When Bob Dylan appeared in the Madison Square Garden lights on November 20, 2001 the roar from the crowd was stupendous. When he sang the line “I’m going back to New York City/I do believe I’ve had enough,” from “Tom Thumb’s Blues” it was even louder. Whether Dylan meant this as an affirmation of New York’s power, its durability, or just as a lyric in a song, the crowd heard it as all of that and more. After the show, my friend A. and I drank several beers at a bar across the street from the Garden that was filled with cops and firefighters playing darts and talking sports. It was a little more than two months after 9/11. The city was still in shock and the nation was at war. Cops and firefighters were still the heroes of the hour, some deservedly and others not so much. The album called Love and Theft that Bob Dylan had released on that fateful day was near the top of the charts. Lots of meanings were being derived from the songs therein. Other meanings were being derived from a memoir released that same day. Many of those meanings were not as kind or thoughtful. Indeed, they allowed those unwilling to leave the ideological closets the right wing wants us all to enter to stay in those closets.
That memoir was titled Fugitive Days and was written by former Weather Underground member Bill Ayers. It would become the fodder for a fight by the fascist right to put us all under their boot. It was a fight that would be joined by cowering liberals and Democrats across the country. The targets were the gains made by blacks, Latinos, women, gays and others during the 1960s. It was the anti-imperialist understanding brought about by years of opposing the US war on Vietnam. In his memoir, Bill Ayers did not express the proper type of regret. Indeed, instead of regretting the actions of the Weather Underground and other militants in the antiwar movement of the Sixties, Ayers regretted that these folks did not do more to stop the US aggression in southeast Asia.
Very few New Yorkers in Manhattan had a chance to read the New York Times review of that book that day. Most may have been on their second cup of coffee when the planes begin flying into the Towers. If they were reading anything, it was a newspaper front page, their morning emails or a sports section. I was getting ready to go back to Vermont after spending a couple days and nights with my friend A. My secondary (and somewhat ironic) reason for visiting Manhattan had been to speak about the history and meaning of political violence as practiced by those opposed to the state. After kissing A. goodbye before she caught the bus for her job near Canal Street, I packed my bag, left her a note and headed out the door of her apartment building. She lived between 9th and 10th Avenue. As I approached the corner of 9th Ave., I noticed a rather large crowd of people looking south. Naturally, my head turned that way, too. There was a plane stuck in the tower and smoke was billowing forth.
While my mind attempted to assimilate what I was seeing, another plane crashed into the other tower. An African-American guy that always hung out this corner listening to his boom box and asking for change said it all: “Holy shit!” The crowd concurred. I figured that I would not be leaving Manhattan that day. I returned to A’s apartment and called the airlines. All flights canceled. I returned to the corner just in time to see the first tower collapse.
I walked east toward a Radio Shack store. My plan was to buy a small transistor radio and walk south listening to the news as I walked. Every single bar and restaurant along the street had set their television either on the sidewalk or in the front window and were broadcasting the unfolding events. People walked by curious, shocked and scared. I went into the second bar and ordered a beer. I needed time to think about this. The sound of sirens was now everywhere. Schoolbuses filled with soldiers and cops were parking on 23rd Street, their passengers emptying out, receiving orders from their commanders and assuming various positions around the city. While I waited for the beer, the second tower collapsed on the television and several blocks south from where I was.
A man dressed in several layers of clothing stood in the doorway and repeated that it was not the end of the world. The Lord, he said, was giving us another chance to get along. The bartender said fuck getting along, he wanted revenge. I agreed with the guy in the doorway but said nothing. I asked the bartender for some food and he called back into the kitchen. Minutes later, he delivered a meatball sub and another beer. The fellow in the doorway had moved on to the next open door. Nobody bothered him and nobody ignored him. New Yorkers were willing to listen to anyone who might explain what was happening in their city.
The sirens were louder and continuous. People from the scene of the destruction were beginning to appear in the Chelsea neighborhood having made their way up from southern Manhattan. None of these folks were saying much and some were visibly distraught. I couldn’t help thinking that this was what the US military had done to to other peoples multiple times just in my lifetime. Of course, I kept that thought to myself, knowing that expressing it was tantamount to asking for a beating. After my second beer I decided to see if I could get into the Port Authority terminal. Maybe I could get a bus out of here by tomorrow. As I walked north, various people walked by. Many were going about their business, but everyone with sight was keeping an eye on the activity south of them.
War was on the horizon. Someone would pay for this mess, even if they weren’t responsible. Bill Ayers and others willing to express their opinions against US imperialism would end up being among them, although they might not see it that way. I finally ran into A. in Washington Square Park. We hugged each other with visible relief and went to buy a beer or two. After wards, we sat in the park listening, talking, watching, and smelling the chemical toxins released by the burning buildings. Eventually, a peace circle was formed and people sang a couple songs. Some frat boys threw epithets and rocks at the circle, demanding an immediate attack on someone, somewhere. Meanwhile, anybody who looked like they hailed from the Middle East or Central Asia made themselves scarce.
By the time I was able to leave Manhattan two days later, the US government was rounding up men from those areas of the world and locking them up. I had to show my ID three times before I boarded the train back to Vermont. I had never shown it once in all of my previous train trips. The police and military presence in Penn Station and on train platforms along the route reminded me of being in West Germany in 1972 during the first round of urban warfare by the Red Army Fraktion.
The roundups continued and an omnibus law that had obviously been sitting somewhere in the national security state’s bureau was passed almost unanimously. That law is known as the PATRIOT Act and did more to restrict human and civil rights in the United States than any other law passed in the previous fifty years. We have grown used to its restrictions, just like we have grown used to wars that never end. To pretend that wars of aggression and false security prevents political attacks on a system designed to dominate the world is more than folly. It is suicidal.
Ron Jacobs is the author of The Way the Wind Blew: a History of the Weather Underground and Short Order Frame Up. Jacobs’ essay on Big Bill Broonzy is featured in CounterPunch’s collection on music, art and sex, Serpents in the Garden. His collection of essays and other musings titled Tripping Through the American Night is now available and his new novel is The Co-Conspirator’s Tale. He can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org