"Substitute for Love"
Former Foreign Editor, The New York Times
Northwestern University "Literature of Fact" Lecture Series
March 4, 2002
I had just dropped my son at school in Brooklyn that perfect morning when a stranger remarked: "Look, the World Trade Center's on fire". Gazing up through the windshield of my car, I saw dense gray smoke billowing from the top of the North Tower. Across the East River, already, thousands of papers were fluttering like so many pale and playful birds unmindful that this luminous fall morning had turned baleful. Shortly afterward, the air was shaken by a tremendous explosion palpable even in Brooklyn Heights.
A reporter's instinct is to move toward the scene. Abandoning the car on a side street, I ran down to the Brooklyn Promenade which offered an unobstructed view of the horror: the two towers now burning, the smoke thickening into a churning cloud, the office papers from this or that brokerage circling downward onto Long Island to deposit fragile testimony of a lost world. In the subway, a few minutes later, in what I believe was the last subway that ran and that took me to Times Square, people were already sobbing, asking about the whereabouts of friends or family, asking what had happened to America as sanctuary.
"Only connect," said E.M. Forster. When bearings are lost, when the ground shifts suddenly, it becomes more difficult to heed this admonition. But it also becomes more important. We must make sense of things and we cannot make sense of things in a void. As it happens, September 11, 2001, was also the day that I took charge of the Foreign Desk at The New York Times after more than two decades spent working as a foreign correspondent. I emerged from the subway into emptying midtown streets full of menace beneath that now-too-perfect sky. The breeze was blowing smoke away from the city. The unsullied blue above much of Manhattan had become a form of mockery.
So began weeks and months of intense newspaper work. The wonder of foreign correspondence lies in the freedom it affords to give voice to your passions. Oh, the heady air of some new place, the smells, the scenes, the signals - all yours to compose a canvas. The wonder of editing lies elsewhere, in the daily miracle that diverse but coordinated talents can produce. The connection, for me, although not always easy to discern, lies in the essential creativity of the effort. In difficult moments, I have clung to that thought.
The story, at first, was above all the story of the city. So we were observers and protagonists. The passage from the newsroom, where adrenaline did its work, to the streets, where pain held dull sway, could be devastating. One night, emerging from the office, I felt I had walked into a granite wall of accumulated despair and could not retain my grief. A woman, searching for her lost husband, had tacked to a wall the image of her last ultrasound showing an unborn child who would now be fatherless. I wondered at such damage to the womb. This was wanton murder, the work of madmen, but as history teaches us, madmen can also be persuasive and effective.
One of them, Stalin, once remarked that if one dead was a murder, a million dead was a mere statistic. No doubt this observation offers a clue as to why the "Portraits of Grief" in The Times had such an impact. They reminded readers that each of those more than 3,000 deaths on September 11 ended a particular life. Those particular lives form patterns in which we journalists may discern and evoke the lineaments of history.
History, it has been said, happens, but only just. It moves in strange patterns. For example, it is a fact with which my family will live that the birthday of my four-year-old daughter, Adele, is September 11. When asked the date of her birth, she now replies matter-of-factly: "September 11, the day the twin towers came down." This sometimes causes a touch of awkwardness among friends.
Adele is the granddaughter of a woman named Amalia, who was born into a Jewish family in Krakow, Poland, on September 1, 1933. That date, too, proved fateful. It was of course precisely six years later, on September 1, 1939, that Hitler's Nazi army swept into Poland, igniting World War 11.
Amalia, a child a little older than Adele is today, was plunged into the hell that followed. Dozens of her relatives, inclulding her own mother, were annihilated by the Nazis in their determination to rid Europe of its Jews. Near Krakow, as you know, lay the principal extermination center, Auschwitz-Birkenau, where mass murder, made part of a production-line process inspired by the methods of modern industry, was perfected by German executioners. Through her own ingenuity - moving from place to place, changing her name to Helena Kowalska, laboring on a farm - the child Amalia evaded this killing machine even as virtually her entire family succumbed to it. In 1948, after some years in a Jewish orphanage, she was at last reunited with her father, who had left for Brazil just before the war in the hope of finding work and then bringing his family to safety. He did find work. But the family of the girl that stepped ashore in Rio de Janeiro had been turned to ashes.
