Better than tough
By Jay Rosen

Sept. 25 — We held a teach-in for journalism students last week. An intellectual vigil, if you will. For the first time since I became a professor, I saw in the faces of students how much they needed us. Events had made them vulnerable to knowledge they hoped we had. Of course we needed them, too. Their hoping most of all.

Too young, during the 60s I never went to a campus teach-in. But I read of them, and why they happened. When events got too big, you couldn’t teach about anything else. Here was such an event. So we got a room, collected the faculty, printed our posters and went forward into cultural memory. "Sixties, don’t fail me," I remember thinking, yet only for a moment.

In one of the first comments, a young woman said she wondered if she has what it takes to be a reporter. All she wanted to do on September 11th was stay in bed and hide. Because she couldn’t bring herself to head for Ground Zero, she began to ask: could I ever be a real journalist?

Of all forms of courage a good journalist needs, the willingness to place yourself in danger has a small part. I’m grateful there will always be reporters and photographers who do that; and when a correspondent is hurt or killed trying to cover the news, the story is of heroic sacrifice. But most of the time, for most in the press, intellectual courage is demanded most.

Look, I wanted to say, you are present and vulnerable today, which can take even more guts. Your career begins now. Here you sit, eyes open, pencil drawn. And outside the auditorium is that massive thing: the reality of the event. Now is when you’ll need your bravery and poise, in achieving an education when there’s too much reality landing. "Firemen Rule," reads a sign hung outside an NYU dorm on 14th Street. And I can see why for students it is so.

I wanted to tell her there’s time to grow the tough hide of a "real" journalist — if that is what you want. I hope you want better than tough. So often a hard-bitten pose conceals a soft and sentimental core, but in the tense times to come we cannot afford that. Better to be tough, determined and democratic in your core. Then you can be bruise-able, teachable, impressionable on the outside. As someone at the teach in said: "I wouldn’t trust a journalist who didn’t break down last week."


Easy Target, Big City
By Jay Rosen

Sept. 19 — Intuitively we know that a great city is not just an urban landscape, an exterior thing like its buildings seem to be. The important landscape is interior. Half the reason people come to New York is to experience the soaring height of Manhattan inside themselves, in their personal ambitions, their chances in life.

There is no point in moving here unless you seek an enlargement of some inner sense of self. Walk across the Brooklyn Bridge to Manhattan and be able to say, "I live here now." You'll know instantly what I mean. Millions of us did that, got bigger. Now we don't know what that enlargement means. We do know the bridge walk has changed forever and become a darker thing. Once, the Twin Towers dominated that view.

Hopes impossibly high but real enough are the very essence of what it means to live amid very tall buildings, especially for those who came to the Big City from provinces beyond. We knew we were lucky. We knew we had this big thing inside, replacing the smaller one our hometowns were. We knew we could fail, go back defeated, but it would only be a personal failure: can't make it there. We never thought the high canyons above would get hit and crash into rubble and dust. But it happened. Now we are to dream the Big City dream all over again, with new information.


Early on in this crisis, I became aware that people writing from certain cities had a special feel for the destruction in New York. Call it a civic emotion, globally shared. Europe's international cities, like London, Paris, and Berlin are the most obvious examples in my compass, but maybe Hong Kong and Tokyo are in there, too.

The one I know the most about, because I have visited recently, is Amsterdam. Like New York, an international city, with an amazing interracial poly-cultural mix. Like New York, an irreplaceable cultural capital. People on the streets of one fit perfectly on the streets of the other. Both are known for tolerance, for vice. And of course there's our mysterious bond with a city that was New Amsterdam long before it was New York.

Because we have the Internet, I know people there are having a hard time since September 11, like everyone else but in their own anguished way. Perhaps they feel the inner collapse that would follow from an equivalent attack. Dam Square and the nearby Palace are rubble, but there's still the life you wanted in Amsterdam to be lived. The Eiffel Tower is taken down, but there's still Paris the great capital and after all it is your home. The British Parliament and Buckingham Palace are blown apart, but traders in the City of London have to go to work and trade. In Rome, the ancient Coliseum really is in ruins. In San Francisco the Golden Gate is gone from view. Fill in the rest for me, because I know you can.

