To people in this Bush-hating metropolis, the damage to George Bush amounts to a silver lining of the hurricane. For the past few years, it has been galling how he and the Republicans have exploited 9/11—the attack on our city, the murder of our citizens—for partisan purposes. So forgive us a moment of private, perverse pleasure in the manifest failure of the administration’s post-9/11 reorganization: If FEMA had not been subsumed into the new Department of Homeland Security two years ago, everyone agrees, it would have coped much better with Katrina.
The nightmarishness in the South has also made New Yorkers realize how fortunate we were four years ago. Our devastation was limited to .025 of this city’s 321 square miles; only those people living in the immediate vicinity were evacuated; no homes were destroyed; our mayor rose to the occasion; our firefighters and cops performed heroically (instead of resigning or going AWOL, as hundreds did in New Orleans); order and community were exquisitely maintained.
My family’s brief, slightly hysterical consideration of abandoning New York City now looks perfectly ironic: We thought we would relocate to New Orleans, and even coveted a particular house (with a swimming pool) in the Garden District. Instead of moving, we decided to take our chances and continue to live in the terrorists’ crosshairs because this is our home and we like it here, just as New Orleanians will now have to decide whether to risk moving back to their singular, vulnerable, precarious city.
It does seem, at least for the moment, that Katrina has reshaped our national politics. Of course, we were all absolutely certain four years ago of one thing: 9/11 had changed everything. And as we begin the fifth year since the attacks, I find it bizarre—comforting in some ways, but deeply disheartening in most others—how little the important things have changed.
Sure, there are soldiers with M-16s posted at Grand Central and cops searching every thousandth bag on the subways, and at JFK we have to take off our shoes. There is the enormous vacant lot between Church and West Streets (as there was when I was a kid). We are fighting a big, costly, and very possibly doomed counterinsurgency overseas (as we were when I was a kid). And for New Yorkers now, every sunny, breezy September day reminds us, at least fleetingly, of that morning; the weather has a new subtext. Almost everything else, though, has reverted to status quo ante.
To the degree that the security and intelligence agencies were unable to protect us on 9/11, it was due in some large measure to their bureaucratic inertia and infighting; the new federal agency in charge of protecting us, the Department of Homeland Security, failed in Louisiana in some large measure because of its bureaucratic inertia and infighting.
The age of irony did not end on 9/11, as it turned out; rather, Jon Stewart and The Daily Show have enriched and deepened and extended it.
Now, as then, we have an unbeatable liberal Republican mayor. And Katrina will probably make Bloomberg’s reelection even more of a sure thing: As New York voters contemplate some equivalent future local catastrophe, how many will prefer imagining a Mayor Ferrer or Fields or Miller or Weiner in command?
We have the same ineffectual Republican governor, merely lame then, now a lame duck. (His new dream—winning the Republicans’ 2008 presidential nomination—is one that every Democrat should hope he achieves.) And we have the same unfortunate Republican president, always a plainly insecure man professing perfect confidence, a discordant combination of underlying nervousness and surface faith that seems unchanged—but much more disturbing—since 9/11.
After the brief, strange, beautiful period of local, national, and international unity, any sense of common cause has long since evaporated. In New York, our leaders have badly fouled up the reimagining and reconstruction of ground zero. A familiar, dispiriting, hey-what-can-you-do? paralysis has overtaken the project like a toxic fog. We had a pair of absurdly tall buildings before, icons that inspired terrorists, not us; the politicians’ and planners’ desperate, wishful centerpiece for the new vision is simply to build another gigantic, unlikable building, but even taller this time.
The politics of victimhood are as rife as ever. Before 9/11 this tended to be a mau-mauing left-wing specialty, and Jesse Jackson’s inevitable appearance last week in front of the TV cameras in New Orleans revived the tradition. But in New York it’s the demagogic right now playing the victim card most extravagantly. For the proposed Freedom Center museum at ground zero, Pataki, the tabloids, the firefighters union, and some of the family members of the dead insist that our sensibilities are too fragile to withstand a thoughtful exploration of the fitful history of liberty and justice. It seems they want instead to reduce the American idea and respect for the victims (the actual heroes as well as the merely unfortunate majority) to a kind of one-note poor-wonderful-us jingoism.