This Magazine

Progressive politics, ideas & culture

September-October 2004

Crossing the line

Bill Reynolds

Three years after September 11, has it finally become acceptable to make outrageous statements again? How patriotism stifled freedom of speech

Photo of a firefighter in street

First thing up is a severed head—young guy’s obviously a punk because he’s wearing a spiky blink-182 hairdo. The head is suspended slightly above the hoarding that has sprouted like industrial strength weeds along Washington Street. My wife and I head toward the hole where the towers used to stand. Soon we’re overtaken by a crowd of officious New Yorkers, smoking, looking bored, who impede our progress and route us onto wooden pathways. The sky is a brilliant blue. It’s breezy and warm, a lot like the day it happened.

The severed head is a fine example of New York guerilla art. Take that, touristas! You want to gawk, you want gore—you got it! The combination of Mayor Bloomberg’s nanny-state policies and the suffocating emotional patriotism of the New American Credo—“my country, right or wrong”—is enough to stifle expression. But here it is, a severed head staring at passersby. His face expresses the shock of having his gourd removed from his neck, confirmed by the jaggedness of the skin. A little aftershock comes when we notice a detached hand pulling the man’s hair, as if to indicate the head was simply ripped clean from his torso.

The head could mean a lot of different things. The mind doesn’t know what the body is doing—America beheading itself. Anarchist punks must die—America reinventing McCarthyism for the new millennium. If you don’t conform, your head might end up on a spike—disagree with Washington’s Weltanschauung and find yourself in Guantanamo Bay. Or, looking on the bright side—it’s a sunny day, after all—26 months after the attacks on Washington and New York, it’s okay to make outrageous statements again.

We turn the corner and gaze up at the oversized shrouds that still hang over damaged buildings, hiding gaping wounds. Walkways have been built around the perimeter to protect the curious. Chugging along, the site where the World Trade Center once stood is now as much a part of the New York landscape as Times Square. It’s easy to see the need to retain some of this outrageously expensive real estate for pensive reflection, instead of Hoovering up all traces of the attack like an oversized neat freak.

If there is a God, he’s probably a golfer, not Felix from The Odd Couple. The site looks like the Big Guy took one helluva divot on his approach shot. After such a foul swing, maybe he was angry and chucked his club at the Pentagon. Or maybe he was a lesser god—an admonishing, Chomskian scold—and this was his way of sending a message about Mammon and trammeling the rights of others in the name of profit.

As a construction zone, the area looks like the lid of the anthill has been scuffed away to reveal intense, ceaseless activity. It is a living, breathing project witnessed by thousands, the perfect space for an enormous environmental art installation, the scope of which Christo might have killed for. At the very least, it’s a time-lapse photography special for the Discovery Channel.

Were such a feature produced and televised, it couldn’t capture the psychological impact of the attacks. Humiliating millions of us to disrobe every time we fly, apparently because of an incompetent terrorist named Richard Reid. Waiting endlessly in line-ups at the longest unprotected border in the world. Having to put up with insufferable, oxygen-hogging bluster from the “might is right” crowd—it’s surprising the current government hasn’t manufactured an all-purpose stamp and branded its critics “unpatriotic” in public squares.

What used to be run-of-the-mill dissent is now considered treasonous. America was attacked, and now its staunch defenders must draw a line in the sand of free speech, a line visible only to the most fervent of patriots—all others will be judged accordingly. This doesn’t square well in a country where being quarrelsome is part of the definition of being democratic.

