Say the Right Thing

“Frankly,” Tribune columnist Clarence Page told me by E-mail, “I envy those who were able to react with remarkably measured, cold-blooded reason on the first day. I couldn’t do it.”

There’s no need to say on the first day of what.

Cold-blooded reason is the normal mode that columns are written in, even the ones simulating grief or fury. Like actors, writers don’t want to lose control. But once or twice in a lifetime the world caves in on everybody. It takes skill and even courage for a columnist suddenly drained of all the usual distancing techniques–irony being a mainstay–to write from the gut. The gut isn’t wise or especially articulate, and it’s far from sure of its own importance.

On Tuesday it was Page’s turn to write for the next day’s paper. For much of his story’s length he simply put down what was at hand: “My 12-year-old son’s school calls. He knows my office is near the White House. He is worried about me. When I ask him how he feels, he says, ‘Really weird. It’s like you see the World Trade Center get bombed in the movies and now it has really happened.'”

Then he worried and warned. “Much of the world lives every day with the possibility of being bombed. Compared to them, we Americans have been lucky. Now their war is our war….This massive terror attack tests Americans in ways the United States has not been tested before. It tests our ability to rally behind an effective counter-terrorist war. It also tests our ability to avoid turning against each other while we wage it. . . . Our anger must not lead us to demonize entire ethnic groups for the acts of a few of their distant cousins.”

New City distinguished itself by switching covers and filling three pages with the reactions of writers in Chicago, New York, and other places. New City publishes Wednesday afternoon. This imminent deadline obviously posed an enormous logistical challenge, but psychologically it must have been a godsend. There was no time to meditate, but also no need. On Tuesday afternoon the editor of the Reader asked if I wanted to do something for the coming paper. I considered. I’d be writing a column about the morning’s catastrophe that no one would read until Thursday at the earliest, most not until Friday. I had no idea what to say to the day after the day after tomorrow. The tricks of the trade that make stale bread look fresh were unthinkable.

That Tuesday afternoon I was telling myself that the dailies should clear their columnists from the Wednesday papers and devote all the space to news. The facts were awful and spoke for themselves. We wouldn’t need someone telling us how to feel about them. Wednesday morning I opened the papers and realized I was nuts. Familiar voices were helpfully breaking the horror into simple declarative sentences. The Sun-Times‘s Mark Brown was saying, “It could have been you or me. It still could be.” Richard Roeper was noting, “You couldn’t buy a thick cookie at Mrs. Field’s.” Mary Schmich was musing on the “two worlds” Chicago lived in. “Over and over on the TV, a plane–a jet full of ordinary people trying to get somewhere on an ordinary Tuesday morning–flew purposefully into the World Trade Center. I looked out my window and saw only a woman with a stroller singing to a baby.”

I E-mailed several local columnists who’d weighed in that morning and asked how they were able to do it. “Do you write because you’re compelled to write or out of duty to write or despite a feeling that writing is pointless? Is there any sense of personal catharsis? Do the words come easy or terribly hard? Do you feel any different for having written something?”

Wednesday morning, the Tribune‘s Rick Morrissey wrote a column mocking the idea that the terrorism had put sports in perspective. “It obliterated everything, blew to smithereens what we thought was important.”

“I felt a real need to write that day, and I wrote fast,” Morrissey told me that afternoon. “The only difference between me and anybody else walking down the street that day is that I was able to write a column about Tuesday’s events. We all were hurting that day. To take the columnists out of Wednesday’s paper, I believe, would have taken some of the sense of shared pain out of the coverage.”

“I feel very inadequate writing about a situation like this,” Mark Brown replied. “I wasn’t sure I had anything special to say, and I’m still not sure I wrote anything that holds up. As the page-two guy, it was clearly my responsibility to express myself.”

Tribune business columnist David Greising predicted that “vast resources of American economic power, national will and military might will be focused on the scourge of terrorism. That’s a war the terrorists are doomed to lose.” Then he told me, “I’m not trying to have impact in the sense I normally might. I’m hoping to add context and bring some reason to an event that none of us, even now, can quite understand.”

Clarence Page replied, “When a big news story breaks on deadline, I wonder whether there’s enough time for me to learn enough facts to form a sufficiently intelligent view. Then, I ask myself what W.H. Auden once asked: ‘How do I know what I think until I write it?’ So I write it and I find out what I think. And I hear from readers who thank me for helping them to figure out what they think.”

