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Then and Now: Richard Brookhiser

September 3, 2002 at 12:00 AM EDT


RAY SUAREZ: This is an area where a lot of the action was.

SPOKESMAN: Yeah, this is where it… you know, it all started here.

RAY SUAREZ: It was at the foot of George Washington’s statue in New York city’s union square that a spontaneous vigil began in the hours after the World Trade Center catastrophe, less than two miles to the South. Historian, author, and columnist Richard Brookhiser saw the flaming Twin Towers from the square as he walked to work that day. He often returned to the park as the vigil continued.

So sort of an ad hoc teach-in, or talk-in?

RICHARD BROOKHISER, Historian: A talk-in. It was really a talk-in, because a teach-in… it was being run by people who had an agenda. And there were people with agendas here, but they were not running it. I mean, it was running itself. It was a very kind of spontaneously running thing.

RAY SUAREZ: A senior editor at the National Review, he is the author of Founding Father: Rediscovering George Washington, an account of his life from planter to commander- in-chief of the Revolutionary Army.

RICHARD BROOKHISER: When I was here and I just wondered as this statue got part of it, and I just wondered if any of the people knew that the last Time the city was attacked, it was this man’s responsibility.

RAY SUAREZ: After our visit to union square, we continued our conversation at Brookhiser’s apartment.

RAY SUAREZ: George Washington lost New York during the Revolutionary War, didn’t he?

RICHARD BROOKHISER: That was the last Time New York was attacked, was summer and fall, 1776, and Washington was in charge of the defense. He was the commander in chief of the American army. And it was the American army because we had just acquired our independence in July, and Washington got kicked. I mean, he was in charge of defending the city, and he couldn’t do it. He got beaten in what’s now Brooklyn. He had to leave Manhattan. And he gets beaten again in what’s now White Plains. And the British occupy the city for the rest of the war, seven- and-a-half years, a quarter it burns down in a fire. They store their prisoners, American prisoners, on ships that they moor in the East River, and 11,000 of them died.

The economic hit was much greater proportionally than what we experienced on 9/11 because all the trade of the city really just stopped. It became a British armed camp for the rest of the war. So we have our problems, but Washington had his. And in a lot of ways they were worse because the country was a lot smaller and the enemy was a lot more powerful. But he won.

RAY SUAREZ: But this time we’ve taken the actual fighting, after the opening attack, to the enemy’s home ground. Does that have a… an effect of distancing us from the real conflict in a way that almost takes the towers out of context — because they’re not in the front lines anymore?

RICHARD BROOKHISER: No, but I think people remember that’s where it started. I mean, so this is different from the Vietnam War or the Korean War. People argued during those wars in Vietnam. They argued quite intensely. “Why should we be there?” And a lot of people thought there was no reason for it. I think the comparable occasion, the comparable war, would be World War II where there was an attack on Pearl Harbor, and that was American territory. It wasn’t a state yet, but it was American territory. And so, however far afield that war ranged, and there was no more fighting on American soil after that, except for some in Alaska, but you know, we had our troops in North Africa and all over the Pacific, in France, but people remembered, you know, where it had begun and why it had to go on.

RAY SUAREZ: Does a sense of vulnerability that may have come out of that attack wane the longer there is no subsequent action on our soil, no widespread killing of Americans?

RICHARD BROOKHISER: Well, look, you know, life does go on. I mean, it does. And in order for it to go on at all, you’ve got to leave your room. You know, you’ve got to go outside. Or if you live here, here you are, unless you choose to move. But then where are you going to move? I mean, the next… very likely the next thing is not going to be a replay of the last thing. So how can you guarantee your safety by going to, say, eastern Oregon or some remote place? Well, you can’t. So, on the one hand, yes, the sense of the urgency lessens; it has to lessen, unless you kill yourself. But on the other hand, you remember. And this is a different ballgame we’re in. And it could happen again. And you just live with that knowledge.

RAY SUAREZ: In the days after the planes crashed, writers clawed for new heights of hyperbole about how this changed everything, and nothing would ever be the same again, and New York would never be the same again, and nothing had ever happened like this. In your historian’s heart, did you bridle a little bit at these quick attempts at vast perspective after just a couple days?

RICHARD BROOKHISER: Well, it’s not too far wrong. I mean, New York has had its disasters and other catastrophes, but they are never exactly alike. And each one is different. In each one there is something unique and uniquely horrible. And that was certainly true of this. I know one very simple thing: In my own head, I always look at an airplane. Whenever I hear an airplane, I always look at it, which I never used to do. And I’m sure many other people have that… it’s a very minor kind of a change. But it does… it marks you, marks your perceptions, changes your feelings.

RAY SUAREZ: Do you have a constantly revisiting sense that a lot of things have changed?

RICHARD BROOKHISER: I think it’s changed America’s perception of New York and New York’s perception of itself as a part of America. There’s always a kind of an oppositional thing going on. And New Yorkers kind of like that. I mean, they kind of like feeling, “well, we’re a little bit different, and all the hayseeds who start at the Hudson River out there, sure, they dislike us, but that’s because they don’t really understand us.” The people on the other side of that divide, they have their own take on it. And I’ve lived on both halves because I wasn’t born here. I came here from upstate New York, so I’ve been both someone who looks down on New York, and then someone in New York looking down on everybody else.

But with 9/11, New York City, along with the Pentagon, and along with the site in Pennsylvania, New York City became the Alamo, or it became like the “Maine.” It became this patriotic icon. Who could have predicted such a thing on September 10? I mean, no one would have. But you know, people who have never been to New York, possibly, wear NYPD caps now, or FDNY caps, and they do it to express a patriotism. They do it to identify with a place where this thing happened, where this attack happened. And I think that’s changed the perceptions of both New Yorkers and non-New Yorkers.

RAY SUAREZ: Do you think that has some staying power though?

RICHARD BROOKHISER: I think that will have, that will last as long as everybody who is alive and aware on September 11 throughout their lifetimes.

RAY SUAREZ: Richard Brookhiser, thanks for talking with me.

RICHARD BROOKHISER: Thanks for having me.