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September 28, 2003

Unbuilding at Ground Zero and Rebuilding in Iraq

Americans are known by their distinctive method for tackling practical probems. The U.S. military is full of Americans. Is there a story there?

In a previous post, I said that “too negative” is not the right criticism to make of press coverage coming out of Iraq. Nor is “give us the good news” a wise demand. Here are my reasons. But for a critic, it’s not good enough to take a common complaint and knock it. One ought to suggest something better.

Among the outstanding works of journalism completed since September 11th is William Langewiesche’s American Ground: Unbuilding the World Trade Center. It is unfortunate that a few disputed lines about firemen stealing jeans (the NYFD says it never happened) have overwhelmed other discussion of the book. Langewiesche, a writer for the Atlantic, gained access to Ground Zero from shortly after the attacks until the wreckage was cleared away. Every day he went to watch the World Trade Center get “unbuilt,” a staggering feat of engineering and skilled labor that took half the time expected to clear away 1.5 million tons of debris under the shadow of 3,000 deaths.

On the surface, American Ground is about “how they did it.” They are the construction workers, truck drivers, engineers, firemen and public officials who, “shaking off their disbelief,” began the unbuilding and carting away. “For thirty years the Trade Centers had stood above the streets as all tall buildings do, as a bomb of sorts, a repository for the prodigious energy originally required to raise so much weight so high,” Langewiesche writes. “Now, in a single morning, in twin ten-second pulses, the towers released that energy back into the city.”

The workers at ground zero felt a strange attraction to the site. Most could not stay away; they had a job to do. (Unlike the rest of us, whose job in the aftermath of the attacks was unclear, where it remains today despite the language of war.) Langewiesche tells you how they did it. But his big theme is how Americans do things when faced with a novel emergency. About the workers:

Their success is in the midst of chaos was an odd twist in the story of these monolithic buildings that… had stood so visibly for the totalitarian ideals of planning and control. But the buildings were not buildings anymore, and the place where they had fell had become a blank slate for the United States. Among the ruins now, an unscripted experiment in American life had gotten under way.

On a speaking trip to The Netherlands two years ago, I noticed that every time I used the word “experiment,” my Dutch hosts would give me a blank look or reach for their beer. So I finally asked some Amsterdam friends about it. The Dutch think that if you start an experiment it means you don’t know what you’re doing, one of them said. The most likely outcome is to make things worse. “Oh,” I replied, “well, Americans have a different attitude.” “We know,” said my hosts, in unison and now laughing. Here’s Langewiesche:

What does a chaos of 1.5 million tons really mean? What does it even look like? The scene up close was so large that no one really knew. In other countries clear answers would have been sought before action was taken. Learned committees would have been formed, and high authorities consulted. The ruins would have been pondered, and a tightly scripted response would have been imposed. Barring that, soldiers would have assumed control. But for whatever reasons, probably cultural, probably profound, little of the sort happened here, where the learned committees were excluded, and the soliders were relegated to the unhappy role of guarding the perimeter, and the civilians in heavy machines simply rolled in and took on the unknown.

On bumper stickers, it’s LEAD, FOLLOW OR GET OUT OF THE WAY. In philosophy it’s called pragmatism. On the best seller lists it’s Let’s Roll. A cliched term for it is the “can do” attitude, or “Yankee ingenuity.” But it’s more than that; it’s democratic.

The “boss” at ground zero was an obscure city agency, the Department of Design and Construction— but not because any statute or tradition or hierachy or executive said so. DDC had the people who knew how to bring together all the trades and experts and laborers and machines that would be required, so everyone kind of agreed that those people should be in charge— but not because they had a plan and knew what to do. As Langewieshce noted, “no one really knew.”

Solutions would have to come from everywhere. Everyone would have to make decisions within his sphere of competence, rather than checking with the authorites, who were too few, too busy and probably unable to help. Enormous commitment was of course required, backbreaking work amid emotional horror. But we’ve heard about that. Langewiesche shows that enormous flexibility was also required, which is a kind of social intelligence. On a job so huge, it’s impossible to be flexible by yourself. The subtitle of American Ground could have been a book of practical virtues.

The citizens who labored at Ground Zero are not that different from the citizens serving in the military occupation of Iraq. There is a lot that joins the two sites: the complexity and scale of destruction, the absence of any script, the fact that no one knows how to do nation-building in the Middle East, the many situations where problems have to be solved on the spot and without clearence from above, the living atmosphere of death. And of course the war that began with the Towers’ destruction has somehow landed on Iraqi soil. The vision that motivates the troops is of the same ruins that were cleared away by the hard hats and engineers.

Journalists are suppposed to tell us what’s happening in places we are not. American journalists in Iraq, overseen by their editors back home, have every right to inform us about killings and setbacks and sabotage and how there’s not enough money or goodwill. But they might also investigate where, when, whether the virtues Langewiesche describes so well at Ground Zero are making a difference on the ground in Iraq. And if they aren’t, what’s happened to them?

That’s a story about the American way, but to find it you have to “see” this way as ours, as Langewiesche—a superb journalist with superior access—did. There’s no script for what’s happening in Iraq; there was none for Ground Zero. “Did Bush and Rumsfeld have an adequate plan?” is good for point-scoring; but it’s a naive expectation for action and upheaval on this scale. I expect Americans to be good at problem-solving when there is no plan, when the bosses don’t know what to do, or aren’t around, when only an unscripted experiment can work.

So one thing I want to know from the press is: how have these virtues figured in the struggle to rebuild Iraq? That isn’t a negative story or a positive story; it’s just an interesting one… and “probably profound.” It’s not that there haven’t been such reports; there have. (See this, for example.) But in the master narrative for post-war Iraq, problem-solving could have a larger place, which might address some of the concerns about “negative” news. Final thought is from Langewiesche, from his afterword to the paperback edition.

In American Ground the idea was to catch a glimpse of America itself, or a certain slice of it at a certain time—unruly, unscripted, and in action. In the mix lay the bad and the good, but the book turned out to hopeful—even celebratory—all the more so because it wasn’t trying to be.

See also in PressThink: Rapidly Improving Iraq vs. Overly Gloomy Press

Here is a column by John Leo of US News arguing that Internet discussion of press performance is forcing the issue into the national press. Leo sees weblogs as a corrective, allowing other sides of the story to come out.

Posted by Jay Rosen at September 28, 2003 12:41 AM