Jewish World Review Oct. 1, 2001 / 14 Tishrei, 5762

Paul Greenberg

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The way we were: try to remember ... --       Then the actors took their places and the Narrator stepped forward to deliver the show's first song. "Try to remember the kind of September when life was slow and oh-so-mellow,'' he sang quietly. "Try to remember when life was so tender that no one wept except the willow.'' A familiar old ballad was suddenly transformed into a plangent elegy for the innocence we had all lost. ... By the end of the song, I was in tears. So was one of the actors.

That was Amy Gamerman, The Wall Street Journal's theater reviewer, who after September 11th had chosen to cover one of the last performance of "The Fantasticks,'' the longest-running musical in the world and the longest-running show in American history, which is due to close soon. Just as September closed early this year -- at about 8:45 on a bright, clear, awful morning in Manhattan. That was the moment which would divide American time into Before and After.

Ms. Gamerman hadn't tried to get into Broadway shows like "The Producers'' (somehow Hitler isn't as amusing anymore) or something entitled "Love,'' in which the playwright explores "his deeply felt desire to have sex with supermodel Heidi Klum.''

That's the way we were, when September was still September: clueless.

To pick up the morning papers from that long ago September 11, 2001, is to enter another world: a silly, flat, unprepared world asking to be blown to smithereens. December 6, 1941, must have been like that. Americans lose our innocence with historic regularity. Our periodic Loss of Innocence ought to be called something else by now, like just plain forgetfulness. Or maybe historical amnesia.

The New York Times was unsuspecting that morning. Its front page had a colorfully illustrated story about clothes for the new school year. (''School dress codes vs. a sea of bare flesh'') The big story was about possible deals on tax cuts. The headline: "Bush Under Pressure.''

In a curious throwback, a one-column story under the fold told of the arrest of an airplane hijacker who had commandeered an Air Canada plane back in the '70s and managed to elude arrest for 30 years. Then one day his name showed up in an Internet search, and he was found teaching middle school in Mount Vernon, N.Y. There may be such a thing as Infinite Justice after all.

But The Times saved the tinniest of all its tin-eared stories for the inside section wonderfully entitled The Living Arts. On this September 11th, The Living Art was violence. Being interviewed and celebrated was a veteran of the Weather Underground, a homegrown terrorist outfit back in the tumultuous '70s.

The subject of the interview came across as a kind of witty, warm and loving hero of a sitcom, a Seinfeld of bombs. (''No Regrets for a Love of Explosives'') The color picture with the story showed him with his wife, Bernadine Dohrn, another alum of good ol' W.U. It looked like a photo you would see on the mantel of any affable, middle-aged couple.

The story's description of Our Hero was just as homey. It noted that "he still has the ebullient, ingratiating manner, the apparently intense interest in other people, that made him a charismatic figure in the radical student movement.'' Thirty years from now, will we find Osama bin Laden ebullient and ingratiating? Why not? We make musical comedies about Hitler, don't we?

The story by Dinitia Smith began:

"I don't regret setting bombs,'' Bill Ayers said. "I feel we didn't do enough.'' Mr. Ayers, who spent the 1970s as a fugitive in the Weather Underground, was sitting in the kitchen of his big turn-of-the-19th-century stone house in the Hyde Park district of Chicago ... .''

Bill Ayers is now a 56-year-old professor of, you guessed it, education. And of course he's written a book, which he describes as "not exactly'' the truth. How Nineties.

In his memoir, Our Hero recalls what a blast his youth was. Literally. He writes of having taken part in the bombings of the New York City Police Headquarters in 1970, the Capitol in 1971 and the Pentagon in 1972. It all sounds so long ago, but reading the same story now, after September 11, 2001, gives it a whole new relevance.

It was a younger Bill Ayers who was supposed to have summed up the "philosophy'' of the Weather Underground this way: "Kill all the rich people. Break up their cars and apartments. Bring the revolution home, kill your parents, that's where it's really at.''

Professor Ayers doesn't remember saying that, and besides, "It was a joke about the distribution of wealth.'' Try to control your laughter.

His wife, who's now director of a Children and Family Justice Center at Northwestern University, was quite a joker, too. Her best line was delivered in the '60s after the Manson Family killings in Beverly Hills, when she told the curiously named Students for a Democratic Society:

"Dig it! Manson killed those pigs, then they ate dinner in the same room with them, then they shoved a fork into a victim's stomach.''

Now she, too, explains: "It was a joke.'' She seems to share her husband's rollicking sense of humor.

Early on the morning of September 11th over coffee and a bagel, this kind of story in the good gray Times, arbiter of our artistic fashions, would scarcely have been worth noting. Here was one more cultural event on a crowded calendar, one more Living Art for all us connoisseurs of a terror safely past to enjoy with a frisson of nostalgia. It was all so removed now, so . . . esthetic.

Reading the same article after the clock stopped and the era divided, it now says everything about the deaf, dumb, blind way we were.

So does an oh-so-serious debate in the September 10th issue of Time magazine, another cultural barometer of our blithe times -- much like the Living Arts section of The New York Times or Charlie Rose's terribly earnest and slightly dim talk show. The question being debated: Do the Israelis have the right to hunt down and kill the terrorists behind the suicide bombings of their cities?

A day later, September 11th, 2001, the question would no longer seem so far away. Or so debatable. But that's the way we were.

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