Usually, I have a nose for anniversaries. I can see them coming. Not this time; I didn't realize that Monday was the 50th anniversary of the 1973 Yom Kippur War until the rabbi leading the service mentioned it at the start of his sermon. Though I suppose it's fitting that the anniversary snuck up on me. It reminded me of the moment captured at beginning of this column, from 17 years ago. Back then, the column ran a full page, and I've left in the subheads, and the rest, including the lame joke at the end, in case you feel like reading it.
I once found myself on the Golan Heights, chatting with an Israeli general. We stared down at the sweeping vista; you could see for miles, into Lebanon and Syria.
He was a veteran of the 1973 war, when the Syrians recaptured the heights, briefly, and I had a question that — though impolitic — I just had to ask:
How'd they ever sneak up on you? How could the Syrian tanks possibly have stormed the heights and taken you guys by surprise?
He paused, thinking — this was obviously a difficult question — then gave me an honest answer, one that has stuck in my mind ever since.
"We saw them coming," he said. "But we didn't understand what that meant."
THE MIND HAS TO ADJUST
I didn't go into the office Monday, deciding instead to camp out in front of my computer and watch CNN's coverage of the Sept. 11 attacks, rebroadcast online as if in real-time.
I didn't watch the day the attacks happened — busy — and was interested in seeing how the coverage transpired.
What impressed me was how difficult it was for the anchors to process what was happening in front of them. Even though the second plane struck on live television — as some witness to the first attack prattled on, unaware — it was unnoticed and unremarked upon for a long time. At first they thought it might be a secondary explosion, related to the first plane. Even after they realized a second plane had hit, the CNN announcer clung to the notion that some kind of navigational beacon error might be sending airplanes into the World Trade Center.
The word "terrorism" was never used, nor the possibility raised, until an unnamed government official announced that this was indeed an attack.
I don't think CNN did a bad job, under the circumstances. Only it does remind us — as we cope with this uncertain future — how very human it is to cling to normalcy, to ignore what is going on under your nose if it deviates too much from the standard script. If Osama bin Laden himself, in turban and flowing robes, got aboard the 8:16 Metra Milwaukee North Line train this morning, and sat quietly holding a black spherical cartoon bomb on his lap, my guess is that most people on the train wouldn't give him a second glance, not until he drew out his lighter and lit the fuse, and only then because smoking isn't allowed on the train.
President Bush's first remarks on that day five years ago — Florida schoolchildren standing incongruously behind him, as if he were still going to talk about education — were to pledge the full support and power of the federal government to aid the disaster in New York.
He needs to keep that pledge. As you probably have heard, as many as 70 percent of the firefighters, police officers, construction workers and ordinary citizens who rushed to the World Trade Center site to help, and who aided in clearing the scene, are now suffering from lung disease due to inhaling all that dust. Just like Americans as a whole, 40 percent of them do not have health insurance.
Are they to be punished for helping? To suffer for their heroism, unaided by government? I watched Bush's speech Monday night, and was jarred to see him praise the dead and ignore the living. This is unacceptable, and the president should say nothing until he commits the nation to stand by its bravest citizens. He needs to make good on his past words before uttering any more.
WE'RE MORE POPULAR DEAD
The Sept. 11 anniversary brought a blizzard of commentary, much of it daft. The most ridiculous, to me, was the statement, repeated again and again, that the United States enjoyed a groundswell of international sympathy immediately after 9/11, support we squandered by acting the way we did.
Well, yeah. But what of it? They always love you when you die. Take it from a Jew — the world likes nothing better than to sit back and cluck sympathetically at your destruction.
Act, however, in any kind of decisive fashion, protect yourself, and disapproval is swift. Israel was the spunky underdog when the Arab nations had its neck on the block and were sharpening their scimitars. Now that Israel has a bit of might, the world wails that it's a bully and an aggressor.
President Bush had to do something after 9/11, and what he did — go after bin Laden and his supporters, the Taliban in Afghanistan, made perfect sense. The Iraqi war was more a stretch, but even then, WMD or no, there was a logic: One of the lessons of 9/11 was not to turn a blind eye to threats.
It is fooling ourselves to pretend that, if only we had left Iraq alone, then the world would be our buddy. It wasn't before, and the flash of pity at 9/11 was certain to pass no matter what we did.
I THINK SHE LASTED A YEAR. . .
You don't remember Lynda Gorov. But I do. She was going to be a big-deal Chicago columnist. In the hoopla welcoming her, which included billboards, she told Michael Miner that she was preparing for her newspapering fame by lying on a beach in Mexico, reading a Mike Royko anthology. The gods stirred.
It has been nearly 20 years, but I can still feel the headshaking shiver of utter, slack-jawed, visceral disgust that rattled across me.
Flash to today. Michael McCarthy, a Second City alum, is telling the Tribune all about his new radio show debuting next week on Q101. It's going to be Chicagoriffic!
"At the end I do a commentary," he said. "I used Mike Royko as my model. I'm rereading his columns."
Good idea. Hope it works. Though isn't that like rubbing a $20 bill against your wallet, trying to breed money? Royko doesn't rub off and only fools try. Whenever a reader writes in to say that I'm no Royko, I thank him, sincerely, because not being Royko is one of my major life goals.
I particularly wouldn't use Royko as an example were I in broadcasting, given how wooden he was when he did political commentary on TV.
But maybe you'll do better, Michael McCarthy, in however many months you've got before Q101 gives you the flush. Welcome to Chicago, pal, don't let the door hit you in the ass on the way out. (Editor's note: McCarthy lasted a little more than a year at Q101 and died in 2020, age 61).
This one is not my fault. It is the fault of Robin Reizner, of Vernon Hills, who in turn blames a client:
What is Irish and stays out all night?
A lucrative client, I assume.
—Originally published in the Sun-Times, Sept. 13, 2006