A conversation with the legendary New York newspaperman, whose latest book, Tabloid City, came out last week
Deirdre Hamill/Quest Imagery
Pete Hamill was a block and a half from the World Trade Center when Osama Bin Laden launched his attack on September 11, 2001. Starting that morning, and for the next several weeks, this legendary newspaperman brought the world close to the atrocities and their aftermath.
As President Obama travels to New York to pay his respect to the victims of 9/11, I wanted to talk to Hamill because he understands New York and those days of almost ten years ago as well as anyone. The city fills his acclaimed novels, Snow in August and Forever. His memoir, A Drinking Life, is now a classic New York story. And Hamill's latest book, Tabloid City, published this week, is a thriller about a jihadist plot in Manhattan.
This is also a week in which New York's two tabloid newspapers are expressing (in the way tabloids do) the catharsis that many Americans are feeling. Hours after Navy Seals killed Bin Laden in Pakistan on Sunday night, the Daily News blared, "Rot in Hell." The Post ran with "U.S. Nails the Bastard!" and "Hero Shot 9/11 Monster Above Eye." Pete Hamill knows this style of journalism as well—he was editor of both publications. He began his career, though, as a general assignment reporter, working the nighttime beat at the Post in 1960. And as a journalist, it seems as though Pete Hamill has chronicled almost every major news event of the last 50 years. That includes being an eyewitness to some of our darkest moments—such as when he was walking next to Sen. Robert Kennedy as Sirhan Sirhan gunned the Senator down in 1968, and the autumn morning when he was choking from the dust and smoke from the Twin Towers.
I talked to Pete Hamill from his home in Manhattan. We covered a wide range of topics, starting with the startling news that broke on Sunday night.
Where were you when you learned that we'd killed Osama Bin Laden?
At home. I had been up late, watching the basketball games. I went to bed just before 10:30, and I had a little trouble sleeping. So I got up and turned on the television to see the score, and there was the announcement.
What was your response?
Nothing dramatic. I didn't jump for joy because after 50 years of being a newspaperman, I realize that if you think you know what it's all about at the moment, you're usually wrong. I was also hopeful that nobody would say, "This brings closure."
Don't you think that killing him will help Americans deal with the losses we suffered on 9/11?
If you lost a daughter or son or father or someone at the Trade Center, it will follow you to your grave. You're never going to get rid of it just because somebody shot this asshole in the head.
What did you think about the Daily News' headline, "Rot in Hell"?
I wasn't thrilled by it because bin Laden couldn't see those three words.
But didn't you agree with the sentiment?
It's easy to be a tough guy when no one's going to come knocking on your door. I thought of all those people—the ones who jumped out of windows, the firemen, people running down the jammed hallways trying to get out. I thought more of them—but I'm glad they got bin Laden. I have no sympathy whatsoever for him—he was a tall rich kid who thought God talked to him. He used money he'd never earned to kill people and called it a holy mission.
What were you doing at the World Trade Center on the morning of 9/11?
I was attending a meeting of the Museum of the City of New York in the Tweed Courthouse on Chambers Street, sitting next to the late novelist Louis Auchincloss. We heard this thump and I asked, "What the hell was that?" And Louis said, "It's just the New York soundtrack, Old Boy. Don't worry." But a guy on Courthouse staff came in and announced, "A plane just flew into the Trade Center."
Did you realize we were being attacked?
I thought it was some small plane that had gotten lost in Teterboro or somewhere on this clear, sunny morning. I ran out and by the time I got to Broadway and Chambers Street, a half a block, the second plane hit the South Tower. There was this explosion. I couldn't see the plane because it came up from the south. But I could see the explosion because it went at least a block and a half. It was like something out of a Bruce Willis movie.
And at that point you probably knew it was terrorism.
Yes—and I'm sure everybody else on the street did, too. There were people all around me because smoke was pouring out of the North Tower. People were staring down Chambers Street to see what was happening. There were two words that people were saying over and over and over again: "Oh, shit." "Oh, shit." "Oh, shit." If you had a cartoon version of that moment, there would be these little balloons going up all over the place with "Oh, shit" written in them.