What shall we call the politics that will save us from any of that? Do you think it can be found somewhere in your prior categories? Take every monumental city you know around the globe, and see it as a collection of targets. Now tell me your aim is still steady after that.


Shifting Politics
By Jay Rosen

Sept. 19 — Normally I am a political writer, or let's say I try. But things are not normal, and neither am I. You cannot declare that nothing will ever be the same again and then exempt your own mind. If those Towers could collapse, why not the categories where we try to make sense of politics? I stopped making sense of things through left and right the moment I saw for myself that New York City's skyline was burning from the top, the moment (which took only minutes) that I realized why. Before, it was at least conceivable in public imagination that a fire could consume a skyscraper. But not the fall of the World Trade Center from an airborne attack by hidden enemies of your people. There were no categories for that, no public and political space where it stood imagined by some that United States Air Force fighter jets, ready to kill, would soon be flying over Times Square if we don't wake up and.... Ask anyone who was there and looked up: this came out of the blue. Down went the twin pillars of the skyline, and all my public categories fell. I'm not thinking about politics proper yet. I am thinking about saving other cities from the terrible thing that happened to mine. Whichever party in politics can do that — left, right, middle, or parties undreamed, coalitions uncounted — that is the politics I am prepared to believe in now. For the moment. And I suspect many others feel this way too.


Reporting Live, from a Rupture
By Jay Rosen

Sept. 16 — "Collapsed" is not the right word for what happened to the twin towers; they were somehow turned to dust. Steel beams, glass window panes, cement and gypsum board made those dark surging clouds you’ve seen on television replays. Engineers are starting to explain how. But what engineer can explain dust that was steel and must now have in it human DNA? That is one thing I think about.

Last night I made a friend show me how he downloads video from the Web. I felt ready to watch the Towers go down again and again. Hannah Arendt says somewhere in her writings: "The struggle to believe the evidence of our senses is at the root of all moral life." Show me how to download video so I can begin.

I think about ecstasy. The ecstasy of that half-trained pilot as he approached the moment of impact, and his instant transport to heaven. What time means for me, time did not mean for him. This much I know: there’s a deep rupture there. We call him a suicide; they call him a martyr.

There is too much optimism in this language, which relies on our power to name things and thus define their sense. The struggle to believe the evidence of our senses is a struggle with the lie of language, which cannot hold September eleventh s evidence or make it available to the human mind. When I reflect on that I would sooner have poets bring me the news.

Think about this, because as a professor of journalism I have: There were more people killed in one hour this week than in all the news stories from all those years of trouble in Northern Ireland. The time scale of one is incommensurate with the time scale of the other, although both are held to be "news." You can have funerals with bodies in Belfast and Gaza. We will have our funerals in New York, but most of the bodies are somewhere in that surging cloud I’ll watch again and again on video.

Television reporters do what they can within the word games they have mastered, but their subject exceeds their sense. You cannot report on a rupture in time; you can only stand near the scene and report right into it. Candlelight vigils are silent for a reason. And there is a good moral sense in the three minutes of silence the people of The Netherlands observed this week. They said it all.

Soon workers will be sweeping up the dust in lower Manhattan. The traffic will return; pedestrians will walk the streets again. And the struggle to believe our senses will enter a new phase. But when tomorrow’s news from New York tells of the city getting back to normal, hold on to your doubts and imagine a poet with a microphone reporting live from a rupture.


Explaining to Sylvie
By Jay Rosen

Sept. 13 — Large candlelight vigil last night in Washington Square Park, possibly the gentlest event ever held there. I grab my wife and daughter, and we take our candles to be with the other candles. Hoisting Sylvie on my shoulders, I slowly walk her and her four years around the great circular fountain in the middle. Normally filthy, the fountain tonight is shining, a big ring of light reflected in the faces. Many are NYU students, and as one of their professors I make a mental note of that.