Steve Chapman said the same thing. “I wrote on Tuesday for the same reason I usually write: to figure out exactly what I think about something.”

“For a columnist not to write,” said Bob Greene, “would be, I think, to break an essential understanding between us and the people who choose to read us.” Greene forwarded to me some E-mail from readers. “It takes a great writer to capture the feeling through simple things such as people on Lake Michigan looking at the sky towards downtown,” wrote one of them.

Mary Schmich responded, “Whenever something big and terrible happens in the world, I always feel, as a columnist, the three p’s–predatory, presumptuous and privileged.” She went on, “Like everybody else, I had thousands of thoughts shooting through my head, but it wasn’t hard to figure out what to write. In the first flush of a bewildering moment short on facts, it always seems to me, you don’t try to explain. Or blame. Or forecast. All that can come later. At least for me, given the limits of my brain, the best thing to do is to write what you see and feel.”

Clarence Page confessed something. “Last night, I watched a TV reporter interview a young witness to the World Trade Center crash. As she described the scene, the young woman stopped talking and started to cry. The reporter, a serious young man, suddenly broke all journalistic protocol: He lowered his microphone. He put a comforting arm around the woman’s shoulders and said softly, ‘I’m sorry.’ I was startled by his action, but happy he did it. He was behaving like I wanted to behave many times when I was a reporter.”

Chapman, an op-ed columnist, reacted by finding good news. He wrote in Wednesday’s Tribune that “chances are good” Tuesday’s terror was not the beginning of a war with terrorists “but the beginning of the war’s end. Launching a series of strikes at American targets means leaving fingerprints behind.”

He told me, “In times of tragedy, it feels better to do something than nothing. Writing in this case was harder than usual only because I felt a special obligation not to say anything obvious, banal, or inappropriate. It was easier only because I was writing from inspiration rather than reporting and research. The words came hard, because for me, they rarely come easy.”

All this was about Wednesday. But the columns right for Wednesday wouldn’t do even one day later. Though few new facts were known, Schmich’s “first flush” had passed. On Thursday, columnists again shouldered their obligation to be considered. Eric Zorn, who alternates with Schmich in the Tribune, acknowledged this in print. He told us how he and his son had been tossing the baseball around in the yard Tuesday morning when his wife “came onto the porch to interrupt our little Norman Rockwell scene,” and how when his son took off for school “he stepped into a different country than the one in which we’d been playing catch.” This was day-one fare, and Zorn stepped back from it. “By now,” he wrote, “you have probably read and heard your fill of ordinary-morning-interrupted tales and how-I-heard-and-what-I-felt anecdotes. In fact, I’m grateful that you slogged through mine and have made it this far down the column. But they’re important stories to tell. And I urge you, once you finish with the newspaper, to pick up a pen or go to the computer and take a few minutes to write about your day Tuesday. . . . You think you’ll never forget, but you will. . . . Your thoughts will gradually come to conform with history’s judgments, and your recollections will turn generic.”

Back in the paper Thursday, Chapman also turned an eye on the visceral reactions of the day before: “In the aftermath of the terrorist attacks, a columnist in the Washington Post almost gloated that Americans have lost the ‘safe and coddled life’ they have enjoyed. Others noted with seeming satisfaction that we will come to understand the ordeals of Israelis. ‘Do you get it now?’ demanded a New York Times columnist.”

With a day to reflect, Chapman wasn’t having this. “Our detractors see us losing ourselves in the quest for material gain, personal fulfillment and mere pleasure, and they are deeply offended. . . . It’s not the love of money, though, that has spawned the great crimes of humanity’s past and present: religious war, ethnic hatred, violent fanaticism, mass slaughter of innocents. The worship of power poses a much greater threat to civilized values than grubby acquisitiveness ever did. . . . Freedom and openness are the most conspicuous and admirable features of our society, but they infuriate those intent on exerting control over their fellow man. To them, nothing can be more dangerous than letting people think for themselves. It was bad enough when democracy prevailed on our shores. But today, it is the aspiration of billions of people around the world. Tyrants and terrorists see our way of life as a mortal threat to everything they hold dear. To our credit, it is.”

