Remembering Manhattan, Sept.11, 2001

This was originally published the week of Sept. 24, 2001, in The Miami Herald and other newspapers.

I watched the World Trade Center burn to death from 70 blocks away, Fifth Avenue and 45th Street in Midtown Manhattan. It gushed flame and black smoke, staining an immaculate, pale blue sky. I made it to work, and my office at Rockefeller Center was shut down at 10:30 a.m. The sidewalks overflowed with scared people who wanted to go home. By mid-day, while a colleague and I were trying to walk to her flat in Battery City, well within lower Manhattan’s dead zone, the giddiness that comes with emancipation from routine had faded. The city was numb.

The striking thing about the hospitals where we tried to volunteer, or give blood, or something, was the medical staff: They stood around outside, chatting, drinking coffee, with nothing to do. I realized there wouldn’t be anybody to treat. By 3 p.m., we had walked back to Midtown, and from the same spot where I’d seen the towers on fire I saw only empty sky, nothing but clouds of white smoke and dust. The city’s front teeth had been punched out.

We ended up in an Irish bar run by Hispanics. An African-American guy, a building contractor, told us about running for his life after he saw the second jet hit the tower a few blocks from his job site.

I went back to work the next day and learned that the young sister of a close colleague’s wife had phoned from the 90th floor of the south tower minutes after the second plane struck. The building was on fire, and she knew she had no way out. They had heard nothing since.

A night later, a friend who lived in the neighborhood walked me through a police checkpoint in the West Village. We passed her local fire station, a quaint, storybook place that her 5-year-old son loves because the firefighters always fussed over him. My friend said that eight of its men were lost, and it’s a small firehouse.

I made my way to the financial district. The air was thick and dank with diesel and pulverized city. It was hot. The streets were ferociously loud from dozens of huge trucks. Apart from the strobes of occasional emergency vehicles and the lights of the odd Red Cross coffee truck, it was very dark. The power was gone, and the buildings were black. I got within a few blocks of one of the fallen towers and could see a giant, flood-lit lattice of metal struts poking into the air, like a rib cage on an autopsy table.

That weekend, back home in Miami, we gave a surprise birthday party for our youngest. We had sixty 13-year olds rampaging through house and yard, oblivious – the boys still young, the girls already grown, pizza in the pool. I was back from a future they hadn’t seen yet.

I thought of the old Esquire magazine cartoon: Two golfers standing on the green, in the distance a mushroom-shaped cloud. One says to the other, “Go ahead and putt. It’ll be a while before the shock wave gets here.”

How did we get here? How was it that two weeks ago we were talking about Gary Condit, shark bites and stem cells, and overnight we’re facing a tottering economy, a roll-up of civil liberties and the prospect of a long, shadowy war in a world peppered with murderous monsters?

The search for causes seems beside the point now. But it’s key to our future:

* If our protectors failed us, maybe it’s because for decades we starved our government of money and talent, cutting funding and turning public service into an unappealing career path.

* If we were pig-ignorant of the desperation and hatred in the world, maybe it’s because our media stopped telling us what was really happening out there, because the audiences were deemed sparse compared with, say, “reality” TV’s.

* If we quietly have been making enemies, maybe it’s because we were heedless of the innocent blood we ourselves, with the noblest of intentions, were spilling; the causes we summoned, armed and abandoned; and the lives we ruined.

Those questions must be posed. But now we must not only ask, must not only cope; we must prevail.

Elemental justice demands that the guilty be punished. The challenge is not only to our might, though; it’s to our wisdom. We suffered horribly on Sept. 11. To redeem that suffering will require true greatness – not just power, but humility. Our victory has to hold out a promise not just of safety for our own people but of a promising future for the rest of humankind. The whole world is watching.

 

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Murder of journalists puts news media in a quandary

The murders of the U.S. journalists James Foley and Steven Sotloff by their Islamist captors were trivial horrors in the spiraling calamity that has engulfed Syria and Iraq. Still, to me they were uniquely painful for reasons unrelated to the region’s incomparably greater misfortunes: They were the needless deaths of brave and committed professionals, they pointed up the frayed logic of this country’s no-ransom policy, and they reminded us of the vulnerability of the corps of freelancers on which our media increasingly rely for news from the world’s most desperate places.

As news stories the killings were was not just grim and depressing, they were perplexing too, because they couldn’t help but call into question the wisdom and morality of the considerations that define news and dictate how news is presented.

Reports of the deaths were inextricably interwoven with the spectacle that the killers created out of them, and for the news media, it was impossible to report the murders without dealing with the video of their final moments—whether displaying it, suppressing it, alluding to it, or excerpting from it.

This isn’t the first time that has happened, but I think the need for media to strike the balance between, on the one hand, judiciously conveying publicly significant information and imagery and, on the other, refusing to serve as a terrorist conduit requires a moral clarity that has been elusive.

