I wrote this after watching the horrors of 9/11/2001 unfold on television. I submitted it to Britain's
The Spectator magazine. The editor told me it was considered, and discussed at an editorial meeting,
but did not make the final cut. I am relaxing my rule about only publishing things on this site that have
already appeared in print, because this piece was topical and was past its 'use by date' within days.
Moss Side and Toxteth are notoriously run-down areas of Manchester and Liverpool respectively, in the north of England. I wish I knew the particular part of Brooklyn I refer to here. My visit was in January, 2001. I took the bus from JFK that the airport workers take, and spent some time wandering around what was the worst urban deprivation I have seen, anywhere. Brooklyn is the biggest and most varied of the five boroughs and the small part that I saw is not the whole of it, any more than Moss Side is the whole of Manchester. Whatever part of Brooklyn it was that I found myself in, I accept it was not representative, but I have not exaggerated how bad it was.
Eight months later, it was breakfast time in California when the planes hit the towers, and I watched it live on television. The newscaster's comment about the impact resulting in office documents from the World Trade Center showering down on Brooklyn, three miles away, struck me as especially poignant, and reminded me of the aftermath of a bad traffic accident I had seen in England, many years ago, when I saw a child's shoe lying in the middle of the road. A gentle token of something terrible.
Wandering through Brooklyn, not long ago, I thought it the worst scene of urban squalor that I had ever encountered. I had lived in Manchester’s Moss Side in the 1970s and had visited Toxteth, just before the riots. Both those places were grim, but neither remotely compared with Brooklyn. I would guess that nowhere in Western Europe does.
Resembling a city in the aftermath of a bombing raid, it is a slumscape overwhelming in scale, a huge sprawl of decaying and derelict tenements. Storefronts are boarded up or heavily shielded with metal grills. The streets belong to addicts, pushers, the homeless and the hopeless. I had taken a bus into the bowels -- I cannot call it the heart -- of the place. It was my usual trick of visiting the areas that most travellers avoid, in an attempt to ‘see the skull beneath the skin’. Never was the metaphor more apt.
I became very conscious of being the only white person in sight. This was home to a black and Hispanic underclass and I was a conspicuous outsider. I constantly received openly hostile looks. It is worth noting however, that during the two hours that I wandered, hopelessly lost most of the time, I was not assaulted or directly threatened. Only those looks. There are many inner cities in the UK where I would have felt fortunate to be able to say as much. The only person to approach me was a man who asked me the time. I mumbled an apology, trying to explain that I had travelled so much recently, eastward and westward, sometimes adjusting my watch, sometimes not, that I now had no more idea of the time than I did of my location. He smiled tolerantly and let me be.
Earlier, I had journeyed along the nearby freeway, from JFK airport to Manhattan. Countless numbers of people take that route, completely oblivious to this socioeconomic leper colony beneath them. From Business Class pampering to downtown high-rise corporate hospitality, they travel in air-conditioned insularity.
I grew weak with hunger from all that walking but had not seen a café that did not look vermin-infested. Eventually I found a subway station and retreated across the river, to satisfy my hunger at a restaurant in Madison Avenue. It was hard to believe that the wealth and privilege that I witnessed around me there existed so close to the horrors of Brooklyn.
All of this comes back to me now, on Tuesday, September 11 -- a date that will surely live in infamy as the Pearl Harbor of terrorism -- as I watch, in disbelief, live television coverage of an airplane flying into one of the towers of the World Trade Center. The newsman tells us that the earlier collision of another airplane into the adjoining tower resulted in paper, office documents, showering down on Brooklyn, three miles away.
The image haunts me. I imagine thousands of sheets of paper, each with the poignancy of a child’s shoe found on the road after a traffic accident, each a testimony to a pointless death, like poppy leaves on Remembrance Sunday, all floating noiselessly down onto an unknowing populace. Would children laugh and play at grabbing the falling sheets? Would old men warn that some event of mythic scale must be the cause?
Perhaps it was not like that. Perhaps it was just one or two sheets, reaching out across that huge cultural gulf. Messengers from another world, speaking an unknown tongue. What is certain is that the social, racial, economic and other cultural divides that scar this nation will be bridged for a while at least, as a whole people enter together a period of mourning and begin a determined quest for retribution. Neither will be soon completed.