Between Amalia, the child of Sepember one, and Adele, my child of September one one, stands Frida, my wife, the bridge between children of war. She is a sculptor. Her creations in wire and metal and glass and stone are often marked by a gravity-defying quality of tangled lightness, forms seemingly set free of linear constraints, disorienting things of unfathomable energy that question our place in space and so our place in time. With Frida I once visited Auschwitz, the place from which nobody was supposed to return with a story to tell.
The Jewish victims went there with their suitcases and their shaving brushes and their toothbrushes and their nail brushes and even brushes for their shoes: they expected to live because hope - hope against hope - is a devilishly persistent thing. They also brought their spectacles. And there, piled in a mountain of tangled wire, were the glasses the corpses left behind. Seeing them was troubling, for the eerie resemblance of this chaos of wire to some of Frida's work was overwhelming. We were silenced by what we saw.
It is of such moments that I wish to speak today. The moment in which a current passes, in which connections are made, in which a deeper truth murmurs. Nobody, as I have said, was supposed to return from that death camp with a story. Yet a message of sorts had passed from Amalia's murdered mother through Amalia to her daughter Frida.
Art is distilled truth. When we come closest to the distillation of the truth we observe, we come closest to a journalism that has the resonance of artistic creation. Let me be clear: journalism deals in facts. Art selects facts, shapes them, changes them, in the quest for a higher truth. That distinction must never be blurred. So the term "literary journalism" is problematic; it may even suggest an oxymoron to some. But its meaning to me resides in the notion of so marrying patient observation, the discipline of form and attention to the revelations of silence that the resultant journalism assumes the ineffable glow we associate with genuine creation. Journalism, like art, involves the refraction of life through the prism of a single human sensibility.
Joseph Brodsky once wrote: "If there is any substitute for love, it's memory. To memorize, then, is to restore intimacy." I like that. Through our memory of what we see and hear, we restore intimacy. We work at the restoration of intimacy; we work to put readers at the scene; we work to spread clarity. When we do so with transcendent power -- marshalling observation, sensitivity and lucidity -- we do indeed come close to an act of love. At such moments the facts alone, gathered into what we call a story, offer no adequate explanation of the impact of the assembled words. Something has happened, some alchemy that, as in love, escapes dissection.
Almost two decades ago, I was in Beirut, shortly after the U.S. Marines were attacked. The city was already tired of war but much war awaited it still. I would watch street vendors beside the buildings blasted to rubble build elaborate constructions of the smuggled cigarettes packets they sold and wonder at such painstaking effort in a place so undone. But of course, even in war, people make things, people take their children to school, people love each other and make love to each other. One night, I sat in an almost deserted West Beirut where I overheard, and later wrote down, this conversation:
"You know, living in Beirut is wonderful," she said. "I want to tell you why. You have an excuse for everything because you might die tomorrow."
"Who needs excuses?" he said.
They fell silent. The restaurant fell silent. To me, this exchange captured all the heady desperation of Beirut, a city destroyed, yes, but also a city with an indelible soul, open and touched with wildness. I felt a real excitement, a quickening, in the stillness of that restaurant, as when you climb onto a long glimpsed but long elusive ridge and see at last the terrain laid out before you. Sometimes a glance, a few words, a gesture will make sense of and give form to myriad impressions. Seize that moment.
Later, I wrote of the small boys wandering around Beirut with .22-caliber rifles and the residents telling me not to worry because they were just out shooting birds. And I offered this description of Beirut:
"Ten years of war is too long for any soldier," says a Maronite militiaman. "I'm just running out of adrenaline."