I didn’t view the video of either killing and don’t intend to, for reasons that will be clearer in a moment, but my understanding from those who have is that they don’t actually show the beheadings. The screen fades to black as the ostensible executioner, standing alongside their kneeling prisoners, brings out the knife; the images return to show the immediate aftermath.

I mention that apparent fastidiousness to make a point that’s important—that these weren’t newsreels; the “news”—the slaughter itself–wasn’t shown. What was shown was a carefully composed set piece of physical domination and verbal polemic constructed around an offscreen act of cruelty, and it was produced to make a point.

The reluctance of various news media to show the videos—and the decision by Twitter and YouTube to remove the Foley video from their servers, and Continue reading

Could the surge in mobile destroy what’s best about the Internet?

Back in 2004 I heard a presentation by an eminent media analyst at a conference of broadcasters in New York. He talked about “the capacity explosion”—the wild proliferation of broadband channels into and out of homes—and then offered remarkable observations about storage capabilities: The capacity to keep movies, video, and data of all kinds at home was rising 72 percent per year: What it cost to store 57 movies then would cover more than 2,000 in five years.

That sounded like fun, but my interest was in the political implications of his analysis, which were vast: A degree of communication independence for ordinary people that would have been historically unprecedented.

With immense in-house storage capabilities and blazing upload speeds, the distinction between media consumer and producer would vanish. Each of us would possess our own hope chests of content and become autonomous centers of intelligence and initiative, drawing freely from resources that lay entirely within our control, captains of our destiny, free to convene our own networks of communicants.

Too bad this forecast was almost entirely wrong. It didn’t foresee the advent of the Cloud. Now we have apps based God-knows-where that own our family photo albums and music play lists, and induce businesses to entrust even back-office operations that were always handled in-house to invisible helpmates deriving heaven-knows what shadowy benefits from the assistance they proffer.

The upshot is that we are infinitely less, not more, independent of our informational masters than we were a decade ago.

Now, a penetrating research paper presented this month at an academic gathering in Montreal suggests that perhaps the most powerful force in what can only be called the subordination of the vast majority of Internet users—their continuing downward transformation into mere consumers with only meager access to the creative potential of the digital network—is the rampant growth of mobile technology.

The paper, titled “The Emerging Mobile Internet Underclass,” by Philip Napoli of Rutgers and Jonathan Obar of the University of Ontario, opens with a surprising observation from Sergey Brin, co-founder of Google.

In a 2013 TED talk, Brin said he found his smartphone “emasculating.”

The argument is that though limber and endlessly convenient, mobile technology offers dramatically inferior Internet access to that available through PCs: slower speeds, reduced functionality, far less content availability (as of 2012 only an estimated 10 percent of the Web was mobile-ready.) Continue reading

The sliming of George Zimmerman

If it had happened to anybody but George Zimmerman, more people might have cared. But when your own lawyer calls you America’s most hated man you can’t expect a groundswell of sympathy, even when an immensely powerful broadcaster slimes you.

Zimmerman was the neighborhood watch zealot in Florida who picked a fight the evening of Feb. 26, 2012, with 17-year-old Trayvon Martin, whom he mistook for a prowler. Martin rose to the bait, they fought; Zimmerman shot him dead and claimed self-defense.

Initially police in Sanford, Fla., did nothing, reasoning that the state’s “stand your ground” law authorized Zimmerman to shoot rather than back off the confrontation he’d provoked. After a public furor—the town has a legacy of racism, Martin was African-American and Zimmerman isn’t—he was charged with second-degree murder, only to be acquitted at trial.

I thought the acquittal was preposterous. But my intention here isn’t to rehash the unavenged wrong Zimmerman did. It’s to examine the lesser known wrong that was then done to him—and how it exemplifies the license that U.S. courts have given news media to mangle facts and defame powerless individuals.

On five occasions, NBC and its Miami station WTVJ broadcast excerpts from a recording of Continue reading

As bad as Facebook’s experiment on its members seems, the reality was worse

What’s the worst thing about the news that Facebook hosted what The Atlantic aptly called a “secret mood manipulation experiment,” conducted on 689,000 unwitting members of its network? That’s hard to say. There’s so much bad to choose from.

First, the nature of the experiment: It was cruel. Researchers from Facebook itself, Cornell, and University of California, San Francisco, were looking into whether emotional states could be spread via news shared by online media. That means, without direct personal contact.

The vehicle for this “emotional contagion” was to be Facebook’s News Feed: By tinkering with the feed, researchers altered the balance of positive and negative items people were exposed to. Then, by peeking at the messages that those same people subsequently posted—some 3 million during the week in January 2012 when the experiment was conducted—and categorizing them as positive or negative, the researchers could determine to what degree the members had been influenced.

Not surprisingly, researchers found what they called “experimental evidence for massive-scale contagion via social networks.”

Now, this isn’t a very nice thing to do to people—deliberately goad them into an emotional response just to show that you can. Worse still, half of the lab rats in this exercise were given an overabundance not of joyous news to make them happy, but of stories featuring dreary, gloomy, negative things. That feels very much like what qualifies as intentional infliction of emotional distress.

