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Then Then Now

Then: E. B. White's 1949 essay Here Is New York opens with mention of "the stubborn fact of annihilation," giving gruesome hints of what might happen in an air attack: "The city for the first time in its long history is destructible. A single flight of planes no bigger than a wedge of geese can quickly end this island fantasy, burn the towers, crumble the bridges, turn the underground passages into lethal chambers, cremate the millions. The intimation of mortality is part of New York now: in the sound of jets overhead, in the black headlines of the latest edition." World War II was over, Germany reduced to rubble, Hiroshima and Nagasaki obliterated, the debris of war spread throughout Europe. The Cold War had begun, and memory of the atomic cloud hung menacingly over the planet.


At the same time, under construction not far from the Whites' Turtle Bay Gardens apartment, the United Nations Building was expected to house an international congress of diplomats hoping that, if enough nations united in the cause of peace, it could possibly be maintained. White noted "a race between the destroying planes and the struggling Parliament of Man": "The city at last perfectly illustrates both the universal dilemma and the general solution, this riddle in steel and stone is at once the perfect target and the perfect demonstration of nonviolence, of racial brotherhood, this lofty target scraping the skies and meeting the destroying planes halfway, home of all people and all nations, capital of everything, housing the deliberations by which the planes are to be stayed and their errand forestalled." In the intervening half-century, he seems overly optimistic—or perhaps reservedly hopeful.


Then: White's scenario was grim speculation in his day, but after the destruction of the World Trade Center in 2001—Ground Zero on 9/11, as we call it—it felt uncomfortably like prophecy. In 2003, at the end of a conference in New York, I joined Michigan colleagues at LaGuardia for our flight to Detroit. Two had visited the site of the destroyed World Trade Center. They were surprised not to be more moved by it, the scene of so much horror and rage and, temporarily, a binding national grief. Expecting upwellings of strong emotions while gazing into the crater where the city's tallest building had been, they felt very little. One said, "It looks mostly just like a massive construction site." The flow of commerce creates similar sites every year. E. B. White commented about change in his Here Is New York introduction, claiming "The Lafayette Hotel, mentioned in passing, has passed despite the mention." Perhaps the hotel created such a crater, probably somewhat smaller, when it was demolished and replaced by a new skyscraper.


The United States then occupied Afghanistan and had invaded Iraq, retaliating for attacks on New York and Washington two years earlier. Some friends abandoned the conference in fear of further attacks. I remembered White's fear for the city and felt as if the terrorists had confirmed it. But in LaGuardia that day, television channels broadcast American aerial attacks on Baghdad. I thought: The destroying planes outracing the Parliament of Man are ours; the chance for peace is being evaded by us; our government drops the stubborn fact of annihilation on a foreign city, its people the victims, we the aggressors. Gazing from our flight, I thought New York looked very open, very small, very vulnerable, more destructible than ever before, indistinguishable in that regard from all the other cities of the world.


Now: In 2021 American President Biden ended occupation of Afghanistan and Iraq, the longest military campaigns of our history. In February 2022 Russian President Putin invaded Ukraine, causing massive destruction, an enormous refugee crisis, and a vast number of deaths. As I write, in June, the war persists, Ukraine supported militarily and economically by a broad spectrum of international allies. The Russian president is unrelenting and persistently menacing, seemingly willing to expand his war further into the world. In the US the Republican Party is relentlessly focused on gaining absolute control over legislative, judicial, and executive branches of government and opposed to environmental protection, health care, education, employment, equal opportunity, or public safety, responding to yet another massacre of school children with callous, hypocritical responses while expanding access to gun ownership and abolishing abortion rights. In the first twenty-one weeks of 2022 there were 213 mass shootings in America and at the end of May, 1,004,119 people had died of COVID-19 since January 2020.


It's hard to feel safe in America, fearful internationally of a potential third World War and disconsolate domestically about what our own government allows and enacts to reduce our personal rights and our community safety. Now, to me, feels less reassuring than the Thens we've endured in my lifetime.

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