Around the fountain father and daughter walk, stepping carefully by the faithful seated on the ground in circles, some singing, most talking quietly or just being there, with the candles. "This land is your land, this land is my land," say the soft voices. I notice more women singing than men. Or does it just sound that way? "From California to the New York island..." Sylvie is up high and can see everything. So I tell myself.

Actually, I want everything to see her.

Two days ago, you could spot the Twin Towers from Washington Square Park, and that's where I stood Tuesday morning to watch them burn. "Why are there so many candles?" Sylvie asks. I tell her: many candles, just one light. People are laying flowers down, too. Not in any particular place, just around the park. The more people there are, the quieter it gets. Guess that's the vigil part.

We don't stay long because it's her bedtime. I'm not worried about what she will ask her mother tonight. Working silently over 24 hours, her mother has found a way to tell the truth of what happened, one we can in good conscience share with a four year-old. Last week Sylvie had stumped her parents and several doctors when she asked, "How does your heart know to beat?" Tonight my wife is ready. To the "why" question she will say: "Sylvie, there are people who are makers, and there are people who are breakers."

From there we know it's easy. The breakers took over those planes and crashed them into the Twin Towers. Of course this is a parents' trick. To her "why" we answer with our what. But I'm satisfied for now. When she gets to "why are there breakers?" her answers will be as good as ours, and that's a good place to be. So was the ring of little lights in Washington Square Park. It made me think we shouldn't underestimate the power of human meekness.


"Children are pre-political," Hannah Arendt once wrote. Listening to the story of the makers and the breakers, I'm not sure she was right. I do know this: I am so proud of my wife for thinking it up. At least we're back in the same narrative universe with Sylvie, after TV's promiscuity with images had busted our trio up. A picture is worth a thousand words, people say, even this late in the media age.

It's true. It will take a thousand words to undo every picture Sylvie saw. The winds had shifted and the smoke from Ground Zero was blown out to sea. Last night was not just beautiful, but New York beautiful. And I feel good that we have a story for my daughter. "Hey, Sylvie," I say when we get back to our own building. "What if after they clean up the big pile of junk from the Twin Towers, they make a park with a playground there? Wouldn't that be great?"

I wish I could tell you she smiled.


Does Anybody Really Know What Time It Is?
By Jay Rosen

Sept. 12, evening — Everyone who was here will tell you about this monumental quiet, and the dignified calm. But what accounts for it? Are New Yorkers walking around Washington Square right now, and strolling smoky streets where only emergency vehicles go, walking slow and calm because to be fully alive to what happened is too much — and they'd be driven mad? Or are they calm precisely because they're alive to the historical magnitude of the event, know what to do despite the horror of it, and therefore can't be driven mad? Is today's calm our civic mask, or the very toughness of our civic wisdom?

Neither, I think. We can be relatively cool today because we are (relatively) all on the same page in time. This cannot be said for our attackers. We measure historical time by a more immediate metric: the human life. Your uncle's life, your friends' life, your own. This is not the only metric available to the human mind, and when people say we're in a war between rival systems or civilizations this is part of what they mean.

In some way we admit to not comprehending that the suicide bomber is saved rather than destroyed by killing himself. But can we comprehend this other way culturally? The people of this rival civilization, if it really exists, may be measuring their time in centuries. That's why you bomb New York: to regain Jerusalem for the ages. To some, the towers went down in the same narrative space as the Hebrew Temple in 70 AD. We cannot, as we say, get our minds around this.

They are on another clock entirely, which means they assign different meaning to yesterday's loss of human life. Their understanding took aim at ours, and hit the center.

But when I turn on my television set, the narrative space shown me cannot hold the possibility that the attack also occurred on a different historical clock, alien to ours. The news has room for only one clock, one grammar in time. And here we meet with the limits of America's civic wisdom. For what the news cannot "hold," the nation cannot behold. On TV, it's still one trusty frame for time. Right now on Manhattan's streets, the ruined air tells of two.