A columnist’s “special privilege,” Eric Zorn told me, is to “explore and crystallize” some piece of the public psyche. “The bigger the event, though, the bigger the risk of writing something sententious, rash, corny, phony, trite, inadvertently offensive or otherwise off-pitch.” In short, insufficient, a peril that sends writers fleeing toward what Zorn calls “a thought you think you’re supposed to be having.” Having to wait a day, as Zorn did, doesn’t help. Words, he said, “come particularly hard after a huge story like this because I’m trying to say something new in a new way even though I know that so much has already been said, broadcast and written. The goal of being original and the goal of being true to my own thoughts and feelings are sometimes in conflict after big stories, so I’m more conscious of finding through my writing some distinctive wrinkle that is not forced or otherwise disingenuous. This requires a generous and merciless use of the ‘delete’ key.

“Ideally,” he went on, “the process and even anguish of that exploration–the false starts, the erasures, the paragraphs moved from here to there, the hours spent pacing and drinking coffee and indulging in distractions–are invisible. At best, the column has a graceful but top-of-the-head quality–not conversational, exactly, but as though it began as a complete work in the mind of the writer and came out in one sitting. And sometimes, I admit, the exploration is discouraging, the transformation is incremental and the discovery at the end of the day is that you’re not as good as you wish you were and that your little notion and your little essay were not the best use of the space that day.”

By the third day the catastrophe had begun to recede, even if no one was ready to say so. Televisions in offices weren’t necessarily running nonstop any longer, planes were beginning to fly, and networks were discussing when to go back to commercials. Catastrophe was being assimilated. There was still only one subject fit for a columnist, but the strain of continuing to dwell on it in the absence of fresh facts began to show. “We’re at war. There’s no other way to put it now,” John Kass wrote for Tuesday afternoon’s extra edition of the Tribune. The next morning he asserted an “obligation of blood” between America’s living and its dead. On Thursday he stepped back for a wider view: “For the past decade we’ve sat dumb and stupid as the U.S. military was transformed from a killing machine into a playpen for sociologists and political schemers.” By Friday he was saying, “I thought I’d surely hear the whining, and the carping, and the press conferencing and the picketing against public prayer. But the anti-public prayer whining isn’t enough to register. So we’re not hearing the separation-of-church-and-state crowd gnashing its teeth.”

Richard Roeper began his column, “I am the spirit of America. I am the Stars and Stripes waving proudly.”

The editorial pages were a hive of pronouncements. In the Tribune Charles Krauthammer gave America’s enemy a name, “radical Islam,” and said we must wage war on it. In the Sun-Times one guest writer said, “Sometimes you have to give war a chance,” and another, “On Tuesday, this country lost its innocence.” The same paper’s editorial page told us to steel ourselves. “Thousands of innocent Americans are gone,” and when we strike back “our military will try to spare the innocent but some will die who shouldn’t.”

Counseling restraint, the Tribune editorial page made the eccentric decision to do so by comparing President Bush favorably to Theodore Roosevelt, who’d become president exactly 100 years earlier. If Roosevelt were president this week, said the Tribune, “there might already be dusty craters of destruction between Turkey and India–the expanses of Syria, Iraq, Iran, Afghanistan and Pakistan.”

Three whole days after the terrorist attacks Roosevelt’s hypothetical craters didn’t exist, so the Tribune gave credit. “For all the time he’s spent on that ranch down in Crawford, Bush is shrewd not to have reacted like a cowboy.”

The Sunday papers brought the special sections.

News Bites

Of the Wednesday columns I read in Chicago papers, the one that rose above the pack was by Phil Kadner of the Daily Southtown. Eric Zorn pointed it out to me. Kadner wrote with the plainness proper for the day, and he also told a story. He’d gone out to Midway to interview stranded passengers, and most were distracted and annoyed. But an elderly woman from Boston chatted graciously with him, explaining that she was on her way to Los Angeles for a daughter’s wedding and that her husband was flying there directly. What flight was he on? Kadner asked her. Then he called his office, and it was up to him to let the woman know that her husband’s plane apparently had been hijacked. In fact, it had been flown into one of the World Trade Center towers. “The last I saw of Mrs. Marioni she was being led into an ATA office and out of sight. But before she entered that office she told me, ‘Thank you for being so kind.'”

If one columnist spoke back to the terrorists Wednesday in a voice America would most want to call its own, that would be Leonard Pitts Jr. of the Miami Herald. “We’re frivolous, yes, capable of expending tremendous emotional energy on pop cultural minutiae, a singer’s revealing dress, a ball team’s misfortune, a cartoon mouse. We’re wealthy too, spoiled by the ready availability of trinkets and material goods, and maybe because of that, we walk through life with a certain sense of blithe entitlement. We are fundamentally decent, though. . . . And we are, the overwhelming majority of us, people of faith, believers in a just and loving God. Some of you, perhaps, think that any or all of this makes us weak. You’re mistaken. We are not weak. Indeed, we are strong in ways that cannot be measured by arsenals.”

