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Jewish World Review Oct. 31, 2001 / 14 Mar-Cheshvan Tishrei 5762

Philip Terzian

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Consumer Reports

A helluva town? -- AS a lifelong Arizona Diamondbacks fan, this World Series has put me in a quandary. On the one hand, I don't wish to betray my cradle-to-grave loyalty to the Phoenix ball club. But according to a recent story in The New York Times, many Americans are asking themselves whether they can "root against a team from an injured city that lost thousands of people in last month's terrorist attack."

After careful consideration, I have concluded that this is one American who not only can do so, but thinks others ought to join in cheering for the Diamondbacks. New York could use some tough love, at the moment, not false compassion.

There are two reasons for this. One, of course, is rooted in New York's historic vision of itself. If Osama bin Laden had struck at, say, Philadelphia or Chicago, would the hearts of New Yorkers be swelling for White Sox or Phillies fans? Yeah, right -- as they might put it. They would be telling the unfortunates who reside outside the five boroughs to get a life, don't even think about it, drop dead, who are you kidding, fuggedaboutit, etc. And they would be right. A great city does not lick its wounds indefinitely.

That's the other reason. The genius of New York is not in its native accent, or grid system of streets, or Donald Trump, or its status as the world's media and financial capital. The genius of New York is its historic resilience. To the despair of preservationists, it is perpetually tearing itself down and rebuilding, ever higher. And to the puzzlement and consternation of nativists, it seems actually to thrive on immigration, absorbing wave after wave, subtly changing the city's temperament.

At the beginning of the last century, the majority of New Yorkers were not just foreign-born, but swelling the city's boundaries beyond imagination. To genteel observers such as Henry Adams and Henry James, this was a calamity far greater than any military assault. Adams scorned the appeal of Gilded Age wealth to the European peasantry, fearing the loss of national character; and James, while admiring the energy and industry of Jews on the Lower East Side, worried about the effects of Yiddish on the English language!

Obviously, al Qaeda's assault was sudden and violent, and New Yorkers would scarcely be human if they weren't in shock. But is it smarter, under the circumstances, to strike back, or feel infinitely sorry?

One of the healthiest signs in this crisis has been the complete absence of yellow ribbons on public display. In recent calamities, such as the Iranian hostage episode or the Persian Gulf war, Americans have tended to behave as if violent assaults on the United States were best answered by the fervent wish that our armed forces might return to their homes and loved ones as quickly as possible. Accordingly, those who wish America ill -- notably Osama bin Laden -- got the message: Strike at the Americans, and they'll head for the nearest therapist.

This time, however, it's different: There is anger in the air, and a desire not to bring Osama bin Laden to justice, or to feel his pain, but to kill him. And you would expect New Yorkers to be in the forefront of such sentiments. But it's difficult to tell. Every day the same New York Times that admonishes Americans to embrace the Yankees devotes pages of space to funereal coverage, chronicling the individual tragedies in the national loss at considerable length. Already the chains are selling coffee-table books "documenting America's greatest tragedy," and a religious web site has published what The Wall Street Journal calls "a cloying collection of essays by spiritual leaders" entitled From the Ashes. Even "Doonesbury," which subsists on nasty adolescent humor, has gone soft.

At some point, I expect, the gag reflex kicks in. Sorrow is the order of the day, of course, but so is defiance. The history of New York is full of triumph over adversity, and stalwart bloody-mindedness: It emerged from the devastating draft riots of the Civil War to build itself into America's greatest metropolis; it has survived invasion, epidemics, crime waves, and anarchist bombs. Moreover, it has the experience of other great cities to emulate. If the loss of 5,000 souls were an insurmountable event, then Shanghai, London, Rotterdam, Berlin and Tokyo would be "one with Nineveh and Tyre."

New York does not need a Yankees victory -- however destined that may be -- to cheer itself up. It does not even need to be cheered. As the United States avenges the 11th of September, and wages war on terror, New York needs a healthy dose of fortitude, outrage, recalcitrance and cunning. That sounds more like the New York we know than the New York its chroniclers have chosen to depict.

JWR contributor Philip Terzian is associate editor of The Providence Journal. Comment by clicking here.


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© 2001, The Providence Journal