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Brooklyn Diary

by Kenny BrunoCorpWatch
September 19th, 2001

Editor's Note: CorpWatch is based in San Francisco, but one of our 7 person staff, Kenny Bruno, actually lives and works in New York City. The following are some of his thoughts and impressions on the terrorist attack on his hometown and Washington DC -- attacks that all of us here at CorpWatch vehemently condemn.

Day 1

When this happens, you want to be with your children. My son seems so unreachable, though just a few miles away, across the East River in Manhattan. When the second tower blows, I try to get to him by bicycle, but can't get through the smoke or the police lines. In the evening I'm able to get to him, and we walk back home over the Brooklyn Bridge. It is a perversely, stubbornly beautiful sunset, with a orange sky behind the Statue of Liberty, and light reflecting off the buildings, such as I have seen many times from that bridge. The Empire State, the Chrysler, the CitiCorp building, all the midtown skyscrapers look, as usual, like parts of the Emerald City. People are taking photographs. Everyone is calm. Behind us, where the twin towers used to be, is only black smoke.

It had really happened.

Skyscrapers were never my favorite part of New York, nor, for me at least, an important symbol. I prefer the boardwalk of Coney Island, the restaurants of Chinatown, the galleries and lofts of Soho, the brownstones of Harlem and Brooklyn, Central Park, Madison Square Garden. When I used to commute by bicycle into Manhattan over the bridge, I stared at the towers, but I never loved them. I thought about the conglomerations of corporate and financial power inside. I thought and re-thought my role as a tiny part of a movement that aimed to chip away at that power, non-violently, through coalitions, through information, through persuasion, through intelligence, through resistance. I never dreamed the buildings could actually disintegrate, in a matter of seconds.

One time they appeared to me as the most beautiful of man-made creations. I was flying into LaGuardia airport from California, on a path that flies to the east, over Brooklyn. It was an overcast day, we could see nothing on the ground. Then, out the left side of the plane, I saw the top 20 or so floors of the towers, sticking out of the clouds like two whales spy-hopping in a flat, gray ocean. Nothing else was visible. Human beings had breached the clouds, reached the sky.

I doubt that even the masterminds of today's attack imagined that these powerful symbols of financial might would be toppled in a matter of moments. Imagine their glee as they crumbled, erased from the skyline, disappeared like a magic trick.

In the morning I partially broke a pledge, made after the December Supreme Court decision selecting George Bush as president, never to watch a speech of his on TV. I started to watch his address to the nation, but I could only stand a few minutes before switching to radio. Alas, Bush was himself - shallow, emotionally disconnected, mostly concerned with getting through his remarks on message. At a time like this, it's especially painful to have a nincompoop as a president.

And how hollow his promises of retribution sound! It's easy to wish for a few minutes alone with the hijackers and our fists, but they are dead. We don't know, and may never know, exactly who did this. And even if we do, it's just a few people.

My neighbors and I argue about whether this was a complicated attack or not. One says 10 people was all it took, another says hundreds. I say 25-30, and not all needed to know the planned outcome. It was a simple, low-tech mission. The tactical challenges of destruction are so greatly simplified by a willingness to die in the attack. Imagine trying to take down the World Trade Center and get away with it. Impossible.

Evil begets goodness. This was the epitome of evil: deliberate mass murder of innocent people. And yet everywhere in this city famous for its gruffness, people were being good to each other. Free food, water, shoes, rides, hugs, nods of understanding.

The frustration is just how hard it is to help. Want to clear rubble and look for victims? They don't want you within 2 miles of the area. Want to donate blood? By the afternoon they are turning donors away. Sandwiches for firefighters? My firehouse has too much food already. Even my brother and sister-in-law - both nurses - are not needed at their hospitals.

Why not? Because there are not enough injured for all the medical workers. The low number of injuries being reported is a subtly nauseating detail of the information we are getting.

CBS reports those numbers: "8." "57 or 58." "209." They tell us early in the day they will stay at St. Vincents Hospital to report on the wounded. But there is so little to report. We know that 40,000 people worked in the two towers. Even assuming not all were there, even accounting for the many who had gotten out before the collapse, the number of injured are low, painfully, sickeningly low. As the day goes on, it is clear that, for the most part, either you got out of the buildings or you didn't.

