Eye on the United States

Truly a Great Nation

New Yorkers cross the Brooklyn Bridge during the Aug. 14 blackout
New Yorkers walk home over the Brooklyn Bridge during the Aug. 14, 2003, blackout (Photo: Mandel Ngan/AFP-Getty Images).

It was not just electric power that went out at 4:11 p.m. Traffic lights and air conditioners stopped working. Elevators in skyscrapers ground to a halt with hundreds of people stuck in them. The subway froze in its tracks, and thousands of people found themselves trapped in stuffy box cars and pitch-dark tunnels. ATMs stopped operating. Thousands of companies wound up with non-operating electronic locks. Refrigerators ended up defrosted in restaurants and apartments. In short, life came to a stop, a life that these 50 million people were used to living.

Something else could have taken its place at a time that could have or, by the logic of things should have, become a time of lawlessness, especially when the darkness descended on the cities. But that did not happen. This nation of individualists, rationalists, and pragmatics, woven out of a multitude of religions, nationalities, and races, a nation of capitalist sharks and cash-based morality, demonstrated—and not for the first time in American history—that it has quite a high percentage of humanity. I take my hat off to them.

Traffic lights stopped operating—and both young and not so young, black and white, the tattooed and those without tattoos, those wearing stylish clothes and those wearing baggy pants, all these people got up in the middle of congested avenues and streets and started to direct traffic. Elevators stopped running, and some complete strangers hand-carried an old woman all the way to the 17th floor. Television and computer screens went blank, as did plug-in radios—and sedan drivers were pulling over with the car windows rolled down so that pedestrians could listen to the radio broadcast: “This is not a terrorist attack!” The drivers of cars and trucks stopped to offer strangers a ride.

New York City, which endured tragedy and distress two years ago—a city, which, it seems, should have howled in a panic, “Run for your life, everybody is on his own”—this city, crazy on any other day, all of a sudden became polite, accommodating, and ready to help anyone.

New York City was hardly always so human. In 1977, when power went out in the same way, the night of darkness turned into a night of looting. People, however, are able to learn to be human, which they demonstrated two years ago and continue to demonstrate now.

I take my hat off to them: A nation that can behave like that in a time of tragedy and man-made catastrophes is truly a great nation.