A little over the top? Perhaps, on another day. There are few journalists in this country who don’t wish they’d been able to find that column inside themselves Tuesday afternoon.

Tuesday morning’s New York Times carried an interview with Bill Ayers and his wife Bernardine Dohrn headlined “Life With the Weathermen: No Regrets for a Life of Explosives.” The occasion for the story was Ayers’s new memoir, Fugitive Days. Dinitia Smith’s Times story began with Ayers saying, “I don’t regret setting bombs. I feel we didn’t do enough.”

Commuters read the article on their way into Manhattan. The terrorist attacks that morning left many things forgotten, but Smith’s article wasn’t one of them. Wednesday morning, Steve Neal brought it to the attention of Chicago. He wrote in the Sun-Times, “On the morning that the World Trade Center was razed by terrorist attacks, Bill Ayers and Bernardine Dohrn defended the use of explosives.”

This week David Horowitz asserted in Salon that in Fugitive Days “Ayers has written a text that the bombers of the World Trade Center could have packed in their flight bags alongside the Koran.” Horowitz called Smith “credulous” for not writing more critically of “this malignant couple.” Nevertheless, since her article appeared, Ayers has received what he calls a “steady stream” of death threats. A book tour was canceled.

Ayers objects to Smith’s article. Citing a passage in Fugitive Days where Ayers reminisced about Fourth of July fireworks, Smith concluded that he had “a love affair with explosives.” She went on, “The love affair seems to have continued into adulthood. Even today, he finds ‘a certain eloquence to bombs, a poetry and a pattern from a safe distance,’ he writes.”

But here’s what Ayers wrote: “Almost four times the destructive power unleashed by the U.S. in all of World War II was falling on this ancient land the size of Florida snaking its way down the southeast edge of Asia. How could we understand it? How could we take it in? And most important, what should we do about it? Bombs away. There is a certain eloquence to bombs, of course, a poetry and a pattern from a safe distance. The rhythm of B52s dropping bombs over Viet Nam, a deceptive calm at 40,000 feet as the doors ease open and millennial eggs are delivered on the green canopy below, the relentless thud of indiscriminate destruction and death without pause on the ground.”

Last Sunday the Times published an edited version of a letter Ayers wrote the paper to try to clear his name. He argued that his memoir of events some 30 years past “is now receiving attention in a radically changed context. My book is a condemnation of terrorism in all its forms. . . . We are witnessing crimes against humanity. The intent of my book was and is to understand, to tell the truth and to heal.”

Readers such as Horowitz say Ayers should stop pretending he wasn’t a terrorist himself. “Like bin Laden,” wrote Horowitz, “Ayers was enthralled by the idea of moving history in the direction he desired through the instant gratification of explosives.” The Weathermen set off a dozen bombs in the early 70s, one of them in the Pentagon. “We never killed people indiscriminately,” says Ayers, and in fact never killed anyone at all. But a bomb designed to kill and intended for an army base blew up instead in a New York town house in 1970, killing three Weathermen.

Aside from scale, I ask Ayers, was the bomb that by chance or God’s grace killed no one but its makers morally identical to the civilian airliners bursting into buildings in New York and Washington?

“Absolutely,” says Ayers. “A victim is a victim. We crossed the line, and we came back.”

A natural first reaction to last week’s terrorism was to compare it to Pearl Harbor. Another was to call it cowardly. President Bush said this, and so did various columnists and editorial pages. But the word quickly vanished. Undoubtedly the raid on Pearl Harbor had been called the same in the first flush of American rage, but here is what President Roosevelt said when he spoke to the nation two days later, after Congress declared war on Japan:

“We may acknowledge that our enemies have performed a brilliant feat of deception, perfectly timed and executed with great skill. It was a thoroughly dishonorable deed, but we must face the fact that modern warfare as conducted in the Nazi manner is a dirty business. We don’t like it–we didn’t want to get in it–but we are in it and we’re going to fight it with everything we’ve got.”

Last week’s terror was like a gorge through which America must pass. Everything it was converged into it, and everything it is to become will flow from it. One day we will live in a world so thoroughly predicated on this disaster that the unimaginable thing will be its never having taken place.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Charles Eshelman.