In the water supply

It would be much better if the news featured items like this:

An eel three feet long was the other morning taken out of the hydrant, which feeds the hose that supplies the South Ferry with water. It was with difficulty that it was ejected, being very much mangled (Home Journal, 2 November 1850).

Not, of course, better for the eels. Still I wish for it. In penance for my indexing of current events, I’ve indexed some of 19th-century New York here.

Ahistorical

So far, it seems true that surveillance helicopters are to terrorists as shadows are to groundhogs. In the lobby of the office where I sometimes work, this morning there was a videocamera newly wired to a branch of a yellowing Ficus benjamina as if it were a Christmas tree ornament. It was aimed at the revolving door.

I was reminded, last night, when I reached page 260 of the 9/11 Commission Report, that there have been reports of buildings in New York cased by terrorists before. Surveillance by Yemenis of a federal building in New York was mentioned in the infamous August 6, 2001, Presidential Daily Brief, the one titled “Bin Ladin Determined To Strike in U.S.” That’s the one that Bush understood to be “historical,” which he found “heartening” because it mentioned that the FBI was conducting 70 investigations into Al Qaeda, and which he didn’t feel he needed to do anything about. To quote the report: Bush “said that if his advisers had told him there was a cell in the United States, they would have moved to take care of it. That never happened.”

The New York Times reported this weekend that a group of young artists have been designing posters in anticipation of the Republican National Convention. The one I have in mind would feature a cityscape, in the style of 1940s tourism-by-railroad posters and rendered in varying hues of a single color, with this legend:

Welcome to New York!
. . . where it’s always orange
And in smaller type at the bottom, something along these lines: “Perhaps you’d like to address this issue by repairing relations with our allies and reforming the intelligence services?”

The 9/11 index

I am now about halfway through The 9/11 Commission Report. It represents the triumph of the footnote. No scholar could fail to envy the fastidiousness and real-world coolness of the sourcing, or the casual way that various bits of misinformation are obliterated. For example, on the alternate name of the Manila air bombing, which was planned in 1994 but never executed (p. 147): “KSM [Khalid Sheikh Mohammed] also says bojinka is not Serbo-Croatian for ‘big bang,’ as has been widely reported, but rather a nonsense word he adopted after hearing it on the front lines in Afghanistan” (p. 488, n. 7).

But the report also represents the absence of the index. You can’t turn to the back and look up, say,

Pakistan, complicity of

allows Bin Laden to return to Afghanistan, 64
probably warns Bin Laden of upcoming missile attacks by U.S., 117
called “rogue state” by NSC, 124
hosts Al Qaeda training in Karachi, 157

You have to read the text (or failing that, download the whole PDF and search for keywords, but I haven’t tried that yet). And so, in the confidence that few people will, the Bush administration is adopting the strategy of patting the report on the head and pretending that it says what they’d like it to have said. Like me, Cheney says that he has read about half the report. It is consoling that someone in the executive branch is reading it. I don’t think there’s much chance that Bush will. Consider this entry in the as-yet-unwritten index:

daily intelligence briefings

Clinton is “voracious reader” and annotater of, 200
Bush, “by contrast,” prefers “face-to-face briefings,” 200

Cheney is now claiming that the 9/11 report justifies his administration’s decision to go to war in Iraq. So let me do a little more indexing:

Iraq, links to Bin Laden of

Bin Laden proposes to retake Kuwait from Iraq in August 1990, 57
Bin Laden supports anti-Saddam Islamists in Iraq in early 1990s, 61
Bin Laden asks Iraq to host training camps and is refused in 1994-95, 61
meetings between Bin Laden and Iraqi officials in 1998, 66
U.S. attorney accuses Bin Laden of collaborating with Iraq in manufacture of chemical weapons in Sudan in November 1998, then drops charge from indictment, 128; cf. 61, 116
Bin Laden is invited to Iraq but doesn’t go in August 1999, 66, 134
Bin Laden follower Mohamed Atta considers Sadddam “an American stooge,” 161

And that, so far, is it. The definitive statement in the report remains: “But to date we have seen no evidence that these or the earlier contacts ever developed into a collaborative operational relationship. Nor have we seen evidence indicating that Iraq cooperated with al Qaeda in developing or carrying out any attacks against the United States” (66). The collusion of Yemen (156, 192), the United Arab Emirates (137), Iran (169), Pakistan (see above), and Sudan (passim) are much more impressive.

The contrast of the Bush administration’s alacrity with the Clinton administration’s wish to be certain that it had correctly identified the perpetrator of the Cole bombing and the East African embassy bombings before retaliating is instructive. As are the differing accounts of the briefing that departing President Clinton gave to incoming President Bush in 2001. Clinton recalls telling Bush that “One of the great regrets of my presidency is that I didn’t get him [Bin Ladin] for you, because I tried to” and emphasizing the al Qaeda threat. Bush doesn’t remember that Clinton said anything about al Qaeda. According to the 9/11 report, “Bush recalled that Clinton had emphasized other issues such as North Korea and the Israeli-Palestinian peace process” (199). The discrepancy hardly matters, in the end; Bush would go on to bungle those subjects, too.

Caveat blogtor

It turns out that Saul Bellow warned aspiring bloggers against themselves in 1964:

You must be out of your mind to write to the Times like this! There are milllions of bitter Voltairean types whose souls are filled with angry satire and who keep looking for the keenest, most poisonous word. You could send in a poem instead, you nitwit. Why should you be more right out of sheer distraction than they are out of organization?

Banvard

A few months ago I ran into my friend Paul Collins, who was in town in connection with his fascinating, moving memoir of his son’s autism, Not Even Wrong, and I rashly told him that I’d stumbled across an illustration of Banvard’s panorama that I’d email to him. Paul wrote about the rise and precipitous fall of John Banvard and his three-mile painting of the Mississippi in an early issue of McSweeney’s and in his first book, Banvard’s Folly.

I say “rashly,” because when I went back to my desk to check my notes, I couldn’t find it. Months later, thanks to lucky rummaging, here it is. It’s from the New York Atlas of 9 January 1853. The three figures in Renaissance costume beneath the Gothic arches may look like actors in costume on a stage, but in fact they’re part of a painting that’s unrolling from one hidden cylinder and rolling up on another.