The Death of Arrogance

Even amongst the rich assortment of wackos, misfits, and fanatics of various persuasions who populated the streets of my childhood, my next door neighbor Murray was a standout. Every loud noise, a siren, a firecracker, backfire from a car, even a whistling teakettle, would cause this guy to drop to the ground and curl into a ball.

We kids considered those antics to be a hilarious form of street theatre, but Murray was not being funny. He served in the infantry in World War II, and after four years in combat, had developed reflexes to protect himself. Decades later, Murray still couldn't shake the feeling that danger lurked everywhere.

He wasn't the only one. Plenty of Americans remember air raid drills, blackout curtains, gas masks, and crouching under school desks in case of an atomic bomb attack. If London was bombed, not to mention the civilian populations of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, we could be next.

That is the post-September 11 generational divide, a disconnect between those who lost their innocence last year, and those of us who lost it a long time ago.

The preponderance of individuals who perished on September 11 grew up in a popsicle colored dream of indomitable America, in a time when even the threat of an attack on American soil was unthinkable. But those who remember World War II and those who lived through the Vietnam War already know there is no safe place. No country or group of individuals is entirely safe from indiscriminate acts of terror, not even us. Especially not us.

Not everybody likes us, and it's amazing to see how many people are surprised by that information. Like a disgruntled schoolyard bully, we are genuinely shocked to discover that not only do people not like us, but that some of them don't play nice.

It's the way the world is, and it's a reality we have been insulated from for more than half a century. In most countries, indeed in all countries except this one, the random murder of civilians who are chosen not because of who they are but because of what they represent is an everyday occurrence. Ask the Israelis. Or the Palestinians. The few remaining Jews in Poland, Catholics and Protestants in Northern Ireland, Kurds in Iraq, Muslims in Bosnia, Hutus, Tutsis, Chechneyans, journalists in Pakistan, Afghanistan, Rwanda, Nigeria, and East Timor. Except for the undisclosed location in which Vice President Cheney is presently hiding, there is no safe place. Not even here.

It's impossible not to think that what we are memorializing this week is not the death of innocence but the death of arrogance. Because nothing, no single thing, symbolized our hubris more than the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey's lost monument to commerce, the late World Trade Center.

The so-called "cathedral of capitalism" was perilously built, utilizing innovative and cost effective methods of construction that increased open expanses of rentable floor space, without the impediment, expense, or structural stability of the more traditional masonry and mortar, massive steel girders and beams.

Designed around a space saving central core of stairwells and mechanicals, the buildings were pierced by what would become giant chimneys, spreading fire throughout the structures, and denying escape to those above the point of impact. Flimsily fireproofed, and later only partially retro-fitted with sprinkler systems that would prove to be useless, the Towers were exempt from strict city fire codes by virtue of bi-state ownership. Precariously balanced despite extensive motion damping, the towers oscillated in high winds like the world's largest pendulums. And they were unattractive, so belligerently ugly that they evoked comparisons to a pair of gothic revival parking garages. All in all what one critic called "a fearful instrument of urbicide".

What the Twin Towers were was tall. So tall, in fact, that the raising of those two monoliths was construed by many, thirty years ago, to be a finger poked directly into God's eye. Nevertheless, even after six people died in a car bomb attack on the World Trade Center on February 26, 1993, no one considered the buildings unsafe. The only concession made was to coat the stairwell walls with glow-in-the-dark-paint. Surely no structure on the face of the globe was ever more susceptible to disaster.

Phillipe Petit is the man who knows the World Trade Center better than anyone else. Better than the shameless opportunists and relentless self-promoters who have usurped the events of September 11 to serve their own ends. Better than the maudlin talk show hosts and lugubrious newsanchors, better than the vendors of souvenir NYPD and NYFD tee-shirts and the celebrities who wear them, better than the landlords and developers so desperate to reclaim their ten million square feet of commercial real estate. And better than the hawks in the Bush administration who are using this tragedy to further their own preposterous political agenda.

Mr. Petit is the man who stretched a cable from the top of one Twin Tower to the other in August, 1974, before the buildings were occupied, and spent almost an hour walking the highwire between them. He says that at that moment, he understood that he was trespassing on territory that rightfully belongs only to birds.

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