Is it still okay to make inappropriate comments publicly without fear—things people might not want to hear, but should? Ask Bill Maher, who said of the hijackers, “Staying in the airplane when it hits the building, say what you want about it, it’s not cowardly,” on-air six days after the New York and Washington attacks, only to lose his talk show, Politically Incorrect. He has rebounded on cable television after a humiliating apology on network talk shows didn’t save him, so maybe. Ask Steve Earle, who wrote an empathetic song about an Islamic foot soldier named John Walker Lindh, the nice American boy from Cali who went wrong, and was repeatedly accused of being unpatriotic. He went out on a musical and political tour as part of a collective called Tell Us the Truth that blasted the government, so maybe. Ask mainstream country music superstars The Dixie Chicks, who got roasted on the net and blacklisted on radio after singer Natalie Maines told an English audience they weren’t proud of hailing from Texas, because it’s the home state of President George W. Bush. Their most recent work, a double CD of their well-known songs recorded live, has few political references, but they won sympathy from their fans, so maybe. Ask Pulitzer Prize-winning illustrator Art Spiegelman, whose editor, David Remnick, censored his New Yorker cover illustration “Operation Enduring Turkey” because its parody of America’s attack on Iraq, Operation Enduring Freedom, went too far. Spiegelman wasn’t exactly a wilting violet about it, telling the Italian press he’s not working under any censor and doesn’t recognize the America he once knew, so maybe. Ask magazine writer William Langewiesche, who continues to be hounded online for portraying the Fire Department of New York as having somewhat less stature than the heroes descended from Mount Olympus. Langewiesche has moved on to other features, the FDNY has been nailed with scandals involving infidelity and fighting within its ranks, yet a website still chugs along merrily ripping the writer’s work to shreds, so maybe, maybe not.

I’m grappling with this notion of crossing the line in the noisiest, most dissenting town in the republic.


But enough time killed at Ground Zero. It’s time to head up to West 43rd Street. I’ve got a lunch meeting with Joseph Berger, a New York Times reporter whose specialty is neighbourhoods. I want to ask him whether reporters were shocked out of their usual methodical skepticism by the calamity and whether they became overly patriotic and perhaps a little sheepish in looking to Washington for guidance. It’s a nice theory—it could help explain why much of the press has been soft on what Times columnist Paul Krugman has termed the “revolutionary power” in office. It’s one thing to go after psychotic mass murderers, and quite another to use the manhunt as an excuse to plant the world’s most powerful military force on arguably the largest oil fields in the Middle East.

My idea hadn’t come out of nowhere. Langewiesche, author of American Ground, a best-selling book published in fall 2002 that gives a first-hand account of the WTC clean-up, tells me in a telephone conversation that the context of the aftermath was dishonestly reported. “Not in the sense that it was lying, but it was disconnected from what I was seeing on the ground.” Langewiesche takes issue with what he sees as depictions of cartoonish heroism. In his book, he says fire fighters came to be seen as “brawny, square-jawed men … who seemed to have sprung from the American earth like valiant heroes from a simpler time…. All this presented opportunities for image-making that neither the media nor the political system could resist.” Langewiesche had gained access to Ground Zero a few days after the attacks, and stayed there on and off for about five months. In his book, he portrayed a lively makeshift democracy as it was developing on the site after the attacks, and had little time for patriotic responses.

I meet Berger at 1:15. He’s apologetic because all the sources for his current story, about a Filipino family, seem to be phoning him back at the same time, and he’s only got an hour. We duck into a hole-in-the-wall deli around the corner. I’m looking for something like Montreal smoked meat and Berger says, “Forget it, it’s called a pastrami sandwich.” We both order one. It looks more like a meat mountain, which makes more sense later when I find French bistros serving super-sized portions. Between mouthfuls of processed, tenderized red slices, Berger politely dismantles my supposition. He is very deliberate and thoughtful, saying he doesn’t know any reporter who succumbed to any extreme emotionalism after the attacks. He says it’s probably true reporters were as shocked as anyone else—“I’m angry. I want to do something about this”—but it wasn’t long before their skeptical instincts returned. Hey, wait a minute, they would start to ask very quickly, why didn’t federal agencies get an inkling of this beforehand? “Whatever patriotic feelings kicked in,” Berger says, “were quickly overcome by the natural bent of reporters to question authority, question the establishment and find out what went wrong.”

Berger is an immigrant of Polish-Jewish descent and the author of a recently published memoir of growing up as a displaced person in New York City in the 1940s. His viewpoint is happily coloured by his immigrant background, and he wouldn’t be first in line to jump on the Bush government for negligence in dealing with the al Qaeda threat. He says he hasn’t noticed a surge in patriotism in the media for American policy in Iraq, despite the fact that many journalists covering the war were imbedded with the military. CNN still reports the latest Black Hawk down, the latest dead soldier, the latest suicide attack, he says, when it could be presenting positive features on newly functioning, civilized towns. He discounts the pervasiveness and influence of the tabloid press utterly, so the Jessica Lynch fiasco doesn’t count. He is a New York Times reporter, after all, and refers to the work of “serious reporters” at the Times, The Washington Post and The Wall Street Journal. He readily admits that papers like the New York Post became rabidly patriotic after the attacks, but says, “The extreme jingoism and bellicose patriotism expressed in the tabloid press was already there, at least to some degree, before 9/11. It wasn’t a fundamental change.”

I can’t help thinking this is an extraordinarily naive view of the world. More people watched Fox and saw Old Glory permanently pasted on the screen, and more people read the Post and agreed with the screaming front page headline, “W Wants Osama Dead or Alive,” than Berger would like to think. Among big network anchors, only ABC’s Peter Jennings objected to the flag-waving in the early days. There are more consumers of jingoistic news than there are consumers of sober reflection from the Times, The Atlantic, Harper’s and The New Yorker.

We’ve chowed down our little towers of dead cow and Berger saves his best thought for last. He’s been grappling with the notion of patriotism for an hour now and suddenly asks me to look at it this way: “It seems fair to say that journalists see themselves as, in some small way, helping society in writing and reporting and trying to get at the truth. If they see themselves this way, is it a stretch to see them as helping their country, too? In other words, is it a patriotic act to try to get at the truth in one’s writing and reporting?”

It’s an interesting and devious point, and gets to the crux of the dilemma about patriotism. After this pivotal event in American history, should a citizen be reduced to thinking, my country, right or wrong (with its essential sub-clause: I hope we’re right, but even if we’re wrong, my country)? Or should a citizen stay the course and continue to believe it is unpatriotic not to question authority? Both forms of patriotism—one hot and emotional, the other cool and detached—have existed in America at various times. Everyone from Stephen Decatur to J. William Fulbright to Emma Goldman to Oliver North has espoused one or the other. The question is not whether being patriotic is back in fashion—that’s a given—it’s whether this hotter, more emotional form of patriotism is moving the line of dissent back to an unacceptable level of intolerance. When perfectly reasonable, intelligent Americans are regularly pilloried for saying and doing things they’ve always done, images of Hollywood witch hunts come to mind.

There has, of course, been corporate and government censorship in most eras. McCarthyism might be a joke to everyone who doesn’t share Ann Coulter’s point of view, but in the 1950s it functioned very smoothly for a while as a government-sanctioned smear campaign that ruined many lives. A decade later, in an ostensibly looser era, the Smothers Brothers suffered the same fate as Bill Maher for cracking wise about the Vietnam War. On their CBS show, The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour, which started broadcasting in 1967, the duo supported hippies and poked fun at religion, the presidency and the war. A couple of years in, they were openly at odds with corporate management and by April 1969 were unplugged. Maybe recalling these similarities is a good thing—it’s strangely comforting to know we’ve been here before, wondering where the line of dissent is.


When English folksinger Billy Bragg brings his electric guitar and oversized persona to a stage located on the second floor of Webster Hall in downtown Manhattan, there’s a sizzle in the air. Declamations like this one energize the crowd: “Someone has convinced Americans that the war on terror leads directly through the gates of Baghdad. Nowhere else in the world does anyone believe that—why?”

Bragg introduces each tune with lengthy rants on democracy and accountability. How, following the 2000 US election, he can only hear the word “democracy” in the ironic sense. How he prefers the word “accountability.” How we should hold elected officials to account every day. How he used to think it was a battle between communism and capitalism, but now it’s a battle between capitalism and accountability.

Bragg is part of Tell Us the Truth, a tour raising awareness against the Federal Communications Commission’s decision to allow increased corporate ownership of media properties. Alt-country hero Steve Earle is another big-name draw. Lester Chambers of The Chambers Brothers—the one-hit wonders of “Time Has Come Today” fame—is here, along with a tedious singer-guitarist named The Nightwatchman. In a former life he was Tom Morello, the fiery lead guitarist for rap-funk-metal-activists Rage Against the Machine. Jill Sobule, who once scored the unlikely hit, “I Kissed a Girl,” wins over the audience with her self-deprecating humour. “Raptivist” Boots Riley shouts into the microphone about how bad the system is, blowing away the Peter, Paul and Mary vibe. Webster Hall—a dowdy old Polish dance hall with ballrooms, side rooms and a banquet hall—for a brief stretch, is home to a rally th
at will make all that is right with the world left again.

