Friday, July 20, 2007

Compelled to Remember the Big One

By CLYDE HABERMAN
NYC
The New York Times
July 20, 2007

We in New York are getting pretty good at assuming the worst when something out of the ordinary happens, like the steam pipe explosion that shot vapor and muck into the air on Wednesday.

For most of us, terrorism is as bad as it gets. When things go wrong, fear of terrorism is the city’s default position. It’s no wonder, given our recent history and given that federal officials and certain presidential candidates flash incessant warnings of doom. They are the opposite of F.D.R., those politicians, cautioning us that we have everything to fear, including fear itself.

Anything short of terrorism somehow becomes bearable. We saw the phenomenon on Wednesday: Yes, a woman died, and others suffered bodily harm, and life turned upside down for many thousands. But at least it wasn’t a terrorist act. Whew!

Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg gave voice to those feelings while trying to reassure the citizenry. “There is no reason to believe that this is anything other than a failure of our infrastructure,” Mr. Bloomberg said.

Only an infrastructure failure. Why that should be a comfort is a mystery. It meant that death could reach up from below and grab hold of us at any time.

But at least it wasn’t a terrorist act. Whew!

Years ago, people who heard an explosion routinely told reporters later that they felt as if an atomic bomb had been dropped. Never mind that none of them had a clue what a nuclear attack looked or sounded like (unless they happened to have been in Hiroshima or Nagasaki in August 1945). That was how they described it all the same: like an atomic bomb. The cold war was on, and nuclear holocaust was the cosmic fear.

You don’t hear A-bomb references too much anymore. You didn’t hear them on Wednesday from people at the blast site, near Grand Central Terminal. The cold war is long over. We have moved on to new fears and, inevitably, new metaphors. Now, 9/11 is the template. Events either fit into it or they do not.

In a sense, that is natural in this city, especially with scenes at Grand Central that slightly resembled that terrible day in 2001, among them people running from clouds of debris that billowed behind them.

But not everyone had 9/11 in mind. Those who didn’t could count on news gatherers to tell them to get with the script.

Even after it had been made clear that this was not an act of terrorism, some news organizations refused to let go. “If you look at these scenes,” one television broadcaster said on the air, “you can understand why people were so emotionally disturbed, because it is evocative of 9/11, and that was of course the most traumatic event to occur in the city’s history.”

On another local station, a witness to the disaster was interviewed by phone. As he told his story, he made no reference to Sept. 11. For him, the situation was scary enough without that embellishment. But for his interviewer, it wouldn’t do. He felt obliged to nudge the witness onto 9/11 terrain. “At first,” he asked, “did you think it was a terrorist attack?”

Appeals to fear almost invariably produce skeptics in a populace that has endured its share of orange alerts that proved dubious and, conversely, assurances of safety that proved flimsy.

People who feel they were lied to about Lower Manhattan’s air quality after the 2001 attack were not likely yesterday to accept at face value the official statements that no asbestos was found in the air after the Midtown explosion. Asbestos was found in the muddy debris, officials said, but not in the air. In any event, they said, brief exposure to asbestos should not create a long-term health problem.

Early blogosphere reactions to those statements suggested strongly that doubters abound. How, went a recurring theme, can the government be unblinkingly trusted, given its post-9/11 record? A few people went so far as to ask why we should even believe the official assurances that this latest disaster was not a terrorist act.

At least others could set them straight on that score.

Writing to City Room, one of this newspaper’s blogs, a Queens woman who had been near the explosion, and who gave her name only as Adrienne, said she called her father to tell him she was fine.

“But terrorists could have blown up the steam tunnel,” he said to her.

“Relax,” Adrienne replied. “New York is falling apart without their help.”

E-mail: haberman@nytimes.com

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