September 12, 2001

by Peter Givler

This essay was originally published in the Summer 2001 Exchange. Peter Givler is the Executive Director of the Association of American University Presses. At the time, AAUP's offices faced south from 23rd Street and 6th Avenue in Manhattan.

It's difficult to know what to say, I think, because it's difficult to know what to feel. We're still numb. As I write this, the day after the bombings, the view from my office window is almost ordinary. The sun is shining, the sky is blue. I can hear sirens coming and going, but there are always sirens coming and going in New York. To the south, the smoke hanging over the city looks like a bank of fog, incongruous on such a sunny day, but not threatening. There's hardly any traffic. It could be a quiet Sunday morning in Manhattan, except that it's Wednesday, and we're all haunted by nightmare images. Buildings spouting flame, smoke and debris boiling up as if from a volcano, bodies pinwheeling.

I'm also haunted by a story. The evening of the day after Robert Kennedy was assassinated, John Coltrane gave a concert at UCLA. The time for the start of the concert came and went. The audience kept waiting, in a state of mind you can imagine. An hour and a half late, Coltrane and the band walked on stage, set up and started to play, no announcements, no introductions. They played "My Favorite Things" for 45 minutes, stopped and walked off stage. A friend who was there said that people were weeping, and clapping, and wouldn't stop. Finally, Coltrane brought the band back out and they played "My Favorite Things" for another 30 minutes.

That story has always moved me deeply. It says something about our primal need for art, about the difficulty of expressing our deepest griefs, about the power of elegies, and the gratitude we owe those who, when we're speechless with sorrow, can speak the words we know but cannot say.

And that story, which is also about a gifted musician deciding that the best tribute he could offer to a slain Kennedy was to do what only he could do best, reminds me that continuing to do what we do best, however feeble and ineffective it may feel right now, is also our best and most honorable response. We are publishers and, whatever else that says about us, at the very least it means each of us has made a personal decision to pursue a career dedicated to the civil dissemination of ideas. With that commitment—probably preceding it—came a commitment to the power of language as both an instrument of communication and a tool for discovery. We are makers of books, but even more we are people of words.

Keeping faith with that commitment isn't always easy. When I was an editor at the University of Wisconsin Press I was offered a manuscript on the bombing of the Army Math Research Center on the UW campus. The bombing took place in 1971; I got the manuscript in 1983 or '84.

The manuscript had problems. It was not written by a scholar, or even a journalist, but by a member of an antiterrorist unit in the South African National Police, an organization not known for its progressive social policies, or its commitment to human rights. The author had been sent to Madison to research the bombing because the SANP recognized it as a milestone in the history of terrorism: the largest and most destructive car bomb ever built. So the manuscript was long on the bombers, the bomb, and the blast, and short on thoughtful social or political analysis. Still, there had never been anything written about the bombing beyond the newspaper stories at the time, and I thought the book told a fascinating and frightening story: how three feckless and not very bright young men managed to build a formidable weapon out of hardware-store materials and blow up a public building. One of the bombers, moreover, was still at large at the time I had the manuscript.

I was advised that I should float the idea of publishing it past a then-senior administrator at the university, a man who at the time of the bombing had been active in the investigation. So I wrote up a descriptive memo and sent it on. A few days later I got a phone call from the administrator. He still had sitting on his desk, he told me, a scrap of metal from the van that had contained the bomb. The bombing was the worst experience of his life, he said. He still had nightmares about it. The widow of the one victim of the bomb, a graduate student working late in the building, was still living in Madison. She was, he put it, emotionally fragile. Publication of a book about the bombing would only reactivate a very painful trauma for a lot of people. He would appreciate it if I didn't pursue it.

I would like to think that if the manuscript had been better I would have fought harder for it, but maybe if I'd been a better publisher I would have fought harder for it anyway. Who knows? I didn't fight, and that was that.

The experience did bring two things home to me, though. The first is what an enormous footprint a single violent event stamps into the landscape. People are altered forever by it. It can change the lives of an entire community. Its effects continue for years, even decades.

The second is just what an awesomely effective form of communication violence really is. We often talk as though it isn't, but we know it is, and we get its message loud and clear, every time. This is its message: fear, and silence.

There's nothing to be done about the fear except live with it, but it's our peculiar responsibility to be people whose profession is breaking the silence. Most of us aren't poets or musicians. In times of unspeakable tragedy we have to turn to those who are to help us find a voice for our grief. What we can do for ourselves, though, is make sure the fear, and the anger that goes with it, do not keep us from doing our best at what we do best: bringing other people to the words that will give them discovery, and knowledge, and if we're really good at it, a scrap of understanding.