Saturday, 05 November 2005

Unbuilding the World Trade Center;or, Another Vaguely Political Post William Langewische's "American Ground" articles—first published in The Atlantic Monthly and later compiled into the slim but substantial American Ground —passionately describe the "unbuilding of the World Trade Center" without ever invoking the larger consequences of its destruction. The War on Terror never enters the scene. Neither does the Bush Administration. The fallen Twin Towers don't represent the first volley in a global conflict so much as they are the lost livelihood of the men who helped build, manage and later dismantle them. Not that Langewische even needed to allude to the burdensome emotional and metaphorical baggage of that day or its daily evocation. It is the undefendable slapshot in the game of American politics, the justification for affairs foreign and domestic. He need not say anymore. Yet his deliberate decision to focus on the lives of those who work "the pile" still unsettles me. How can he not talk about the impact their fall had on American politics, on affairs both foreign and domestic? How can he concentrate on the lives of the engineers who "unbuild" these fallen metaphors of American eminence when they fell because they were metaphors and were mourned for much the same reason? Early in the article he provides one possible explanation: But the buildings were not buildings anymore, and the place where they fell had become a tabula rasa for the United States. Among the ruins now, a large and unscripted experiment in American life had gotten under way. This "unscripted experiment" does not consist of patriotic pablum, but of the "emergence" of order from chaos. Cognates of "emerge" litter the essay, appearing almost any time he discusses the organizational structure of the recovery effort. The strict hierarchies of corporate America, the networks of old boys returning favors—they all falter and collapse at the site. They are replaced with the very substance they claim to embody: the meritorious selection of those who can get the job done on the basis of their getting the job done. The meritocracy of the pile put to lie the "meritocracy" of corporate America by consistently selecting those best suited to the job; but "selected," Langewiesche suggests, is too strong a word, and so he employs "emerges" instead. Why did the old boy network break down? Langewiesche offers some clues: Freon is a manufactured product containing chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs), and its use has been restricted by international accord because of the damage it does to the atmosphere's protective ozone layer. The threat it posed at the Trade Center was more immediate, and stemmed from the fact that it is a heavy gas and it aggressively displaces the oxygen in the air that people breathe. With the huge quantities potentially involved here (as much as 168,000 pounds, under pressure, if the tanks remained intact), a sudden leak would fill the voids underground and spread across the surface of the pile, suffocating perhaps hundreds of workers caught out on the rough terrain and unable to move fast. To make matters worse, if...

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