DETROIT -- I was standing on the 10th floor terrace of One World Trade Center on Sunday morning reporting the comings and goings of New York on the 10th anniversary of the 9/11 massacre.
The scene was as odd as it was asinine: television reporters from a hundred news outlets yammering empty sentiments about a national day of healing. Karl Rove walked by. I asked him to sign my boots. He was, I think, wearing makeup. He laughed but never signed.
Then I was live. My colleague Deena Centofanti back in the Southfield studios of FOX 2 asked me a question I could not answer, so profound it was in its simplicity.
“What have you told your own daughter about this?”
It is important to say, I covered New York and Ground Zero for a year during that dark, sad, dreary aftermath a decade ago. During that time, I asked a dozen widows that very same question.
And now when I was asked in 2011, I realized I have never explained it to my five-year-old, even when she watched with me as television ran a loop of the collapsing towers on the occasion of the killing of Osama Bin Laden.
“I don’t know.” That’s what your reporter came up with. Then I said some empty words and my five minutes were up.
Standing there, in the shadow of the new tower, the reflecting pools, the construction cranes, I tried to remember the words E.B. White wrote more than a half-century ago about New York City:
“The city, for the first time in its long history, is destructible. A single flight of planes no bigger than a wedge of geese can quickly end this island fantasy, burn the towers, crumble the bridges, turn the underground passages into lethal chambers, cremate the millions. The intimation of mortality is part of New York now; in the sounds of jets overhead, in the black headlines of the latest editions.
“All dwellers in cities must live with the stubborn fact of annihilation; in New York the fact is somewhat more concentrated because of the concentration of the city itself, and because, of all targets, New York has a certain clear priority. In the mind of whatever perverted dreamer might loose the lightning, New York must hold a steady, irresistible charm.”
That was 1947.
A New Yorker named Chris, a FOX technician, was standing off camera. He was weeping. I stepped off the platform and hugged him. Then I packed my gear, deposited it at my hotel and went and got good and drunk with the firefighters.
Home now in Detroit, I’m still thinking about Deena’s question. I’ve settled on this. This is what I would tell my daughter:
There are a few bad men who will kill. And all men are selfish. But the good men defeat the selfish impulse and get on with the difficult job of raising a family and going to work. The best of these men are able to find time to do something good for someone other than themselves.
And standing here in the Detroit moonscape, once the center of American economic might, I think about E.B. White and his prescient words: “All dwellers in cities must live with the stubborn fact of annihilation.”
What will I tell my daughter about what happened here in Detroit? She sees the tumbledown buildings and the annihilated factories and asks me why no one loves them. What can I tell her? No airplane struck here. No atomic bomb.
I will tell her it was because of selfish men. The shorthand we use here in Metro Detroit is: They.
You know They. They ruined the city. They ruined the car companies. They looted the city coffers. They are lazy. They stole my tires.
They, of course, could be anybody. It depends on what side of things you stand. They could be black or white. They could be blue- or white-collar. They could be the political class or the billionaire businessmen or the union bosses.
I will tell my daughter she should be committed to fixing things instead of complaining about them. I will tell my daughter she should endeavor to help her neighbor, not hurt him.
I will tell my daughter she shouldn’t care a spit about They. I will tell my daughter she should instead embrace the We.