Lay off Langewiesche.

Gossip, speculation, and scuttlebutt about politics.
Oct. 17 2002 6:30 PM

Lay Off Langewiesche

Chatterbox defends the best thing yet written about 9/11.

In the Oct. 16 New York Observer, Joe Hagan reported that Stephen Jay Gould's widow, Marcel Duchamp scholar Rhonda Roland Shearer, had launched a "personal crusade" against American Ground: Unbuilding the World Trade Center, a new book by William Langewiesche that was serialized this past summer in the Atlantic Monthly. (To read excerpts, click here, here, and here. To learn how to pronounce "William Langewiesche," see this "Explainer.") Shearer, who was a volunteer at the Ground Zero cleanup (and is assembling her own oral history) has posted on her Web site a lengthy rebuttal to Langewiesche's book, alleging scores of factual errors. According to the Observer, Shearer wants to see the book shredded and has discussed bringing a lawsuit if it isn't.

Advertisement

The story caught Chatterbox's attention because he was a great admirer of the Langewiesche pieces, which avoided the mythologizing inherent in almost everything else that's been written about the Sept. 11 massacre. (Every employee of the New York Times should be required to read them, along with Thomas Mallon's brave but little-noticed essay, "The Mourning Paper," in the spring 2002 American Scholar. The latter eloquently took the Times to task for homogenizing the subjects of its Pulitzer-Prize-winning "Portraits of Grief" into "smile-button cyborgs.") To Chatterbox, Langewiesche's dispassion in describing the rescue and cleanup efforts was a welcome antidote to the pervasive mawkishness and hero worship. To Shearer, though, that dispassion must have seemed obscene because her rebuttal (co-written with various officials from the New York City fire and police departments and Bovis construction, the cleanup's chief contractor) is highly emotional and largely incoherent.

Most of Shearer's complaints touch on Langewiesche's depiction of the fire department workers at the cleanup site and the widows of the deceased firemen. One of the virtues of Langewiesche's book is that he is willing to tell some hard truths about the ways that the country's sympathy and adulation for the fire department, which lost 343 members on Sept. 11, encouraged tribal behavior on "the pile":

The image of "heroes" seeped through their ranks like a low-grade narcotic. It did not intoxicate them, but it skewed their view. … The firemen seemed to become steadily more self-absorbed and isolated from the larger cleanup efforts under way.

Langewiesche writes that the fire department workers on the pile tended to place greater importance on recovering the bodies of deceased firemen than on recovering deceased police workers or office workers from the trade towers. He also reports that they were able to exercise substantial clout whenever site supervisors sought to speed up demolition and dispersal of the debris. Langewiesche's portrayal hardly amounts to demonization—one of the lead firemen, a man named Sam Melisi, comes across as a figure of Yoda-like wisdom and calm—but it's clearly too much for Shearer, who worked closely with the fire department workers and plainly identifies with the firemen's widows. (The fire department's color guard and pipes and drums performed last May at the funeral of Stephen Jay Gould. Gould, incidentally, was before his death haunted by the coincidence that the Sept. 11 attacks occurred precisely 100 years after his maternal grandfather arrived at Ellis Island from Hungary. The Julian calendar was, along with Major League Baseball, the operettas of Gilbert and Sullivan, and the idiocy of IQ tests, a favorite subject of the famously polymath professor.)

A typical example of Shearer's elevated capacity to perceive slight is the following passage, a first-person account of an underground trip to inspect a possible Freon leak:

The firemen were young, and visibly more relaxed than the police. Several ventured like sightseers into the PATH tube, playing the beams of their flashlights across its iron rings into the green and red puddles of oily fluid. …

Here is Shearer's "correction":

The depiction of visual inspections of a dangerous environment by trained and dedicated firefighters "as sightseers" is inaccurate and an injustice to those who risk their lives in professional service and in their extensive training.

Shearer also hits the roof over Langewiesche's use of the term "tribalism" to describe divisions between the police department, the fire department, and construction workers: