The Breakfast Table

American Disaster and Self-Congratulation

Dear God,

If You strike Ron dead for all that stuff he just posted—as it’s Your right to do under Your wartime powers—could You send Your friend Tom Friedman to do the rest of this “Breakfast Table” thing with me? He’s not as smart or as entertaining as Ron—between You and me, he’s a bit of a solemn ass—but his name recognition will get the eyeballs. Done deal?

Have a nice day,

cc:, Thomas L. Friedman

Dear Ron,

I hustled out with my dog Jesse to buy the Times, and you’re right about the Friedman piece. It’s a dilly. Strange walking along the same street a year later, on pretty much the same kind of day. Windier, but close enough. That morning, I’d heard the news about planes hitting the towers on the radio; I took Jesse out, and a couple of blocks from my place, I heard what I understood must have been one of the buildings going down. I thought about walking over to the Promenade in Brooklyn Heights to look at what was happening, but I had the sense that I’d just be gawking at something serious, so I never did. Later that morning I went around with some friends to try to give blood; every place had lines. At that point we didn’t know that nobody had survived to need it.

End of moderately touching 9/11 reminiscence. I put it in to suggest that I’m not entirely a heartless s.o.b., because of what follows.

The worst God did to me today for my chronic transgressions of his “very clear boundaries of behavior, with some very clear values and norms”—I’m quoting Friedman’s rabbi, another real-life Dickens character—was to lead me into the temptation of listening to NPR’s coverage of the various ceremonies. I take back what I said yesterday about this country having the world’s best music: That piece “The Last Full Measure of Devotion,” sung by some airbag soprano with the U.S. Army band at the Pentagon, was what P.G. Wodehouse characters call the frozen limit. All this stuff, moving as some of it is—the reading of names, for instance—brings together some noxious tendencies. One is atmospheric overkill: As I type this, for instance, a string quartet is playing “Amazing Grace” while a man and woman take turns reading. The names alone, among distant city sounds, would have done the trick. I don’t mean to sound like a fucking esthete, but whoever planned this was working in accordance with an esthetic too. It reminds me of the original coverage, when TV news—see, I’m not entirely abstemious—would put dramatic music under footage of the towers collapsing. Got to keep the customers entertained.

Ah. Now the string quartet has given way to Yo-Yo Ma.

Another noxious tendency is this obsession with cosseting the feelings, “acknowledging” everybody in sight, chasing “closure” the way greyhounds chase fake rabbits. Another is the tacit assumption that this is a uniquely horrible event, and that these victims, as Americans, are uniquely deserving of being commemorated. People in this country and in the rest of the world die horribly every day, of disease, hunger, violence. Last night I talked to an elderly relative of mine, by no means a damn Red like me, and I got an earful about Hiroshima. Or if that’s too tendentious—because of course killing all those noncombatants was absolutely necessary, right? and absolutely distinct from an act of terrorism—what about major earthquakes? As Godawful as the terrorist attacks were, they’re being turned into an occasion for American self-congratulation. If we were also drafting Yo-Yo Ma to go play over famine victims—equally blameless, equally human—it might cut into my cynicism a little.

I’ve only mentioned Dickens once in this whole screed. Is Slate going to dock my pay?