Sit down, make yourself comfortable, have a cup of tea, or maybe something stronger, and let me tell you two stories - one happy, one disturbing. Each with a moral, or at least an attempt at it. Any excuse to tell a good story.
The first features a grandchild of mine. I know, I know, columnists who start writing about their grandchildren should be quietly led off to the Old Columnists' Home. (It's located just this side of Grudge Creek and up the road from Calumnia.) But we can't help ourselves, grandparenthood being what it is. And telling you grandfather stories, Gentle Reader, beats all heck out of telling them to my barber, who keeps interrupting with stories about his own grandchild.
So the other day, while the World Series was still on, my daughter in Boston - actually Newton, Mass., which might as well be Boston - picks up Grandson No. 1, Aviav, from his Jewish day school. Five years old now, he tells her today was Red Sox Day at his school and he wants her to tell him all the rules of baseball. (I myself would love to hear her explain the infield fly rule; it'd be good training for Talmud 101.)
Soon mother and son are back at their house to keep an appointment with a workman. The workman arrives, wearing a noticeable cross around his neck, and proceeds to the basement while little Aviav and his mother settle down for a snack and a talk in the kitchen.
The boy hasn't quite got all the nuances of what was once our national pastime down, but his enthusiasm is boundless. One thing he wants to know is why he's learning about baseball at Maimonides, his orthodox Jewish school. Well, his mother explains, the Red Sox are Boston's team and his teachers (doubtless following Rabbi Hillel's injunction not to separate oneself from the community) want him to love the Red Sox. He gets the point at once: "And Jewish people love the Red Sox!" At which a deep, resonant voice is heard from the basement:
"NOT JUST JEWISH PEOPLE!"
The moral of the story, if you must have one: Only in America.
The second story also features a craftsman, a plumber by trade. I am in my own basement this time, talking to the contractor who's going to fix the water-soaked cabinet in the downstairs bathroom - as soon as the plumber has fixed the leak that caused it.
As one thing leads to another bill, my contractor friend tells me why it was impossible for those airplanes to have brought down the Twin Towers on September 11th, and why it's clear from the way the towers fell - right into their own footprint - that they were imploded. Reputable scholars and engineers agree, he says. It was an inside job, you see, probably by our own government or the people controlling it in order to carry out their diabolical globalization schemes, eliminate national borders, Mexicanize the economy, and generally further their nefarious schemes.
It does sound familiar. I get almost daily e-mails along the same paranoid lines from one of the country's more prominent conspiracy theorists.
My friend is just getting down to the details of what really caused 9/11 when a deep, vibrant voice is heard from under the bathroom sink:
"IT WAS ALL DONE TO PASS THE PATRIOT ACT!"
It's the young plumber. His father, as it happens, has studied biblical prophecies and it's all foretold there.
I don't doubt it, I don't raise any questions, I just lend my silent support once the plumber has spoken. I consider anything a plumber says definitive. Because when you need a plumber, you need a plumber. To cite Greenberg's Law No. 1 of household maintenance: Never argue with a man who can plumb. (This also goes for barbers, at least when they're using the scissors and razor.)
The moral of this story: Re-investigate the attacks of September 11th. Because widespread, unmet doubts about the official explanations will only fuel the vast well of paranoia that has permeated American political, social and religious discourse at least since the Salem witch trials. (Recommended reading: "The Paranoid Style in American Politics" by Richard Hofstadter, a classic in a crowded field.)
The reason those conspiracy theories about the Kennedy assassination have faded isn't just the passage of time but the regular investigations and re-investigations over the years. When they turned up no substantial basis on which to doubt the Warren Commission's findings, the conspiracy theories disappeared, or at least moved over to make way for new ones.
Yes, there are still True Believers around who would be happy to explain why the government/vast right-wing conspiracy/The Mob/your villain of choice actually did it. Indeed. I'll doubtless find treatises from most of them when I open my e-mail tomorrow. But they're no longer as prolific as they once were - because they no longer have a vacuum of information to fill.
The surest result of official non-responses is popular suspicion. With each re-examination of the evidence, the number of conspiracy theorists dwindles. And that may be the best reason to have still another investigation of the collapse of the Twin Towers, and hear from the most reputable and convincing of the doubters. In order to clear the air - just as was done at Ground Zero itself.