By the end of the day I know that my family has been lucky. We are all safe, none of our relatives or friends was in the building. But like many or most New Yorkers, we are just one or two degrees of separation from the tragedy. The father of a boy in my daughter's 4th grade class called his wife, the head of the PTA, from the 101st floor when the first plane hit to say goodbye. He hasn't been heard from since. Another neighbor, a man I saw on Saturdays during the youth soccer season or when picking my daughter up from a playdate, made it out of the building with his wife. He told her to go get the kids, and then he went back in to try to help. He hasn't come back out.

Day 2

Today is different from yesterday. The streets are eerily quiet, the parks are full, a hot, sunny snow day. A kite flies. People jog. Kids hit baseballs. People start yelling at each other in cars again. But underneath it all, we all know it's not normal. Everyone is thinking about it, wondering about it, processing it, reflecting on it. Looking up nervously every time a plane goes by.

My daughter and her cousin build a sculpture on the ground. Sticks are the remains of the twin towers. Wood chips are the rubble. Stones are the buried people.

Rudy Giuliani, after an initial, irresponsible focus on his own anger, is behaving admirably. He fervently compliments everyone, something he's had so little practice at. He focuses on the rescue, on the goodness of the workers. He is genuinely distraught and moved, yet functioning and in control.

Today we know it is incorrect to say that violence does not "work," or even that terrorism does not "work."

We don't know who did this or exactly why. But let's suppose for a moment that one of the goals of this action was to inform the world that a war is going on against the United States. Two days ago, almost no one would agree that the US was at war. Yesterday George Bush, Colin Powell and the entire mass media confirmed we are at war. Terrorist mission accomplished. Let's say another goal was to identify, through use of symbols, the target of that war. The World Trade Center and Pentagon are the unquestioned symbols of US financial and military might. They were brilliant choices. Terrorist mission accomplished. Let's assume, finally, that a third goal was to terrify U.S. citizens into allowing a crackdown on civil liberties in the U.S., to allow racial profiling, unwarranted searches, and so on. Terrorist mission accomplished.

We should have known this already. The suicide mission killing US Marines in Beirut changed US policy in Lebanon. The terror campaign of the contras throughout the 80's wore down the population of Nicaragua until they cried uncle and gave the government to US allies. (Those terrorists were called freedom fighters by Ronald Reagan, but if the contras' method of killing innocent civilians is not terrorism, what is?)

We did know terrorism works. That's why we worked with Manuel Noriega. That's why we collaborated with the Pinochet regime. That's why we trained the contras and other death squads in Central America. That's why we trained Osama bin Laden! (This according to Michael Moore, who cites MNBC as his source.) We are the Dr. Frankenstein of nations, creating terrorist monsters we then have to kill off.

Bush says we won't distinguish between terrorists and those that harbor them. A letter writer to the Times says we must fight those "who hate our values." Well, many French people hate our values. Many religious people hate our values. I often hate our values (not freedom and democracy, but commercialism and materialism).

It is so hard to see "our values" as others see them, through our actions as a nation. Most of us never even try.

So we are in a dangerous situation. Because if you combine the idea that we are at war, with the idea that any friend of our enemy is our enemy, and then consider anyone who hates our values to be our enemy, and then you define our values as "freedom," you can justify killing so many millions.

We can't kill the ones who did this; they are dead. Perhaps we can kill Osama bin Laden (whether he did this or not.) Perhaps we will stop "constructive engagement" with his allies. I hope so.

Day 3

Tired of seeing the plane crash into the tower over and over in my dreams, I bring this new danger into my home early in the form of the New York Post, which practically screams for blood. "THE FACE OF HATE" reads the caption under a photo of an Arab suspect. "The heavens need to fall on their headsthey need to bleednowWho are they? Who cares?Bombs Away."

No wonder the Yemeni man who sells me the newspaper every day is frightened. No wonder the police have practically locked down the Arab neighborhood around Atlantic Avenue. No wonder none of the muslim kids showed up to school today. Even George Bush, in a staged phone call to Mayor Giuliani and Governor Pataki, has called for tolerance for Arab-Americans, albeit in his stumbling, scripted, unconvincing way. In Bay Ridge, Arab Americans are beat up, cursed at. There are rumors in the Arab community of killings in Clinton Hill, though I can't find any reporting of it at all. We are far, very far, from the tolerance necessary to avoid more bloodshed of innocents.

The Times quotes an Afghan man selling fertilizer in a market, saying that though the terrorists are "enemies of God," nevertheless "Americans should look into their hearts and minds about why someone would kill themselves and others." Senator Chuck Schumer and most of our leaders are quite confident they already know why. "They hate our freedom," says the liberal Democrat from New York. We are far, very far, from being able to look at ourselves, our role. That is understandable at this time. But our "leaders" are taking us farther away.

