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Freedom's Just Another Word For Plenty Left To Lose

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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 become wasms.

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 earlier one.

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.

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.


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