The political and policy discussions after 9/11 immediately centered on security. We needed a larger military, more intelligence, more monitoring of potentially dangerous people, stricter border controls. We needed to kill bin Laden. We need to wipe out al Qaeda. These thoughts were understandable even if many of the actual responses were not justified or wasteful or simply wrong. We had little discussion, however, of what should have been evident from 9/11—the importance of a strong, efficient, creative government in non-militaristic area
On September 11, 2001, my office was eight blocks from the Twin Towers. I had come to work at eight to prepare to teach a law school class later in the morning. I took a break to go to the bank and heard the first plane go over my head and crash. I saw the hole on the upper floors of the Tower. Mesmerized, I realized that I was watching people dying. I decided that I wanted to see what the Tower looked like from the other side. As I got two blocks from the World Trade Center, the second plane hit the far side of the other Tower and flames shot out in my direction. I walked back to my office amidst crying and wailing people. I called the spouse to tell her I was ok, but the call got cut off when the first Tower fell. I decided it was time to get out of lower Manhattan.
I had driven to work. My usual routes home to Brooklyn were over the Brooklyn or Manhattan Bridges, both a few blocks from my office, but I knew they were closed. Picking up and dropping off people along the way, I drove to the next bridge over the East River. I was in line to cross the Williamsburg Bridge, with but two cars in front of me to get on the span, when traffic officials signaled that the structure was now closed. I went to the next crossing; got in line; and had it close just in front of me. And the next. There was no way to drive to Brooklyn. I turned around and headed south. I parked my car on a Chinatown street and walked with hordes of others over the Manhattan Bridge roadway to Brooklyn. (The mind operates on curious levels. Although I had driven over that span many times, I found myself thinking in the midst of the horror and shock of that day about the only other time I had crossed it on foot. In those days, no walkway on the Manhattan Bridge was open to pedestrians, but I once ran in a “Courthouse to Courthouse” race. It started by the Manhattan federal courts, went over the Manhattan Bridge, which had been closed to vehicles for the event, wound on local streets to a Brooklyn courthouse, and then reversed course to Manhattan. It was not a long race, but a tough one, all uphill or downhill. Now, on 9/11, it was not an organized run of a few hundred, but a solemn trudge by the tens of thousands, as if we were extras in a Biblical epic, except this was all too real.)
In mid-afternoon, a news report stated that some East River bridges were again open. I walked a mile from home to the Manhattan Bridge where one bus stood to ferry passengers over the river. I got to my car and quickly doubted the accuracy of the news report since I kept finding bridges closed. About to give up again, I found I could cross the Tri-Borough Bridge into Queens, which, of course, abuts Brooklyn, but then I found my usual way home from that Bridge was closed. Normally I would merge off the Bridge on to the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway, but traffic officials were blocking the entrance to the expressway. An officer told me that I would have to take local streets. I prided myself on knowing my way around much of New York City, but Queens was always mysterious. I literally drove in circles, seeing one particular building at least three times. Finally, I came upon a familiar intersection because it was one I sometimes passed when I took the NBP to tennis on Roosevelt Island. I finally knew a route home. In my wanderings, which were less than twelve hours after the first attack, I passed many entrances to elevated roadways. Every one of them was blocked, I presume out of security concerns, by government officials. I can’t imagine how many such entrances there are in New York City, but I thought what an amazing logistical feat it was to have closed every one of them in such short order. It took a good government, a strong government, a large government (which in New York City was largely a unionized government) to accomplish this. We pay a lot of taxes in New York, but it seemed more than worth it on the night of 9/11 for the response that I saw.
Of course, this was one of the many feats, and one of the more minor ones, that New York City quickly accomplished in response to the terror. When I had gone to my car, I could see that Manhattan south of Canal Street had been effectively cordoned off—once again, a remarkable logistical feat. And in the coming days, I would learn about the efforts and coordination of emergency medical personnel and school guards and sanitation workers and firefighters and housing officials and welfare workers and much more. Volunteers stepped forward as New Yorkers pulled together, but New York would not have recovered as well as it did without the effective performance at all levels of government. And this was not the work of bureaucratic drudges. The situation required new coordination among different government branches. It required creativity. It required dedicated service.
Mayor Rudy Giuliani got lots of praise because New York performed so well after 9/11, but a salient fact was overlooked. The City government as a whole performed marvelously. Plans had been drawn for emergencies, and they went into effect. And what put them into effect was Big Government. Liberals and conservatives both praised Rudy, but the importance of all levels of governments should also have been stressed. Would other cities where the mantra is against government have performed as well? We, luckily, do not know, but a story that should have come out of that tragedy was not just the performance of an individual, but how important a strong, dedicated, and creative government can be. If that strong, dedicated, and creative government had not been there, Giuliani would not have been effective and not have been a hero. In those unusual times when New York City was generally admired (Do you remember that accurate Onion headline: “Rest of Country Temporarily Feels Deep Affection for New York”?), besides the discussions about national security, lessons should have been given about the worth of the kind of government conservatives rail against. Reagan’s anti-government rhetoric was not heard in those days. It had been proved false.