So many have tried to deliver a legitimate message of protest against American hegemony, arrogance, sponsorship of terrorism, oppression, support for oppression. So many have been frustrated over and over as the US just ignores the pleas for justice and freedom outside our borders.

A heretical question occurs to me. Could it be that the terrorists also had a legitimate message somehow buried in their twisted minds? Could it have related to the pleas for justice around the world which George W. Bush ignores so coldly? We will never know, because you cannot deliver a legitimate message through these means.

The terrorists have buried the messages in the rubble. The outrage at using a quarter of the world's energy and ignoring global warming, at bombing Iraq, at withdrawing from important international treaties, of bullying small developing countries economically and militarily, is buried in the rubble. The outrage against corporate globalization, which had begun to get through in Seattle and in Genoa, these voices are buried in the rubble. Who in America will now argue against the walls and the tear gas? Who will confront the police and the army non-violently?

All disagreement with the US will be suspect as sympathetic to terrorism. It will be a bad time for dissent of any kind.

Today shock is partly subsiding, replaced by grief. We begin assuming the missing are dead. The local news indulges in grief pornography, repeatedly showing sobbing relatives holding up photographs of the missing.

Passing the fire station, a burly firefighter back from a 30-hour shift bursts into ear-shattering sobs on the shoulder of a colleague, the two remain in an embrace until after I've gone. The Union Street firehouse in Brooklyn has lost 12 of its 30 fire fighters, probably some of the ones who came and opened up the hydrant as a sprinkler for our block party last weekend. Their sidewalk is a memorial of flowers and candles.

There are announcements in many neighborhoods of counseling for kids, a vigil and march for victims, a clothing, food and money drive for families.

The American flags come out, on cars, on the street, on the front page of the bloodthirsty New York Post.

We who have been lucky are tempted to think things are going back to normal. But then we remember, it cannot go back to normal for Kelly, or Nicole, or LizAnne, or their kids, or thousands and thousands who have had a father or child erased from their lives as the towers were erased from the skyline.

Day 4

1:20 AM: An explosion wakes me. I leap out of bed, run to the TV and radio both, wake my wife, and start preparing for... I don't know what. The news hasn't hit CBS yet. Then comes the lightening. Giant raindrops start falling. Thunder booms, sounding strangely similar to the bombing I just heard... I stand out in the pouring rain in my underwear, freezing and laughing at myself.

At the volunteer headquarters at the Javits Center in Midtown they are turning people away, and have 90,000 registered to volunteer tomorrow. At Chelsea Piers an hour later they are also turning hundreds of volunteers away. Yet when a van arrives to take hot food down to the rescue workers, they need help loading. After it's loaded, I offer to help unload, and a few of us travel down in the back of the van with the hot food and a police escort.

Someone has a copy of the Wall Street Journal, which he throws down in disgust on reading that the European anti-globalization groups have vowed to continue their movement. Another says not to worry, they are "about eight people" and "don't represent their governments at all." I mention that while that is true, they do represent millions of farmers, workers and students. The response is that well, French farmers hate globalization because they get so many subsidies. And anyway, now is not the time for anti-American demonstrations. Europe better be stick with us from now on.

Finally I start to get it. The essence of this attack for many here is not the killing of innocents, but the fact that they attacked us. Within hours this was named "Attack on America," even though lip service was given to the idea that it was an attack on humanity. Even the left/liberal Nation leads off its issue saying "we Americans" have suffered a terrible blow. Yes, our hearts are broken, but our pride is also wounded. Pride, not grief, is the emotional basis for revenge.

We get out of the van near Church and Liberty Streets, across the street from the South Tower. We are intent on doing our part to help, but we cannot help but gasp at the first sighting of the devastation. The air is gray, the raindrops are gray, the streets are even grayer, covered in a pasty soot. The smoke rising ominously from the rubble is another shade of gray. Where the South Tower was is a pile of gray that looks like a roll of snow fence somehow grown several stories high. Here and there steel girders stick up eerily, like finger bones in an x-ray.

In the distance are more piles of steel. In the mist and fog and smoke, the North Tower rubble pile looks miles away. WTC 7 is even worse, because it sort of still looks like a building. The Millennium Hotel is still standing, it's top floors still shiny, the fašade looking 200 years old, like something just discovered by archeologists. In a small garden with gray grass is what looks like metal from a plane, with a few soot-covered chickadees hopping around.

