Twenty-four hours after the devastating terror attacks that stunned America, someone put a handwritten note on an automatic ticket machine selling train tickets from New Jersey to New York: "No tickets today." A lone conductor wandering the carriages repeated: "The trip is free today." For a moment, this seemed to encapsulate the entire tragedy: It is hard to imagine a greater insult to the American credo than a free train ride.
South of 14th Street, Manhattan seemed like a ghost town yesterday. People wandered aimlessly through Greenwich Village, a cloud of black smoke continued to hover over the spot where the World Trade Center once stood and even in tony uptown an atmosphere of mourning and shock prevailed.
Americans do not have a defined mourning culture. Unlike the Israeli media, which focuses on stories of the victims, the American media focused on the transportation nightmare. America has no Uzi Landaus: The few politicians asked to comment projected a sense of dignified mourning and national unity. Unlike the Israeli media, American broadcasters did not wait to ask who was to blame for the security fiasco - but like their Israeli counterparts, the American public did not bother to ask what could have led the terrorists to hate them so much. The terror produced a tribal closing of ranks and a determination to fortify their world of values. The prevailing view is that the terrorists struck at them because they are Americans. The conclusion? They must be even more American. A group of Congressmen stood outside the legislature in Washington and sang "God Belss America." In New York's Saint Patrick Cathedral, crowds gathered for the daily mass, and the pastors instructed worshippers to praise God, who is all mercy.
The mass took place under heavy guard.
Most of the luxury stores on Fifth Avenue were closed yesterday, and the avenue was almost deserted. Museums, the municipal library, theaters and most restaurants were also closed. Armed guards stood at the entrance to office buildings. The area south of 14th Street was closed to vehicles; only journalists were allowed near the mountain of rubble that used to be the Twin Towers. The remains of mumerous computers could be detected, archaeological remnants of a mighty financial empire. Not far away, thousands of cars were parked. Their owners are buried in the rubble; the parked cars are a monument to their memory. The media asks how the towers could have collapsed in an instant like that. Over and over again they show pictures of the planes crashing into the building. Such scenes have frequently been shown in horror films, and even the knowledge that this time, no special effect cannot banish the thought: This can't be real. It's too pretty.
There was no mad stampede to the scene of the disaster: People waited quietly for news. Yet there was something Israeli, magnified a hundredfold, about their spontaneous reaction to the attacks. People walked the streets glued to transistor radios, complete strangers spoke to one another, everyone described how he was caught in a traffic jam, and often, how he was helped by total strangers. Boat owners sailed people trapped in Manhattan across the rivers. Hordes of people donated blood. The emergency services functioned well, but emergency room doctors had little to do: Most of the work will fall on the undertakers.
Standing in front of the smoke cloud that refused to disappear, people began to argue over what to do. There were those who called for vengeance. A caller on one radio talk show suggested expelling the Arabs from America. The announcer apologized: He knows that is not politically correct, but there are people who feel that way. Others warn that the war on terror is liable to curtail civil liberties. During World War II, Japanese-Americans were imprisoned in concentration camps. Many ideas are being bruited about, including wiretaps and detention without trial. Noted historian David Kennedy of Stanford warns that an obsession with security will undermine the principle of an open society. President George Bush seemed frightened when he addressed the nation: He stammered and had trouble controlling his hands. Who knows what he will do?
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