(Finding evidence that people share such misery, that it constitutes a “contagion,” apparently interests scholars. Why? I can’t imagine. Everybody’s been saddened by dismal news and told others about it. But some social scientists build careers by confirming the obvious.)

Second, not only was this cruel, it was deceptive. The whole appeal of Facebook’s News Feed is that it’s supposed to constitute a filtered selection of news that has been endorsed by the member’s community of “friends.” It’s meant to be what the people you care about seem to care about.

This feed wasn’t that at all. It wasn’t what your friends said was worth knowing. If you attached importance to it because you believed your network of like-minded souls had commended it to your attention, you were being tricked. Other Continue reading

Freed POW Bergdahl is an attractive candidate for scapegoat for a war U.S. public has abandoned

 

No accounting has been demanded for the U.S. wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. The architects of those disasters have shuffled off-stage now to their pensions and honorarias; some occasionally return to the public forum as learned commentators, as if their lethal stupidities of a decade ago now qualify them as experts on the bad choices to come.

Meanwhile the real leaders—Cheney, Bush, Rumsfeld—are hanging back, presumably hoping the next wave of revisionism will restore to them the reputations for wisdom and courage they imagine they deserve. Hey, why not? Their victims are either dead or ignored. Even Nixon was remembered for statesmanship by the time he died.

In this country, we don’t have truth and reconciliation commissions, which elsewhere invite the victims of social calamities to talk publicly, and which try to restore dignity to those who suffered and to lay the seeds for futures in which such debacles won’t recur.

Instead, the engrained U.S. response to catastrophes—such as laying waste to other lands without cause—is to change the channel. In Scarlett O’Hara’s words, “Tomorrow’s another day.” Or as Kinky Friedman put it, “Let Saigons be bygones.”

When the urge for retrospection arises, chances are it won’t be to demand accountability. It’ll be to seek scapegoats. Hence the Bowe Bergdahl affair, an unfolding chapter in how the longest war in U.S. history is being imagined.

Bergdahl was the only U.S. prisoner of war left in Afghanistan. He was freed last month after being held by the Taliban under often harrowing conditions for almost five years. When he was captured he was a 23-year-old private first class (he’s only a sergeant now because he was promoted while in Taliban hands.) Actually, he was a home-schooled grunt from Idaho who had a longing for adventure, a flair for wordplay, and a loathing for the miseries of war.

The initial jubilance surrounding his release quickly subsided. The first buzz-killer was the exchange that freed him, in which five ex-Taliban officials were released from Guantanamo. Obama critics condemned them immediately as “some of the worst outlaws in the U.S. war on terror,” or, as Sen. John McCain declared, “the five biggest murderers in world history,” killers with U.S. blood on their hands.

That’s quite a stretch. Actually three of the five had been in U.S. hands since November 2001 and the other two since Continue reading

On Google, the curse of the Permanent Record, and the right to be forgotten

 

Once, we came of age under the shadow of something called a Permanent Record. Nobody ever actually saw one, but it was a scary thing, and as youngsters we understood we had to keep our own permanent records clean, since any stains on them could do lifelong damage.

Plainly, the idea of an authoritative, ineradicable ledger on individual behavior is a powerful one. Widespread too. You see it in everything from the divine Book of Life to the gift list kept by Santa, who knows if you’ve been naughty or nice.

That permanent record meant somebody was paying attention, which was good, but it was also a brooding and oppressive background presence, since it enabled even trivial sins to curse our futures.

A good thing it was largely mythic. Back then, actual record-keeping was spotty and forgetful, and technology had zero ability to corral the manifold traces that we leave as we make our way through life into some all-knowing compendium.

No longer. Welcome to the digital age. Its mighty search engines have spawned a virtual permanent record for millions of individuals. It’s updated constantly, lasts forever, and is in fulltime public view.

What gets in it and with what prominence—those are mysteries, depending on the alchemy of particular search engines. Generally, it seems, they suck up most anything about someone that was published or resides in Internet-accessible public records. (The search engines don’t scour social media like Twitter and Facebook, yet.)

That means the fraternity house dustup that led to a sleepover in jail, or the rude remark at a political rally, or any of a thousand missteps and embarrassments that in a pre-modern age would have faded into oblivion—the debris of what Justice John Paul Stevens called the “practical obscurity” we used to inhabit—remain vivid, alive and, potentially, toxic.

Hence the importance of last month’s ruling by Europe’s highest court. It authorizes people to demand that links to material that threatens their privacy be scrubbed from search results.

The case involves Google, the California-based colossus that handles roughly 90 percent of Europe’s Internet searches. It was brought by a Spaniard who challenged a link to a 1998 item in a Catalan newspaper about the auction of his home, which was repossessed to pay off debts he owed. He reasoned that the matter had been resolved ages ago and there was no reason people who googled

Continue reading