Michael Winship: America's Shoddy Plumbing in the Mideast

Michael Winship

Last Tuesday, the sixth anniversary of 9/11, was actually the first since the tragedy that I spent the day at home, not going downtown to ground zero or attending other memorial services. Instead, I tuned the TV to Channel 11, so that even as I went about my business, the annual naming of the 2,750 victims unfolded within easy earshot.

As the more than three-hour ceremony ended, in the gray drizzle of a rainy midday, the Brooklyn Youth Chorus sang, with painful sweetness and beauty, "Bridge over Troubled Water," the girls' light-blue dresses streaked with raindrops, like tears.

This was the first rainy 9/11 anniversary. Marjorie Miller, who lost her husband in the attack, told the New York Daily News, "I'm almost grateful that it wasn't sunny. A lot of tears coming down from up there, and a lot of tears down here. Kind of works for me."

It worked for many of us. That night, running errands, I looked down Manhattan's Seventh Avenue toward the Towers of Light, the twin columns of searchlights that each year commemorate the loss of the World Trade Center. The rain clouds still hovered low, the vestiges of Tropical Storm Gabrielle blocking the beams so that they only appeared intermittently, in and out of the mist, the movement of the clouds making the light seem like illuminated, curling smoke in the evening sky. That kind of worked for me, too.

I had stayed home on 9/11 not to avoid the rain or the ceremonies but for a simple, mundane reason: I was waiting for the plumber to show up. A normal activity, as normal as anything can be these days. What, after all, is normal anymore? We start at the sound of a car's backfire, check our bottled water at the airport door, endure long lines and security checks. Today, all these things seem normal.

Early last year, I remember walking down the halls of the hospital where my sister works in Syracuse and how startled I was by the number of offices and patients' rooms that displayed photos of sons and daughters, grandchildren, nieces and nephews in military uniform. Sadly, now that seems normal, too.

Conversely, much that remains normal — in the pre-9/11 sense — seems off-kilter.

Gen. Peter Chiarelli, senior military assistant to Defense Secretary Robert Gates, told International Herald Tribune columnist Roger Cohen that despite the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, "The American people and most of the other institutions of national power have largely gone about their business."

Cohen continued, "Rarely, if ever, has daily death in combat been accompanied on such a scale by the maxing out of credit cards at the mall. President Bush likes to call himself a 'war president.' More accurately he has been the war-and-shop, conflict-and-home-equity-credit president."

As I waited for the plumber, I remembered something famous said by the late educator John Gardner, Lyndon Johnson's secretary of health, education and welfare and the founder of the citizens' lobby Common Cause.

I looked it up to get the words right.  Gardner wrote, "The society that scorns excellence in plumbing because plumbing is a humble activity and tolerates shoddiness in philosophy because it is an exalted activity will have neither good plumbing nor good philosophy. Neither its pipes nor its theories will hold water."

The same applies, I thought, to governments and their policies. Shoddy government comes from shoddy thinking and neglect, ignorance, arrogance and a fantastical "we're kicking ass" view of the world that reduces everything to black and white, good and evil, us and them.

The good Gen. Petraeus admits he doesn't know if the Iraq war is making us safer from further attacks like 9/11. But over the majority's objections, our leaders continue to tell us that this is so (even as former Fed chair Alan Greenspan tells us the war is "largely about oil").

We need a broader national discussion. The Wall Street Journal's conservative columnist Daniel Henninger makes a good suggestion: "Democrats, notably Hillary Clinton, have said Iraq distracted us from the global war on terror. Nothing would be more useful for our politics than that these presidential candidates should debate what they would do to contain Islamic terrorism."

I'd invite them to have the debate at my place, but I'm still waiting for the plumber.

Michael Winship, a native of Canandaigua, is a freelance television writer in Manhattan.