Comments by musicians and organizers earlier in the afternoon at the press conference made it obvious the tour has become the Tell Us the Truth About Clear Channel bull session. New York on-air personalities like Dan Ingram and Zach Martin (who works for 104.3 FM, a Clear Channel-owned station) talked about the San Antonio, Texas, company as if it were the Borg (indeed, humans have been replaced with computerized on-air announcing to the point where stations from Seattle to Boston sound nearly identical). But during the evening there is little mention of this crusade. A banner above the stage says, “Tell Us the Truth About Corporate Globalization.” Standing around are mostly older fans and, inevitably, a few people who look suspiciously like hippies and activists. While it’s not exactly a “Take your castor oil, if you know what’s good for you” gig, there is certainly more raising of social consciousness than pints, as well as the pall of preaching to the converted. What is supposed to be a concert focusing on corporate control turns into a rally against Bush government policy. For every moment that feels uncomfortably like one of those uplifting, lefty, political rallies, there are an equal number of coolly patriotic comments. The musicians are indeed lovers of their country; they just don’t like where the country is going and they’re not afraid to tell you about it. They’re definitely crossing the line tonight, but in the safety of Webster Hall, appealing to the sympathetic, they will offend absolutely no one.

The one I’m here for is Earle. I’m hoping he delivers his song about Lindh, the infamous American Taliban, which created a stir last year among right-wing pundits. It’s not that memorable—I expected a three-chord rock anthem, instead it’s a relatively staid folk ditty—but the words were enough to cause a fuss. At the press conference Earle has this to say about his sudden pariah status: “I’ve been called unpatriotic by many people. They have first amendment rights, too, so if they want to call me unpatriotic, that’s their right. But I’m pretty sure my definition of patriotism and theirs are quite different.”

Earle has a way with a lyric, and his patter includes great phrases like “they’re hard dogs to keep under the porch.” He is very political, and has become a staunch death penalty abolitionist in the past few years. Sometimes he combines these elements into gut-wrenching rock ’n’ roll. Now, by questioning his right to create a work of art based on the story of a fellow American—Earle has often sympathized with underdogs facing very long odds—his right-wing critics have transformed him into a full-fledged Republican foe.

The emotional patriots concentrated on “John Walker’s Blues” and missed the real fire-starter on the Jerusalem album, “Ashes to Ashes,” with which Earle dutifully begins his short set. This is the song for New York and our times. Even without full rock-band accompaniment, the urgency of its simple chords pushes the words. The song contains a verse worth quoting in this context:

Now, nobody lives forever
Nothin’ stands the test of time
Oh, you heard ’em say, “Never say never”
But it’s always best to keep it in mind
That every tower ever built tumbles
No matter how strong, no matter how tall
Someday even great walls will crumble
And every idol ever raised falls
And someday even man’s best laid plans
Will lie twisted and covered in rust
When we’ve done all that we can but it slipped through our hands
And it’s ashes to ashes and dust to dust.

They ought to string a man up for thinking such thoughts. The Towers of Babel fall, the root-causes theory rises and American hegemony is ephemeral. Sometimes dissent comes in a very compact form.

Other times it doesn’t. As the night progresses, the protest becomes maudlin—and Earle is as guilty of sentimentality as anyone. Lord knows people who are angry at the US government response since 9/11 have a right to be, but it can make for sloppy progressive action. Too often the left has had a problem with the mundane process of our democracy—as if it weren’t good enough for them, as if the struggle to compete with the free enterprisers for votes were beneath them, as if they might touch anthrax if they used the same ballot box as the right-wing greed-heads. It’s a question of getting the hands dirty, but democracy always works best for the most fiercely organized. When a reporter at the press conference asks what citizens can do to combat corporate giants like Clear Channel, Earle says taking it to the streets works and writing your member of congress works. Maybe not immediately, but pressure works eventually. He says, “If we don’t, they win. Democracy is hard fuckin’ work,” and gives the example of an earlier, equally controversial time. “The Vietnam War stopped because it ended when my father came to oppose the war.”

