Commentary: Why the terrorists chose NYC

By JOHN O'SULLIVAN, UPI Editor in Chief  |  Sept. 12, 2002 at 11:37 AM
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WASHINGTON, Sept. 12 (UPI) -- Long before New York suffered a terrorist attack from the air in fact, it had suffered many such attacks in fiction. Almost certainly the first such assault occurred in the novel, "The War in the Air," by the great English novelist and early pioneer of science fiction, H.G. Wells.

Writing in 1908, Wells envisaged a surprise attack on the United States by the Kaiser's Germany employing a vast armada of airships. Wells's story is a wonderfully far-sighted blend of current events, scientific possibilities and historical imagination. Germany was in fact building a large conventional sea-going navy in 1908. Zeppelins were then in their early stages of development but in 1937 an airship decorated with Nazi swastikas, the Hindenburg, would crash in flames at Lakehurst, N.J., after its maiden voyage across the Atlantic.

And Imperial Germany was indeed destined to be at war with democratic America nine years after Wells wrote. Wells even foresaw both the power and limitations of terror from the air.

To cow New Yorkers into submission, the Germans bomb lower Broadway: "As the airships sailed along they smashed up the city as a child will shatter its cities of brick and card. Below, they left ruins and blazing conflagrations and heaped and scattered dead; men, women and children mixed together ..."

Yet though they can inflict terror from on high, the Germans cannot compel New Yorkers to accept enemy occupation. And eventually their armada is in turn attacked and destroyed by American "aeroplanes" -- scarcely five years after the Wright brothers' first flight.

Almost the most remarkable feature of Wells's story, however, is the vivid prophetic picture it gives of New York: "She was the supreme type of the city of the Scientific Commercial Age; she displayed its greatness, its power, its ruthless anarchic enterprise, and its social disorganization most strikingly and completely ... she was the center of the world's finance, the world's trade, and the world's pleasure ... she was an ethnic whirlpool ... the flags of all nations flew in her harbors, and at the climax, the yearly coming and going overseas numbered together upwards of two million human beings."

In 1908 this was Wells's vision of the near future. New York had not then quite attained this degree of pre-eminence. He was describing New York as she was to become by the end of the first world war -- the capital of the world and the city that has dominated the world's imagination for almost a century.

That city was -- and is -- no unmixed paradise. It has poverty and squalor alongside its wealth and monuments. Wells described these extraordinary contrasts in prose that glitters but that would today be deemed highly incorrect: "In one quarter palaces of marble, laced and crowned with light and flame and flowers, towered up into her marvelous twilights beautiful beyond description; in another, a black and sinister polyglot population sweltered in indescribable congestion in warrens, and excavations beyond the power and knowledge of government."

Wells, writing as a socialist, saw this as a typical half-achievement of Western liberal capitalism -- New York as a city of liberty, adventure and acquisition, the natural home of finance capital, the arena of the go-getter, the final but flawed expression of what Western man could achieve by his individual efforts. In that he was surely right. But was he also right to see it as a grim uncaring and inhospitable hospice for social failures, the poor and those driven to crime? It may have seemed so when he wrote at the close of the Gilded Age.

But New York and America were also devoutly democratic and responded, after a time lag to be sure, with generosity and compassion to those who came last in the Social Darwinian race. The city's welfare programs grew lavish by American standards. By the 1970s, indeed, New York sometimes looked like the reverse of Hong Kong -- a socialist city -- state living on and feeding off a capitalist continent.

Liberty and socialism flourishing side by side -- it was an extraordinary and unstable paradox. For socialism fosters poverty over time rather than curing it. And the best hope for the poor is an economy open to them and their enterprise such as they have enjoyed in recent years.

But it was an instructive paradox -- it showed that New York had a social consequence even in the midst of its getting and spending. And even to those who fell by its waysides, whether native-born or immigrants, the city represented refuge, liberty and hope. Indeed, these abstract nouns were given concrete symbolism in its skyline soaring nobly upward.

Not the skyline that contained the World Trade Center, which was a late addition, but the sideways vision of New York along the East River that a passenger suddenly glimpses when his taxicab to La Guardia swerves upward on the road connecting the BQE to the Long Island Expressway -- the long line of skyscrapers of which the Empire State is the tallest and the Chrysler building the most breathtaking.

Half the old movies on the AMC or TCM have a moment when this skyline appears on the screen to comfort a refugee fleeing the Nazis or an American returning from a war. We have seen the image a thousand times; yet somehow it always excites us. (I remember the thrill of seeing the reality for myself in 1949 on a first visit to the United States from the austerity of post-war socialist Britain -- but since I was a boy of 6 at the time, the fact that New York had no candy rationing may have helped generate the excitement.)

