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And Now This  
Even if the plane crash was ‘just’ an accident, the City remains on edge  

    Nov. 12 —  I got the news that my city was again in flames from a friend’s phone call. I’ve made it a habit since Sept. 11 to no longer begin every day by popping on the television to get the latest “news” because the latest “news” is increasingly bad.  


  SO WHEN THE call came—from the same friend who had informed me two months ago that the World Trade Center, visible from my window, was on fire—I could hear in her voice that something was very wrong.
        It’s a tone of voice that New Yorkers—once so unshakeable—are hearing more and more. “There’s another plane crash!” she screamed, practically sobbing, the same voice she used two months ago after the second plane hit and confirmed that the first plane was no accident. “Put on the television. It’s in Queens.”
        In Queens? I thought to myself, fumbling for the remote control. There’s no way it could be terrorism because terrorists don’t hit Queens. And then I heard the sirens. New York is an immense city that covers 322 square miles, but when a catastrophic event happens even in one distant corner, sirens on firetrucks, police cruisers and emergency vehicles start blaring everywhere as the local heroes make their way to the disaster.
        It’s the reason why so many of men and women who died in the World Trade Center collapse were from sections of the city far from lower Manhattan—in fact, dozens of them were from the same Queens and Brooklyn firehouses that responded to today’s plane crash.
        My friend and I, separated by distance but connected by Ma Bell, kept watching. For the first 20 minutes, the only footage was a live shot from miles away, the smoke billowing from the crash site. The only “news” was speculative, further adding to the confusion.
I’ve made it a habit since Sept. 11 to no longer begin every day by popping on the television to get the latest “news” because the latest “news” is increasingly bad.

       Then the real information started coming in, and my friend and I started doing our own calculations: The flight had just taken off (clearly not enough time for hijackers to commandeer the plane, I thought, but she disagreed), it was bound for the Dominican Republic (international flights are much harder to hijack anyway), and witnesses reported seeing an engine on fire (it couldn’t have been intentional).
        Slowly, we began to see that this was probably an isolated mechanical problem, not the latest in the global war on terrorism. But the knowledge had little calming effect. If the goal of terrorists is to deny us our way of life by making us nervous about our every action, they scored an unintentional victory.
        A city that prides itself on everything is suddenly wrapped in a wartime cloak of nerves. Every time we open our mailboxes, we wonder if this letter passed through a mail-sorting center with anthrax. Every time we look up and see an airplane a little lower than it usually is, we wonder if the Empire State Building, now the city’s tallest, is the next to go. Every time the subway stalls in the tunnel, once a mere inconvenience, we wonder if someone has released sarin gas and this breath I’m taking now is actually my last.
        Finally, our mayor, Rudy Giuliani, who earned praise worldwide for his calming leadership during our autumn of terror, came on TV to do what he does best: tell us the latest information without sugar-coating or sensationalism and let us know that we will go on because, as New Yorkers, we must go on. Because if we don’t, who will? It’s not as if it’s easy living here under normal circumstances, you know.
        “We are just being tested one more time,” the mayor said, “and we are going to pass this test too.”
        The mayor was right. Our response is all about context. On any other day, a plane crash in New York City would be painful, but manageable. In light of Sept. 11, today’s crash initially appeared as confirmation that our world is under attack from all angles.
        So even now that it appears it was “just” an accident that doesn’t make me and my fellow New Yorkers any less nervous. Our nation is at war with an enemy that can strike at any time, which means that we are due for more, not less, of these two-hour purgatories of dread every time we turn on the television and hear bad news. Or every time the phone rings and my friend is using that voice again.

Gersh Kuntzman is also a columnist for The New York Post.
       © 2001 Newsweek, Inc.
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