Tuesday, November 27, 2001

The Events of 3/13

     For more than half an hour 38 respectable, law-abiding citizens in Queens watched a killer stalk and stab a woman in three separate attacks in Kew Gardens.
     Twice the sound of their voices and the sudden glow of their bedroom lights interrupted him and frightened him off. Each time he returned, sought her out and stabbed her again. Not one person telephoned the police during the assault; one witness called after the woman was dead.        
     That was two weeks ago today. But Assistant Chief Inspector Frederick M. Lussen, in charge of the borough’s detectives and a veteran of 25 years of homicide investigations, is still shocked.
     He can give a matter-of-fact recitation of many murders. But the Kew Gardens slaying baffles him - not because it is a murder, but because the ‘good people’ failed to call the police.
     New York Times, March 27,1964


I remember 1964 so well.  My parents had decided that a trip to the World’s Fair in New York City would be our summer vacation.

My father, an engineer and builder, could plan better than anyone I’ve ever known.  He had us seeing everything that New York had to offer in a mere three days and two nights.  We saw our first Broadway musical (Half a Sixpence), cruised on the tour boat around the island, hailed cabs or rode subways to most of the landmarks, shopped like kids on Christmas Eve at FAO Schwarz, and like so many other visitors have done, caused a great traffic jam on the West Side highway while trying to locate Grant’s Tomb.

As I recall, the locals didn’t think much of our stopping to see Grant’s Tomb. And after seeing Grant’s Tomb, neither did we.

The towers of the World Trade Center were a decade away from being built when I first visited Manhattan, but the skyline was nonetheless magnificent--the Empire State and Chrysler Buildings rose even farther into the sky than they now seem to.  These two towers, twins to themselves, had a measure of style and grace that the World Trade Center never quite mustered. In my view, the skyline of 1964 captured the grandeur of the Vanderbilt’s and old money.  The World Trade Center, on the other hand, reminded me more of manufactured housing built with government assistance.  (The World Trade Center always looked to me as if it were Khrushchev’s final answer to Nixon at the Kitchen Debate.)

Before we embarked, we wondered how the events of 3/13 would affect our visit to the World’s Fair.  Kitty Genovese had been murdered on March 13, 1964, and while murder in the city was seldom newsworthy, hers was.  The crime itself was unspectacular.  Indeed, the reporting of it could be rated as an item rather than a feature.  On the other hand, the cold-blooded reaction of her neighbors, the witnesses to this crime, is what shocked everyone.  Then, and now.

My mother asked plaintively before we left our West Virginia home: "If we’re attacked, will anyone come to our aid?"  Not even an oracle could answer her with confidence.

The terror inflicted by the events of 3/13, that of no one answering the call for help in a civilized society, was, and still is, far more profound and chilling to me than the terror of 9/11.  I can live with the acts of evil people.  I can even go to my grave in peace if my end is to come by men of evil ways.  Evil has been with us since the time of Cain and will never be banished to the land of Nod.  But to cede the barest glimmer of hope in a hopeless situation?  That, I cannot bear.  That is true terror.

The 1964 World’s Fair showcased a brilliant, sophisticated future for human civilization.  Yet, before the fair opened, the events of 3/13 proved that our proverbial feet were still mired in the jungle and the vines weren’t about to let go.  So much for stepping across the threshold of the cowardly present and into the brave, bold future presented to us in the same city in the same year.

If there is a difference in defining terror in 2001 vs. 1964, then it must be in defining our response to those calling out for help.  The selfless acts of hundreds if not thousands who answered the calls for help during the calamity of 9/11 will surely resonate for all of the future to come.  But if the deeds of these heroes are trumpeted for only a few brief months, then so be it.  Let it stand, however, that the terror of 3/13 has been reversed by their esteemed courage and sacrifice.

Unlike the jaded promises made at the 1964 World’s Fair, Technology cannot free us from our dirtiest chores.  Perhaps, Kitty’s neighbors believed that vision of the future, a future where machines easily trump Evil’s sleeve-hidden aces.  But a future such as that shall never happen.  Not now.  Not next year.  Not ever.

Yes, in 2001, Technology can locate the survivors buried under the debris of collapsed buildings.  But it still remains that the hands of a thousand-man chain begin the rescue effort, filling one pail at a time and passing it on.

The twin towers are gone and will not be rebuilt.  But they can stand forever in the mind of Man.  Not as buildings, but as the bookends to a tale of woe that began on 3/13/64 and ended with a chronicle of the human spirit on 9/11/01.  So let the mighty buildings stand as such.

My mother has passed on.  But were she still alive, she would feel less afraid to visit New York City today than she did in 1964.  I dare to say it, and perhaps I overstep my prerogative, but I think that Kitty Genovese would feel the same.