New York began its reign as capital of the world just as the United States was embarking on the Jazz Age. Other nations were recuperating slowly from the 1914-18 war, but America was enjoying the long economic boom of the 1920s. Wall Street was taking over from London as the capital of capitalism and Broadway was showing a new kind of musical by composers like Kern and Gershwin. The city was brighter, gayer, sassier and more unabashedly commercial than any city in the Old World -- on being shown the lights of Broadway, G.K. Chesterton remarked: "What a wonderful sight this must be for someone unable to read."

But this willingness to be vulgar reflected the fact that New York was the leading city of the first social democracy in the world -- that is, a society in which the tastes and opinions of ordinary people were treated with the same respect as those of their "betters." And because newsreels were available in cinemas around the world, every other nation saw New Yorkers -- people like themselves -- drinking in speakeasies, sitting on flagpoles, giving the boyish Charles Lindbergh a ticker-tape welcome, and generally showing the highest of spirits. It was such newsreels that fixed those first dramatic images of New York that still endure in the world's mind.

For the city the 1930s are a period best forgotten. New York for the first half of that decade meant the disgraced Wall Street, refuge not of refugees but of "economic royalists" and "malefactors of great wealth."

As the New Deal progressed, politics overtook economics and power migrated from New York to Washington. In those grim years, however, the city set about improving itself in the American manner, embarking on major programs of city planning-parks, roadways, beaches for the people. Marvels of civil engineering culminated in the 1940 New York World's Fair which defined "modernity" itself in soaring and fragile architecture that for once justified Goethe's description of it as "frozen music."

War and the return of prosperity restored New York's position without diminishing Washington's. If anywhere else threatened to rival the city, it was London, which for a few wartime years regained its pre-eminence as the center of the anti-Nazi struggle -- a pre-eminence that very few New Yorkers begrudged. Indeed, it was New York as the media capital of the nation that translated what was happening in Europe and Asia to Americans listening to the radio or reading the newspaper at home via Ed Murrow and Walter Winchell.

With the return of peace and the emergence of postwar America as the world's first superpower (yes, as far back as 1945), New York achieved unquestioned status as the cultural capital of the world. Publishing, theater, modern art all flourished here, drawing talented artists from all over the world and demonstrating vitality and a willingness to experiment, to the point that disgruntled Parisians denounced Abstract Expressionism as a cold war tool of the CIA. Rodgers and Hammerstein had invented a second new kind of musical-and Sondheim was in the wings working on a third. Television even challenged cinema -- which meant that New York was challenging Hollywood for control of popular culture -- until television itself later moved to "beautiful downtown Burbank."

Among the arts only high fashion, revived by Dior's New Look in the late '40s, remained loyal to Paris -- and the Garment District soon had its mid-priced knock-offs safely stitched up. The city itself was safe, well-run, prosperous and good to its citizens.

All good things come to an end. (But, then, so do all bad things.) The 1960s, which began about 1968, and the 1970s, which ended about 1982, were a bad time for New York. It was in those years that crime rose, racial tension was aggravated, and the general atmosphere of society became harsher and more brutalist. Mugging in particular became an obsession as victims swapped stories about their experiences, and people planning to visit the city were congratulated on their courage.

But the city's decay ended as a result of two forces: the long American boom of the last 20 years -- a boom interrupted by only one small recession in 1991-92 -- and the introduction of more effective policing under Mayor Rudy Giuliani. In the last decade in particular, New York has enjoyed a blend of economic prosperity, public security, and a sense of well-being that had been lost and thought irrecoverable.

As the Cold war ended, as countries around the world embraced market democracy, as Wall Street flourished as the investment capital of the world, as the U.S. emerged as the sole superpower, New York was again where it had been in the 1920s and the 1950s -- Wells's supreme type of the City of the Scientific Commercial Age.

It is hardly surprising that Osama bin Laden and his band of medieval revolutionaries should hate and seek to destroy such a city. It is everything they hate. New York is open-minded, inventive, adventurous and forever testing established doctrines and ideas. It is a city enriched by Jewish philanthropy and love of high culture. It is the concrete expression of liberty and political equality. It is capital of modern world finance -- a set of institutions developed in Britain, shaped by great Jewish houses like the Rothschilds, and brought to its apogee on the banks of the Hudson or the three nations now linked by Islamist revolutionaries as their version of the "axis of evil" ("U.S.-U.K.-Israel") It offers the enticing prospect of endless possibility to anyone willing to cast off the prison of an oppressive culture. And it is the most famous expression of the aspiring Western mentality in the modern world.

If your quarrel is with freedom and modernity, then New York is the obvious target of your ire. New Yorkers rightly want justice in response to Sept. 11. In its perverse and wicked way, however, the attack on the city was a compliment.

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