The Republican brass preaches to the converted, too. They mobilize other Republicans to raise cash. Right now, there are “Rangers,” or fundraisers, who are bundling $200,000 in individual contributions each and delivering it to Bush-Cheney. Right now, there are “Pioneers,” or fundraisers, who are bundling $100,000 in individual contributions each and delivering it to the war party in Washington. Right now, there are “Mavericks,” or fundraisers under 40, who are bundling at least $50,000 in individual contributions each and delivering it to GOP coffers. That’s a lot of money, but all the centre and the left have to do is bundle the vote.

Bragg is the final act before the inevitable singalong. For the most part it’s rousing, but when he sings his Iraq war protest song, “The Price of Oil,” smugness permeates. “The generals want to hear the endgame/ The Allies won’t approve the plan/ But the oil men in the White House [oil woman, too, but hey]/ They just don’t give a damn/ Because it’s all about the price of oil.” We’ve gone from every vote counts to “oiligarchy” cynicism without blinking. Sobule flirted with cynicism earlier when she cracked, “Republicans are the kind of people who say, ‘I don’t have any intellectual curiosity’—proudly.” It’s good for a laugh, but it reveals a condescension that barely masks the insecurity of the powerless. The problem is, it isn’t just about oil. It isn’t just about empire. It isn’t just about remaking the Middle East in America’s image. It’s about all of these things, and what it really needs to be about is how to throw the rascals out. This is the message that gets lost. Notwithstanding the belief held by high-powered intellectuals like Chomsky, Nader and Lapham that it really doesn’t matter which party holds power, mobilizing the vote matters. Because of this lack of focus, nostalgic despair lurks beneath the joy. We need Woody here with us now. If only JFK hadn’t been shot 40 years ago. If only MLK were here telling us about the dream he just had.

My wife and I have had enough of the what-ifs and couldn’t-wes and wouldn’t-it-be-nices, and are about ready to leave. We’ve been standing up on the third floor behind the light man watching Riley harangue his audience and we’ve smirked a bit at a few limp attempts by some to get their groove on. I don’t know why we’re smirking—we’re beyond tired from traipsing around half of Manhattan all day and couldn’t shake a leg if we tried. Instead, we recline into one of the sumptuous, dilapidated couches. When the hyper-loquacious Bragg comes on he leaves
no doubt he’s one of the most articulate ranters of his generation of punk aestheticians. I close my eyes to concentrate as he rails against lack of government accountability. My wife taps me. Steve Earle is walking by. He looks at me, smiling. I had introduced myself to him after the press conference that afternoon, so he knew who I was.

“I’m closing my eyes to concentrate on Billy’s oratory.”

“Steve’s laughing because he caught you napping.”

Got to love these political rallies.

As we head downstairs, we find that the hall has exploded with hair gel and flesh. We don’t even have to look—we can smell the younger crowd. It’s noisy and joyous, if a little tense with anticipation. The dance floors—on both the main floor and in the basement—are steadily filling up as the crowd anxiously pushes through the doors. The music has a lot of bass and a lot of drums. There are some pinball-like noises on top, or maybe some keyboards, or maybe a moaning female voice, but there are no words. No words at all.

Why this commotion at 10:45 on a Saturday evening? No cover charge before 11. These are the people—the people who prefer their music with no words—who have to be convinced to vote, not the audience that paid 25 bucks a head upstairs to have their convictions confirmed. I imagine winning over this younger crowd will be a lot tougher. In Bush’s new America, how do we know the young people who like their music with no words won’t vote for the hard-line executioner from Texas?


Soho’s the kind of neighbourhood where you’ll notice an ad for a $2,200 two-bedroom, fifth-floor walk-up—and want to see it. I know the Bleeker Street flat is dinky, and its extras include baseboard electric heating and a cockroach floating in the toilet, because my wife chatted up the landlord about seeing it. As she was doing this, Whoopi Goldberg stopped to pet his dog. Goldberg was filled with concern, as the pooch seemed to have gotten its paw caught in the grating on the steps. A little farther north, on Greene Street, is where Rhonda Roland Shearer’s studio is located. It’s on the third floor, above a trendy, retro furniture store. Shearer says, “Oh, don’t shop there—it’s full of junk.”