New Yorkers' Democratic Symbols
By Jay Rosen

Sept. 12, afternoon — I can't agree with the claim that the towers were symbols of financial might, but not democracy. Maybe across the ocean or in left-wing critique the World Trade Center meant commerce, capital, and markets triumphant. In New York we knew about all that, but here The Twins were democratic symbols too, simply because of where they stood. They were on a ground we know to be fragile, over a delicate social peace we preserve because we're natural democrats: the subway car kind.

My four year-old daughter Sylvie asked her mother if maybe they could be "fixed." My wife said she didn't think so. Now our common sky is ripped and smoking from the crash of someone's public demons. The disaster we knew how to prevent ourselves fell upon us from above. We'd imagined it, a million times. But then everyone here agrees: we could never imagine this.


Destroying Liberals' Fragile Landscape
By Jay Rosen

Sept. 12, morning — An enormous act of hate slammed into my sky yesterday, and of all things big in this biggest event, it's hate that stands out for me today.

New York is a great city because it is a liberal city, and also big, strong, powerful. Liberalism breeds the dynamism that holds people here — liberalism and and the skyline. People know how to hate in New York, and they do. But they also know that they have not yet figured out how to live with hate. Besides, no one hates the skyline.

Here we understand in minute precision that to live is also to "let live." The density of our environment tells us to maintain that saving space between ourselves and the private demons of others. Two of us can be a quarter inch apart, or touching, and still preserve each other's space. This happens on a packed subway car every morning, but the subways only work because our liberalism does.

Wanna live? Then let live. In New York, that's survival. We don't need posters or candidates to tell us about it. For we're aware of the power that one crazy has to wreck a thousand lives, and aware that he's only inches away, in those undisturbed demons.

If the fragility of the social peace is one, the fragility of the city systems is the other reason we're liberals. To live here, especially in Manhattan, is to live inches away from total urban crisis all the time. One transformer, one water tunnel, one gas main, or just one president visiting the UN and everything goes, all order is lost, the thing comes apart and Manhattan no longer "works." That's why it holds such a powerful place in the imagination of disaster, in movies like King Kong and Independence Day. It's so easy to imagine New York's destruction. Trust me, we do that all the time.

When those airplanes tore a hole in our skyline, they overturned the mental furniture of the cosmopolitan mind. Today, we have to begin the grim work of understanding that liberalism itself is hated.


Hidden Ways Time Can End
By Jay Rosen

Sept. 11 — The Twin Towers, as every New York kid called them, were part of the stable world of my daughter, Sylvie — only four and too young to know where she is on the map. Except when she saw those Towers. In some way I can't explain, I felt proud of the city when it was able to orient my little girl. So I ran home to explain to her, but television already had. New York will never be the same for us now, for anyone who loved it the way it was: proud, tall, unconquerable.

It seems time is more flexible than we thought. There are so many hidden ways it can end. Terrorism, we all intuitively understand, is not about the explosion, or even the dead. It is an act of communication; it traffics in symbols. In the miserable cliche of the media age, the terrorist wants to "send a message." The medium is not the bomb, or the plane, or the television set. It's your own mind, which "conducts" the terror. It is impossible to overstate the psychological effect today's events will have on the people of New York, even beyond the immense loss of life, and utter chaos downtown. The Towers were a symbol of the city, of course. But so is the humble bagel a "symbol" of New York.

Far more than that, the Towers over-awed us. Secular totems for a secular world, they were all about the might, power, richness and unlimited confidence of the civilization that gave rise to them. In other words, they were like religious sites. No matter how close you were to the Towers, even directly underneath them on the broad plaza at ground level, the buildings looked very far away, twin abstractions against the sky. They were almost ineffable in that way. They had no depth, like the blue in the sky has no depth. It was not possible to feel close to them. I'm not sure anyone ever loved them. But did we have confidence in them?

We did, we did.


Jay Rosen chairs the Department of Journalism at NYU. This article is excerpted from comments posted to the public forum on Blue Ear, a site that showcases "global writing worth reading."