped at Penn Station.

“President Bush the elder [Stern’s column continues] led a worldwide response to the invasion of Kuwait in 1991 over the opposition of a great majority of Senate Democrats, but due to international pressure, he left the invaders alone. The United States did urge the marsh Arabs in southern Iraq to arise, after which they were slaughtered by Saddam Hussein and the marshes drained so the area could no longer support life. The outcome was similar to winning the battles of World War II and then stopping at the German border.”

Nor does Bill Clinton get off scot-free.

“President Clinton was distressed at the first attack on the World Trade Center (February 26, 1993) which was treated as an isolated criminal act masterminded by a blind sheik in New Jersey; the bombing of the Khobar Towers in Saudi Arabia on June 25, 1998, which killed 19 U.S. servicemen; the bombing of our embassies in Kenya and Tanzania on August 7, 1998 (in Nairobi, 224 killed, and in Dar-es-Salaam, 11 killed); and the attack on the U.S.S. Cole on October 12, 2000, which killed 17 sailors. Our reaction to the African bombings was to fire a Tomahawk missile into a soap factory in Sudan …

“We all know what has happened in the last five years … ”

And what, in and out of Iraq, Afghanistan, Iran, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, Indonesia, Lebanon, Syria, Gaza, Israel, London and anywhere and everywhere else in the world, is still happening.

When I was 12 years old my parents sent me off to Boy Scout camp in (if I remember right) Vermont. There was a camper there named Harry Lunceford, a farm boy my own age but a hefty one and a half times my size. We had ongoing wrestling matches, he and I. He would get me in a scissors grip (a leg squeeze), and, crushing the life out of me, would demand: “Say cows is better than automobiles!” I never did give in… and P.S., by certain sneaky big-city techniques (making sure the head counselor saw me policing the grounds), I carried off the cup for Best Camper.

My point is that I am a Manhattan-born and -bred New Yorker through and through, and that all my life, no matter where I was, whenever it was, in and out of the U.S. Army in particular, if the subject of big-city evils came up, I would smile inwardly and hold my peace. New York — Manhattan — was the one and only place I had always felt something like absolute security. My city. My blocks. My skyscrapers. My rivers. Not to mention my theaters, museums, galleries, restaurants, bars, delis, department stores, schools, colleges, libraries, parks, ball parks — and did I say skyscrapers? (Even if — breathtaking Windows on the World or no Windows on the World — the W.T.C. towers and their paper-thin Erector Set walls and their Auschwitz cattle-car elevators and their destruction of a great old quirky neighborhood were anathema to me from the start.)

“There are certain parts of New York City I would not advise you to invade,” Rick Blaine says to Major Strasser in “Casablanca,” or words very like that. And I, if I ever actually thought about it, must have thought New York impregnable, secure. Until that moment in the bank when the cashier said: “40,000” — even as the topless towers of Ilium were toppling in flame.

A year ago in this paper I wrote about the one person I had known (slightly) who died in 9/11 — Berry Berenson Perkins, mother of two, wife of the late Anthony Perkins. I wrote how angry at her murder I still was. How angry I still am. How angry I will always be. Hers and 2794 other murders. Anger — controlled anger — is a good quality to carry into a war, and Henry Stern is right, we are already well into World War III. God help us — God of the blue skies and the black thunder — if it is only George Bush, the hollow man, prep-school boy, fraternity boy, who knows it.


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