Shearer is the widow of paleontologist Stephen Jay Gould. She’s a Marcel Duchamp scholar and the self-styled No. 1 nemesis of Atlantic scribe and American Ground author William Langewiesche. Shortly after the WTC attacks, she converted her Spring Street art warehouse into a supply depot for recovery workers at the site. Over a nine-month period she raised about $2 million in supply donations. She says before the attacks she knew only one cop—a guy who was a fan of her husband’s books—but over time became very good friends with many members of the Fire Department of New York, the New York City Police Department and the Port Authority Police Department.

I’m sitting on an overly comfortable couch, waiting for Shearer to come back from the kitchen with espresso. It’s 10:30 on Monday morning. Her space is a potpourri of Duchamp readymades, old furniture and humming computers. Persian rugs lie underneath antique pieces. She came up with the idea to surround a dining room table with exactly one chair from each of several periods of design, dating back a couple of centuries. Her main research subject, Duchamp, covers about three or four distinct movements from pre-World War I Stickley to post-World War II international modern.

I’m actually in the offices of something called the Art Science Research Laboratory, which Shearer and Gould founded as a way to “bring the humanities into the culture of science,” before the famous scientist succumbed to cancer in May 2002. There are about a half-dozen interns and volunteers busy at various computers scattered about the huge flat. Shearer says she has three journalism interns working on something called the WTC Living History Project.

Shearer is gracious, polite and casual. Her demeanour is typical of university intellectuals of my general cohort. The espresso will put her one over her daily limit, and two hours later, after coming at me with every argument she can think of to destroy Langewiesche’s book, she’s still got the jitters. The flashpoint of this attack is his account of exhuming a fire truck buried fifty feet below ground at the foot of the South Tower several weeks after the attacks. He claims that when the cab of the truck was lifted, pairs of new jeans were found. He then claims the construction workers at the site were incredulous and started swearing at and jostling with some of the firemen, because it seemed obvious to them that this particular crew had been engaged in a little pilfering—before the tower came down. Shearer has been doing her own investigation of this incident. She figured out which ladder company it was (which Langewiesche never mentioned), and deduced that it was impossible for the jeans to have come from The Gap, as he alleged. She says she cannot find anyone who will corroborate the story. The one person who claimed the incident happened now denies it, according to her.

That Shearer should attack this small, two-page section makes sense, as it is exactly where Langewiesche crosses the line in post 9/11 America. Here is where the myth of the noble fireman breaks down. They are not cartoon heroes. They are not gods sent to protect us from harm, to die if necessary to save us. They are human beings with the same petty temptations as everyone else. If Shearer can discredit Langewiesche’s story, then she can successfully clean up the history of the clean-up.

To buff the image of brave firemen and sell them as heroes, we succumb to another manifestation of hot patriotism. Author Barbara Ehrenreich calls nationalism the American religion, with its manifestations being the “cult of the flag” and the “frequent invocation of ‘God.’” In her book Blood Rites, she says, “The Gulf War evoked a burst of nationalist religiosity that, although clearly manipulated by television coverage of the war, seemed to be both spontaneous and deeply felt…. In effect, the war had reduced a nation of millions to the kind of emotional consensus more appropriate to a primordial band of thirty or forty individuals.” Substitute 9/11 for Gulf War and plus ça change.

In an interview last August, Langewiesche said that the story about the stolen jeans was simply the catalyst for his critics. Shearer and her uniformed friends knew he was reporting from the site, resented him for spending much of his time around Department of Design and Construction personnel and resented his point of view. Shearer confirms this. “Oh yeah,” she says, “we knew he was hanging around.” She mocks Langewiesche’s behaviour, accusing him of pompously walking around with a DDC badge hanging from his neck. She claims top DDC officials Ken Holden and Mike Burton “extracted their pound of flesh” from him because he owed his on-site access to them. This reading of the book is a stretch, as Langewiesche criticizes Burton’s zeal to finish the project. She claims Burton and Holden exploited their positions in the DDC in order to jump into the lucrative private sector, yet Langewiesche himself tells of Burton’s move back to the private world in the third installment. Holden’s private sector move is more recent, yet it is odd to criticize a man for moving up the career ladder after performing well on a job. By that reasoning, maybe George Washington shouldn’t have been elected president. Shearer, however, claims Holden’s peers thought him incompetent.