He pulls on his flak jacket as he begins the drive from his barracks to Sultan Brahim's restaurant on the East Beirut seafront. As usual, the night is punctuated with the sound of shelling.
"Last night, a mortar shell fell close to here," he says, pointing to a sandbagged, but unmanned, army checkpoint. "There is the Lebanese army for you: absent."
The dominant feelings amid the ruins of Beirut aren't fear and hatred, but fatigue and resignation. "You have to survive," a banker says. "You have to say, 'Those shells aren't for me.' On that basis you can go on."
People go on, all right. This is Saturday night, a time for enjoyment. Sultan Brahim's parking lost is full of cars. Diners choose from giant prawns, mackerel, red mullet and sea bream, glistening on a bed of ice. To accompany them, there is arrack, a Pernod-like drink - "distilled three times from pure grapes in the Bekaa Valley," the lebale says. The restaurant is packed, the atmosphere sultry.
"People are thirsty to be happy," says the Maronite militiaman.
When the meal at Sultan Brahim's end, the half-forgotten sounds of war are heard again. Soon the war weariness returns.
"There was a bomb," somebody says. "But it sounded like a normal downtown bomb."
Eighteen years later, I can see a thing or two I might wish to change in that passage. But what I like is the detailed, sometimes surprising, evocation of place. I particularly like the phrase about people being "thirsty" for happiness: it is possible to say a lot in a single word.
Between Beirut and Sarajevo, more than a decade passed. There, in the summer of 1995, more than three years into the siege, I wrote:
It has been 38 months now, and time passes slowly here. After the shelling there is a silence so deep it amounts to a prolonged hush. Little stirs. People tend the vegetable gardens that are now as ubiquitous as cemeteries.
Some run across areas exposed to sniper fire; others make a point of not changing their pace. If you run, the saying goes, you hit the bullet. If you walk, the bullet hits you.
When the shelling resumes, gravediggers find temporary shelter in the graves they are preparing. The smash of a shell takes the breath away. What follows is exhaustion.
Inside, people burn books to heat stoves to cook the rabbits they have raises in cages in their bedrooms. If there are no books to burn, they try plastic bottles (highly flammable), stockings (surprisingly combustible), or shoes (good, solid value once a fire is going).
Children, forbidden to go outside, bicycle maniacally from one room to another.
There is no future, because no plans can be made. There is no past, because a normal life in the city is now so infinitely distant as to appear unreal. There is only today. There is only, in fact, this moment, because a Sarajevan life may be extinguished at any instant.
"Virtually everybody here now has some form of post-traumatic stress," said Dr. Ceric, who heads the department where Dr. Karadzic used to work in Sarajevo.
"It takes two forms," he said. "The first is anxiety, shortness of breath, a sense of strangulation and, in extreme cases, delusions and paranoia. The second is extreme inertia, flatness and a denial that anything is happening."
Darko Sljivic is calm. He lives in the western suburb of Dobrinja, where Serbian shelling of people lining up for water has killed nine people in the last two weeks.
From his balcony, he can see the front line, about 100 yards away, and beyond that, in Serbian-held territory, his son's former school. Every now and again, the building is sprayed with machine-gun fire.
Before the war he was a bank executive. Now he sips plum brandy, grows vegetables and contemplates the devastation around him."
I was angry at that time. Angry at Western leaders, and expecially the American president, for making believe that Bosnia was some intractable 1,000-year-old tribal conflict about which nothing could be done. In the banker Sljivic, who later told me about the 30 rabbits he was raising in an abandoned room too exposed to fire, I found a man whose story told much about the steady degradation of a European city. On that balcony with Sljivic - "a half-Serb fired on by the Serbs who used to be his neighbors and friends, a well-traveled international banker who now reluctant to go downtown" - a current passed. A few months later, at last, NATO bombed the encircling Serbian positions and the siege of Sarajevo was lifted.