So when did you go to work as a reporter on the story?
Right then, I called my wife, who's a journalist for Japanese newspapers and magazines and writes books. We lived about six or seven blocks uptown, and she came hurrying down. For the next three weeks we covered the story.
Did you start interviewing people?
Well, when the South Tower came down, my wife and I got separated. You might remember that it was the second tower to be hit, but the first one to come down because the impact was in a more vulnerable place. We watched it begin to tip over as if it were going to hit the Millennium Hotel, then it straightened itself out. When it collapsed, it sounded like Valkyries coming out of the building itself—which I knew partly had to be people screaming.
How did you lose track each other?
There was this amazing dust storm, and we couldn't see three inches in front of us. My wife got hurled up Vesey Street towards Broadway. I thought she was right behind me and so I stepped into an office building. The glass doors locked behind me because the electronic system went out. It was dark and there wasn't a way out. I was trapped for about 20 minutes until a fireman came by with an axe and broke the glass.
How long was it before you reunited with her?
About an hour. Once I got out of that building, I looked in cars, trucks, and ambulances up and down Broadway to see if she was in any of them. I started running home. When I finally got to our doorstep, I opened the door and she was getting off the elevator. We hugged, went upstairs, and washed the dust out of our eyes and hair and then put on surgical masks and went back to work.
Did you ever think about how long it might take to get the person who was behind the attacks?
No. The thing that occurred to me was what I was obliged to do—soak myself in the experience, make meticulous notes, and try to write pieces that put the reader as close as I was.
How did all that reporting impact you?
In some weird way, it protected me from the aftermath. I've never had a single dream or nightmare about that day—not one.
What do you remember most about that time?
Odd things. There was the beauty of the night on that Tuesday evening. All the electricity was gone in the whole area leading down to the Trade Center. I remember walking down there through these amazing black skies. It was what it must have been like in the 19th century—except for in the distance there was this smoldering pile of the Trade Center itself. I also realized that life had changed forever.
When you think of that part of the city before the attacks, what comes to mind?
Well, I used to go down there all the time. There was a Borders that I liked, and my barber was in the lower levels of the Trade Center. I saw the World Trade Center towers go up because I was working on West Street at the Post.
In Tabloid City, part of the story involves an Islamic terrorist. You describe this young man who goes around like an ordinary person—yet he has what you call a "secret script" in his mind. As a country, do we really understand people like him?
I hate to generalize about 310 million human beings. Any of us who've been newspapermen for a long time hate generalizations. When I hear a politician begin to say, "The American people want...," I know the sentence is horseshit. But I hope Americans do understand the enemy.
We definitely know more about the mindset of the jihadists than we did ten years ago.
That's right—but we don't have all the reporting we need. When you dig into it, you find it's not particularly new. Look at Kropotkin and the Anarchists. Or Irish Nationalism.
In March, Congressman Peter King (R-N.Y.) held hearings on Capitol Hill about Islamic faith and whether it was generating radical Islamists who become terrorists. Did you support his inquiry?
No. I thought the hearings were preposterous. Look, the most successful terrorist group in the United States for almost 70 years was the Ku Klux Klan. They hated Catholics, Jews, and blacks. They were prone to violence. In places such as Indiana, the Klan had more members than they did in Alabama. But even in those days, nobody suggested having an investigation of Christian churches because the vast majority of the guys with the hoods were Christians. I can't find anybody in the history of our country who ever had Congressional hearings into the Christian church as an instigator of violence. Peter King is a nice fellow, but he was badly served by his staff when he came up with that dumbbell idea.
So as someone who writes about these things, are you optimistic that we may be winning the war against radical Islam, especially with the killing of Bin Laden?
Look at the past. The Anarchists set off World War I with a gunshot in Sarajevo—but they faded away. It wasn't that the police drove them out of business. The ideology had nowhere to go except into permanent negativity. In societies where there are choices, the dumbest kind of politics would be terror. Who the hell's going to vote for anyone who represents that? So jihad might wear itself out. That's what I'm hoping.