At the time of the World Trade Center bombing, it seemed that we would be in for a long and difficult era of self-sacrifice. We talked about it a lot then; I remember Carol Towt worrying out loud about how this generation would handle it, as we stood and talked outside the post office one morning late that September -- We had the Depression to make us strong, but they've never had to struggle for anything, she said. I'm afraid they don't know how.
In New York, we began it with a unanimous and willing spirit that surprised us and must have stunned the many visitors who soon descended upon the city to help out. New Yorkers are so friendly! Incredulous people from the Midwest kept telling me, and I was at a loss for a suitable reply. Oh, we're always like that, I said.
Always? I don't know; I haven't been here always. But I do know that we reached into ourselves and into the hearts of our neighborhoods and found there the same spirit that sustained men, women and children through all our country's darkest days. War is about aggression and failed politics, but a city's response to war is always local: neighborhoods, local kids gone overseas, a communal belt-tightening in the service of something greater than ourselves.
Very soon, it seemed, this one would be different. The patriotic thing to do, it appeared, would be to shop more. And go out to eat. This made sense in our part of town, a street in Hell's Kitchen christened "Restaurant Row," hit hard by the abrupt drop in business: the bombing immediately and directly injured the owners, the suppliers, the waiters and kitchen people. Many places closed. I made the rounds of as many local eateries as I could afford.
But it turned out that we were all supposed to shop and eat out more, not just New Yorkers. Buy more cars -- we began to buy Hummers, enormous vehicles that imitated the all-terrain conveyances the troops were using in Afghanistan and Iraq, as if by buying cars that were like their cars we were somehow partaking in their terrible daily risks. How odd -- our most serious spiritual vices, the very things that were making us weaker, more soft and corpulent and less useful every year -- were the things we were supposed to do to win the war against terror.
Why was it that in other times of national trial we were expected to do without things and in this one we are expected to acquire more of them? Whose side are we on?
There are potent economic forces in the world that will do very well regardless of what happens to us -- wealth that knows no national boundaries, wealth with a mission to enlarge itself, whatever the cost; wealth that goes where the money is, that would just as soon take it from you as from me and would prefer to take it from us both, wealth whose short-term prospects are so dazzling that nothing long-term matters.
Shopping and acquisition can't win a war or govern a people. No one can prosper safely on a foundation of debt. There really is no such thing as a free lunch; everything has a cost. What a pity that the only people who
will pay the cost of this war are the young men and women put in harm's way and their families, and the civilians caught in the crossfire.
For now, that is. We'll settle up later.