It comes down to the emotionalism involved in the removal of human remains. Shearer reflects the frustration of the firemen, who w
ere there to oversee the recovery operation. DDC personnel were sometimes callous about recovery concerns, which was made fairly clear in Langewiesche’s account. The point is that if the firemen were the heroes everyone made them out to be, remains would be required for proper ritual and burial in order for the myth to succeed. Jonathan Burgess, a classics professor at the University of Toronto, says this was necessary during the Hellenic Age. A human could achieve the status of divinity after death—as a hero he would have status beyond mortal and acquire some afterlife power—and be given perennial, ritual attention. Sometimes remains were dug up and moved to a more prominent position. But if the remains couldn’t be found, how would the ritual be enacted? In the context of 9/11, “it is an interesting problem,” he says. “In the modern world, it is very rare not to find the remains.”

As I’m leaving I realize that I’m pretty jittery from Shearer’s espresso myself. I think it best to tell her, finally, flat out, that I admire Langewiesche’s book greatly. “What about all the arguments I just gave you for the past two hours?” She looks hurt, saying further, “I hope you give me a fair shake.” I tell her I wouldn’t have bothered to come if I wasn’t going to try to be fair. And I really did want to understand her. I really wanted to see her stance, her website and her defence of the firefighters as a resilient symbol of hot patriotism. Nothing she has said has convinced me otherwise, yet she certainly doesn’t fit any Washington war-party mold either.

Earlier, I’d asked her why she persisted. After all, the firefighter lobby against the book had to be considered a success, as Langewiesche did not win any major awards (American Ground had been touted as an early favourite to win a Pulitzer Prize and/or a National Magazine Award). The paperback edition was not even promoted when it was released on the second anniversary of 9/11. The Atlantic’s unofficial policy was to move on. Langewiesche had nothing further to say on or off the record and he was, in fact, working on his latest book, The Outlaw Sea.

I ask Shearer if there is anything she likes about American Ground. She says, “Um, well, if you re-categorize it as fiction, it’s great.” I ask her why, instead of trying to take Langewiesche out, she won’t write her own account. She knew many of the participants in the drama, and claims to have been better connected than Langewiesche. She tells me she is writing a corrective account—her tabloid-style website critique of American Ground will form the basis of the book. Since Shearer got to know many of the firemen through her volunteer work, it seems easy enough to imagine her writing an account that leans heavily on uniformed workers and less on the DDC. If nothing else, it might be an intriguing look at the clean-up from the perspective of senior fire department brass.

Yet Shearer cannot seem to identify her own biases. Langewiesche made a conscious decision to tell the story through the eyes of DDC management, but she was the one who supplied uniformed workers with gear for months. She was the one who became very good friends with some of them, as did her husband, Gould. In fact, according to Shearer’s website, The Pipes and Drums of the Fire Department of New York played his funeral march in May 2002, and he was awarded a plaque that recognized his contribution posthumously. Shearer tells me in a later telephone conversation that I’m biased in favour of Langewiesche. I reply that she is biased in favour of the firefighters. She says, “I’m not biased in favour of the firemen, I’m biased in favour of the truth!”

The parallel between Shearer’s and Langewiesche’s stories remains tidy. Both started working on the WTC pile at about the same time. Both were secure in the knowledge that what they were trying to accomplish was right. Langewiesche tried to remain detached from the tragedy, and observe. Shearer latched onto and embraced the tumultuous emotions. Langewiesche wrote about the “unbuilding” of the disaster from the point of view of being a witness. Shearer willingly sided with the groups of men who had lost the most.

While Langewiesche’s cool detachment focuses on other topics, Shearer’s hot pursuit of perfect journalistic truth has embroiled her more deeply in the past. Down at Ground Zero, no frame has been mounted on the WTC’s sputtering economic engine, but it is being re-tuned and the chassis work is close to completion. The PATH station—the subway terminal that came very close to being drowned in Hudson River mud—opens the very day I interview Shearer. News crews arrive to mark the milestone, and the Times lands two features on its front page. Everyone remarks, anti-climatically, that it looks pretty much the same as it ever did.

What my wife and I really want is a photo of our severed head. Then we realize, what good is a photo of a severed head? There’s no World Trade Center in the background to give it context. It’s not there and, guess what, neither is the head.

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