A New Mask

The terrorists temporarily created a civil society in New York—but the city can't mind its manners forever

To have the attention of a nation is hardly novel in a city that's been ground zero for more than a century. Living in the Mae West of municipalities, New Yorkers are used to people staring. People live here because they want to be noticed. But New York's starring role in history's most viewed piece of videotape—a whole new genre of terror porn—brings with it not just more notoriety but unwanted sympathy.

New Yorkers can stand anything save the nation's pity.

However well-meaning, and however important for those who give and those who receive, the sympathy alters only the isolation of the tragedy, not its dimensions. And once the questions from distant relations switched from Where were you? to How are you?, people here did not know how to respond. As with the huge quantities of blood that arrived after the attack, New York is having trouble finding places to store all the consolation. Everyone in the city is so busy putting on a stiff upper lip—Damn that bin Laden and the disappeared 1 and 9 train; I guess we'll have to walk—that the embrace of our countrymen becomes one more thing to put up with.

"The department moves forward," one firefighter told me, speaking with more firmness than defiance, even as he dug for 350 of his colleagues two days after the towers fell. "This thing was around a long time before me, and it will be around a long time after me."

In attempting to flatten civil society, the terrorists temporarily created one in New York. Of course, the city can't mind its manners forever. It's too much trouble. Yet returning to a reflexive leaning on the horn when some schmuck gets in your way—a civic necessity in the best of times—seems impossible while the rest of the country is draping your town in nobility. As odd as it sounds, the city's psyche is better equipped to answer back to Jerry Falwell's schadenfreude.

Deprived of both the smirks on our faces and the chips on our shoulders, we New Yorkers are looking for a new mask, one that will prove less corrosive to the wearer yet congruent with the threat. It's now okay to complain when the Brooklyn Bridge is backed up from here to kingdom come, but it will never be in good taste to wonder aloud if that's where it's going to be blown to.

Other cities do a much better job of being, without acting, terrified. Jerusalem, a place New York could end up resembling, was carved out of the hatred of others and makes no apologies for its means or its ends. Belfast residents, annealed by decades of neighborly enmity, know that there's no way to look good when you are running for your life. New Yorkers, raised to believe that showing fear is a felony, were left in the aftermath of the attack still wondering how to act when a bomb threat is announced at Grand Central. Probably not for long.