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Counting the dead in living color

Wednesday, Sep 26 2001
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“I don‘t watch TV.”

“What, you don’t have a TV set?”

He insisted that I get one, because how could I keep up with the events otherwise, and what did my opinions matter if I did not see it all.

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“Listen, I read the dailies,” I told him.

“But you need to see it as it unfolds.”

When the towers were collapsing, my colleagues (fellows of the New York Public Library) and I went out onto Fifth Avenue to watch. All we saw was a huge majestic cloud gaining in size and power at the end of the canyon of tall buildings. After a couple of minutes, someone said, “Let‘s find a TV set.”

I tried to be a witness -- I went to Houston Street, where the smoke and dust made me cough, and could not go beyond the police line. But I had seen enough images. I had heard from friends caught in the fire and brimstone, and I talked to people who had run down the stairs of the towers, who’d seen falling bodies and heads chopped off by falling glass. They retold the horrors in the kind of language I got used to during the siege of Vukovar and Sarajevo. I don‘t need to see it in gory detail. In fact, I don’t want to.

Rather than harboring image-driven emotions, I need to think. The country is united in producing emotions. Flags are everywhere. Even The New York Times printed a flag with instructions on how to paste it to your window. Is this the same newspaper that published articles against Croatia‘s flag, and labeled it nationalistic? Is the United States the only country that is patriotic, while the rest of the world is nationalistic? It’s all right for us to sing hymns and wave flags even in local sports events -- a practice other nations reserve for international events. America needs to think, too.

Eleven days after the attacks, I smell the dusty odor of burning rubber, plastic, metal, asbestos and human flesh. Parents walk with their toddlers in strollers, facemasks covering their little noses. At night people burn candles that from a distance look like dynamite sticks, and further damage the air.

It feels as though our island will keep smoking and smelling of incinerated bodies forever. Maybe I should get a TV. Rather than smelling the collapse, it would be nice to listen to the Brokaw bass and to see our frat president reading his cards. The brainwashing box might put me in line with more than two-thirds of Americans who are supporting the new war, according to NBC, or whoever the poll -- pall? -- bearer is. It‘s tempting in a way. But I think I’ll spend more time in the library, lost in the stacks, and in the written images of old wars and civilizations -- not hiding from the present conflicts but nevertheless salved by the distance and perspective of time.

Josip Novakovich is the author of Salvation and Other Disasters: Short Stories.

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