Looking back now, I see many people who, like Sljivic, opened doors for me. A Brazilian murderer in the most crowded prison in the world, a German burgher fretting that his little boy's birthday happens to be the same as Hitler's, a Turkish immigrant in Denmark explaining her alienation. What exactly did they open up? In the first instance, their psychology. But through this, much more: a sense of the psychological composition of a situation and an insight into its roots. With them, for a moment at least, I experienced something I can only call revelation.
If I were a novelist, I would have arranged and adjusted these deeper truths in a certain way, perhaps taking the attributes of Sljivic and merging them with those of someone else to create a character. As a journalist, I have striven to set the truths down, but of course they are the truths that impressed me as most revelatory. Let us not fool ourselves about objectivity. Yes, we must strive for a balanced picture. But a sensibility is always at work in journalism and that is as it should be. In great journalism, a voice is ever discernible. So be true to yourselves as you seek to reveal to Americans this world shaken by September 11.
Has September 11 changed what we do? It has certainly opened American eyes to many things: the dangers of self-absorption (particularly acute in the wildly prosperous '90s), the antagonism in parts of the world toward this great power, the pockets of outright hatred, the need to understand what is happening beyond American shores. In this light, foreign correspondence has never appeared more essential. I believe it should be pursued in the same essential manner: going out, looking, listening, probing, feeling, analyzing, searching in present and past, in an attempt to paint in words the most truthful, the most profound, the most revealing of pictures.
That, of course, is precisely what Danny Pearl of The Wall Street was doing in Pakistan, and here we come to what has changed. When I was in Beirut in the 1980s, I went to get a press pass from Hezbollah, the radical Shiite group. I was greeted by a bearded man in military fatigues who sat at a desk with a Kalashnikov on it. He took a look at my passport and noted that "Cohen" was a well-known name to him. Oh, I ventured, how interesting. Yes, he continued, a well-known name and not a much appreciated one because a certain "Cohen" had recently been captured in Damascus where he had been working as an Israeli spy. Oh, I ventured, really. And, you he inquired, looking straight into my eyes, are a journalist? Yes, I said, a journalist and my name is Cohen. We stared at each for some time. Then he reached into his drawer and provided me with my pass.
I needed that pass to cover Beirut, where Hezbollah was already a growing presence. Pearl needed the contacts he sought to make in Karachi to write about the radicalism driving terrorists. I was allowed to do my job; he was not. His last words, before his throat was cut, were: "Yes, I am a Jew and my mother is a Jew." He was, it seems to me, the 3,064th victim of September 11.
In my professional life, I have alas lost several colleagues and friends. But never previously, to my knowledge, has a journalist been executed for the "crime" of being an American and a Jew. Our profession, it seems, has become more dangerous. But if we shrink from it, the cost will be extremely high, for the possibility of mutual understanding will further recede.
I am sure of that and I remember this: after the towers fell, the fires burned. They burned for months, fed by the molten steel buried deep. In the smoke was human flesh. For a long time, the acrid-sweet smell below Canal Street, and in certain winds in midtown, too, gave me the feeling of knowing what the air around the crematoria of Auschwitz-Birkenau had been like. Perhaps I imagined this; perhaps not. It hardly seems to matter.
At Ground Zero, for many weeks, stood a jagged steel form that had plunged from the top of a tower and embedded itself. Its sculptural power, as an expression of violence, was irrefutable and mysterious.
Those dates, that steel, these words: "Yes, I am a Jew and my mother is a Jew." September 1, September 11: Amalia, the bereaved child; Frida, the sculptor; Adele, blithe and beautiful, wrapped still in her innocence.
When we write, we explore. That is our challenge and our singular joy. Yes, a perfect sentence is an act of love, its satisfactions as complete and mysterious. I know that now more than ever.
Copyright 2002. Roger Cohen. All rights reserved.