'We Had Never Seen Anything Like This'
AJR talks with The Atlantic Monthly's William Langewiesche about his series on the World Trade Center cleanup efforts.
By Eric J.S. Townsend
--Interview by Eric J.S. Townsend
William Langewiesche is a national correspondent for The Atlantic Monthly who spent more than half a year at the World Trade Center following the September 11 terrorist attacks. He trailed work crews, engineers, police officers and firefighters as they cleared the daunting pile of rubble that once hulked more than 1,350 feet above lower Manhattan.
With unlimited access to the clean-up efforts, Langewiesche, 47, created a saga that ran in a three-part series for The Atlantic that debuted in the July/August edition. According to the magazine, it's the longest piece of original reporting it has ever run. "American Ground: Unbuilding the World Trade Center" will be published in book form by North Point Press next month.
Langewiesche, who also wrote "The Crash of EgyptAir 990," The Atlantic's November 2001 cover story that won a National Magazine Award for General Excellence in reporting, lives in France. He recently talked with AJR:
AJR: You've said in past interviews that after September 11 you had a choice between a trip to Afghanistan or to New York City. Why the latter?
WL: The idea of going to New York was contingent on being able to do something real. I was of the completely open mind of leaving for Afghanistan. But [New York] could be much more interesting than the daily travails of troop movements in Afghanistan. Afghanistan seemed to be a very simple story. You could predict it without going there. The World Trade Center, we had never seen anything like this. If we could have access, it could be a much deeper subject. If we hadn't had the access, if we had to sit there and play standard reporter, it wouldn't have worked well for the magazine.
AJR: You've mentioned the press and its coverage of Ground Zero. What--if anything--has the media bungled, or perhaps misinterpreted, about workers at the site?
WL: The limitations reporters faced were they could only know what was happening on a day-to-day, external level. It's hard to talk about what they did wrong – in many ways, they did everything right. What they missed, what they had no choice but to miss, was the inner working of the culture there and how people really felt, as opposed to what they said to the press.
AJR: This was obviously a very traumatic event for people, yet you take a clinical approach with the story. Can you talk about the way your experience spurred personal emotions?
WL: Tell you the truth, I was never overwhelmed, on one level, by the horror of the place. There are many reasons for that. Personal experience is one. Logically, it is difficult to work up a big emotional storm. From an abstract point of view, I'd always had a strong idea that overplaying the emotion, indulging it, was a mistake for the country, the kind that invites further attack. If you dwell on it in public, you play into the hands of the people who attacked you. [Americans have] a psychological tendency to talk about fears in the context of a world where people are very tough. We are as tough as they are; we know that for a fact. To indulge ourselves in hand-wringing is to give in to [terrorists'] needs.
AJR: Because you received access to the site from a man who acknowledged being a fan of your articles, how did you avoid a potential conflict of interest when writing about his job?
WL: Ken Holden is sophisticated enough to know there's no quid pro quo, and that I was going to call it like I see it. It's not just at the World Trade Center, it's any time you go in to write about sympathy and understanding with people that you have that problem. You have to write as honestly as possible, and the determination to do that is how you avoid conflict of interest.... In all three pieces, there's quite a lot of the negative.... Ken Holden and the city of New York realized that from the beginning, and there we see the courage. Not only did they not know their project was going to be a success, the sophisticates realized that no matter what kind of success it was, there would be warts and that I would be writing about them.
AJR: In what ways did the infighting between firefighters, police and civilians affect your opinion of their role following 9/11?
WL: There was a standard bureaucratic pettiness, less so here than normal because people did not want to engage in that kind of stupidity, but it was there. That didn't affect my opinion, because it happens. On the other hand, more interesting was the effect of the external coverage on the people themselves and what effect that had on the infighting. There was a lot of bad that came out because of the cheap portrayal of all firefighters being tragic heroes, which was not true. The heroism was cartoonish in its simplicity. Everybody at the site knew it was bullshit--it caused resentment, jealousies, and there was a certain amount of posing that was totally uncalled for.
Why the media was doing that? I think a lot of reporters who were writing stuff saw it that way, maybe because they were taken aback and overwhelmed, and maybe [because] the reporters themselves were looking for heroes. The same guys, if given access, would have figured out, "Hey, this is irrelevant."
AJR: Where do you go from here? How do you move on from an eight-month experience in which you cover a defining event in U.S. history?
WL: I don't see this as the story of my life. The world is a place filled with enormous interest. I'm looking forward to many years of interesting