But staring at the scene does not help us grasp the extent of destruction, any more than staring at the beach reveals how many grains of sand are in the world. That thousands of human beings are buried in those few acres, that millions of lives have been profoundly altered by these deaths, these concepts remain unfathomable, like the space between stars or the size of the universe.

We unload the food into the makeshift police headquarters in the nearby Burger King. I stay an extra minute to help set up the food, and when I get out my van is gone. I'm on my own on foot at Ground Zero. There are hundreds of cops and firefighters standing around, eating, taking pictures, watching the crane. The pile is too unstable, and the work too dangerous, to have many people working at any one time. So hundreds of workers watch, perhaps unwilling to leave the site where their buddies have perished. In their haunted faces is heartbreak. They have seen something truly horrible.

I walk back uptown, but when I get to the edge of the "frozen zone," there are people desperately trying to deliver supplies to the Red Cross who cannot enter the area. So I deliver bags for them, walking back and forth from Canal St. to Chambers for a few hours carrying bags of hard hats, boots, batteries and clothing. Bush arrives, and it gets tense downtown. Fighter jets are circling through the clouds above. Military police have taken control of the streets, shouting at NYC cops, firefighters and rescue workers to get on the sidewalk. Our local heroes are not too happy about suddenly being bossed around, and some are grumbling that they just want to get back to work, and this presidential visit is getting in their way. Others say, "it's about time" he showed up.

I meet a doctor friend who has worked for two days in a makeshift triage center where she mostly irrigated eyes. The big problem there was making sure every doctor had a patient. At her ER in Brooklyn the big problem, of course, is getting every patient a doctor. By now it's apparent that thousands are clamoring to get into the rescue area, that there is too much food and water, too many volunteers, too many people trying to help. So I leave.

On the way home I meet a friend who tells the story of a Bangladeshi colleague, a Muslim woman who wears a head scarf, who was punched in the face yesterday and told "It's your fault, it's your fault."

Evil begets goodness, but it also begets more evil. The very essence of the evil act, the targeting of innocent people because they are vaguely associated with an "enemy," is being repeated on the streets.

And, if the bluster of our politicians is to be believed, it will be repeated elsewhere. Everyone I speak to supports the eradication of terrorist camps and cells, and even the assassination of terrorist leaders. But it is not clear how to do that. Will Washington have the patience to wait until it knows what it's doing? It seems not.

A clutch of West Indian men is arguing about the right US response. They are quicker than most folks I have heard to blame our policies in Israel. "If we stopped supporting Israel, no more trouble with the Arabs." One is concerned that "if we start killing people in Pakistan, Afghanistan, Sudan, we will create a new generation of America-haters."

Can a nation in such pain as this think about the long-term consequence of its actions? I doubt it.

Even if we could think long-term, it is not as simple as saying "we will not stoop to the level of terrorists by killing innocent people." For we now know that the wickedness of those that planned Tuesday's attack is so great, they would nuke us mercilessly if they could. They will use biological and chemical weapons if they can. We cannot ensure our own safety even by promoting justice in the Middle East, for who can say what "justice" means to people who would do this: the horrific, the unthinkable, the worst that can be done?

And so yes, America will risk lives to protect against a repeat of this attack. In the process,innocent people will be killed, and their children will learn to hate America.

At night there is a candlelight vigil in front of our school. Entire families line up to shake the hands of firefighters in their truck, like devout Catholics receiving a blessing from the Pope. The fire fighters graciously accept our heartfelt best wishes, verging on worship of their sacrifice, their bravery and their losses.

At the fire station a few blocks away the crowd chants "USA, USA," sings Amazing Grace, and then a small group sings "Down By The Riverside." Not everyone seems to think it's the right song for the moment, but no one shouts them down. This is not the time for arguing amongst ourselves; it's a time for togetherness. The fire fighters, still exhausted and in mourning, are visibly moved by the outpouring of love and respect.

I am proud of my neighborhood -- its generosity, strength, solidarity, resilience, compassion, and tolerance, its support for its heroes.

A moment after I walk in the door, there is a ruckus outside. Two women shout for us to call the Precinct. There's a roaming group of teenagers on the block, loud, drunk and confrontational, and they have spray-painted "Fuck Arabs" on the sidewalk. My neighbor has some spray paint remover, and we try to scrub the sidewalk clean.