If America is the land of the free, then New York is the land of the
really free. We flaunt our freedom, sometimes to the point
of frivolity, but mostly we take it very seriously. It is, at bottom,
what New York is about.
Now? Now we will be about other things. Not by choice, but of
necessity, by habit and instinct. Because our new reality is such
that the usual New York attitude -- detached, unflappable, gossipy,
exuberant -- is totally inappropriate to the state of mourning we
will be in, whether we want to be or not, for some time. What precisely
will change, I think, is this: In the wake of this tragedy, freedom
will be less important to us, and we will want more authority.
I don't mean, as some have said, that our civil liberties are
at risk. I doubt that will happen. Speedy entrée through an airport
and curbside check-in are not inalienable rights, and we'll live
with whatever inconveniences we have to. The Constitution won't
change. Our constitutions, however, will change.
Freedom, both globally and locally, had been doing well for the
past decade. Wherever one stood on Vietnam or Central America, or
Patrice Lumumba or Oliver North, we could all embrace the sight
of those ecstatic East German motorists guiding their frail Trabants
through the border checkpoint at Leipzig in 1989, and, two years
later, the image of the hammer and sickle being dropped for all
time from the Kremlin mast (on Christmas Day, no less). For many
people, this condition of freedom was, and remains, more conceptual
than actual. Still, the demise of the Eastern Bloc meant that humankind
could commence its struggle from the vantage point of certain shared
presumptions about the rights of man. The awful isms had indeed
Or had seemed to. But now we face two other isms -- fundamentalism
and the terrorism carried out in its name -- which have contempt
for our traditions and share none of our presumptions, and they
now define our era as surely as the Soviet competition defined an
As New Yorkers, we won another kind of more tangible freedom. "The
right to safety in one's person is the first civil right," I heard
Rudy Giuliani tell many audiences back in 1993. "If government can't
provide that right, then all the other rights don't mean much."
He advanced that conviction too aggressively on several well-known
occasions, and the freedom was won in an uneven and imperfect fashion,
as freedoms always are. But philosophically, Giuliani was dead-on,
and the change was astonishing: We had come to accept that the risk
of violence in this city was as natural a part of life as buying
a newspaper, and then, by 1996, for most of us, that risk was gone.
During the coming weeks, one of the mayoral
candidates will carry himself with the right mixture of dignity,
intelligence, humility, and confidence, and the voters will sense
it and choose him.
And there we stood. No nuclear threat. No serious threat, anymore,
of being assaulted. There was still plenty to argue about, but things
-- the big, historical things -- were all moving in the right direction.
Until last Tuesday.
The era of goose-pimply freedom is over now, and what we are about
to experience is an adjustment of the balance between freedom and
authority. In democracies, the two impulses exist in constant tension.
We pay far more lip service to freedom; what politician, aside from
Giuliani, wants to get caught singing the brutish praises of authority?
But the success of democratic life, and even of messier urban life,
depends on a proper balance between the two.
That balance will shift. To be sure, Giuliani was dazzling last
week mostly for reasons having to do with his comportment. He was
right there, trapped in a room on Barclay Street for fifteen minutes.
He was calm. He assured us that everything that could be done was
being done. He conveyed that he was just as shaken and mortified
and confused in the face of this evil as the rest of us were.
But he also dazzled because of something inside us: We badly needed
a leader, and we were never more susceptible to his strength, his
authority, than we were last week. It's ironic that fate dealt him
the event that would make New Yorkers be grateful for his leadership
on the very day that we were supposed to select his successor. Speaking
of which, I haven't been in the mood to think about the election,
but I do know that not much of what happened before September 11
matters now. During the coming weeks, one of the candidates will
carry himself with the right mixture of dignity, intelligence, humility,
and confidence, and the voters will sense it and choose him.
I want to say that the desire for authority I foresee worries me;
according to everything I believe, it should. Certainly it worries
me with regard to a president who last week seemed more concerned
about whether he was coming off as mature enough for the job (and
failing) than about our collective, wrenching agony. Yet, he's the
only president there is. He will be pushing all of us to endorse
acts of aggression that Americans born since 1945 have never seriously
thought would be committed in their name. Short of something abhorrent
to our values, such as the slaughter of civilians, to what can we
say no? Very little.
In the city, someone will need to take charge dramatically. Simply
reclaiming lower Manhattan, for starters, is an unfathomably massive
job by itself. Think -- and this is almost embarrassing in its marginality
to the more serious work of returning bodies to loved ones -- but
think only of West Street. That little stretch of handsomely divided
roadway running from the World Trade Center up toward the Village
took 30 years to build, fighting lawsuits, redesigns, and corpulent
bureaucratic machinery through four gubernatorial and five mayoral
administrations. It's buried now under tons of debris. It will need
to be restored immediately. Who knows how many businesses will need
to be relaunched, in new spaces, their insurance claims settled.
The city will need someone who can channel our pain into action
and optimism -- and not just with words. And on top of all that
. . . let's face it, we can't pretend that something like this might
not happen again. Or something unlike this. Do armed guards and
razor wire ring those upstate reservoirs? They sure ought to.
We will want leaders, and we'll be willing to grant them more
leeway to act in our interests -- to decide what our interests are
-- than we ever would have before. But the shift in balance between
freedom and authority won't, in the main, be driven by a president
or a new mayor. It will happen inside each of us. To think of the
ground we'll be ceding is a little frightening; more leeway for
our governors, after all, means less for ourselves. The change will
manifest itself in the culture in a thousand ways -- the way politicians
talk, the course the economy takes, the way people raise their children,
the demands consumers make of the marketplace, the movies that get
made -- and then, at some as yet unknowable point, we'll be in the
thick of a new age. We don't know yet what it will be. But we know
it will be different. And we'll know the time, the day, and the
place when it started.