OCTOBER 21, 2001: I've always found Peggy Noonan a little weird, but the Terror has apparently left her unhinged. The disturbing evidence appears below.
Former Reagan speechwriter Peggy Noonan is a familiar figure in right-wing environs, best known for her OpinionJournal columns. I admire her skill but dislike her politics, if we can so dignify the nostalgic, Shining-City-on-a-Hill fluff that usually constitutes her themes.
Now my dislike is turning to concern. Noonan's work since September 11 suggests that she may be turning from a milky but unremarkable political observer into one of those dotty old ladies who used to confront you in Port Authority and ask if you had been saved. In fact, if you are of Arab extraction (or just look like it), Ms. Noonan has indicated that she may actually tackle you in the street.
Noonan's early post-terror writing was at first merely strange. Her long exegeses on firemen, cops, and heroism, while tonally consistent with the spirit of the time, were more unfocussed than even similar pieces by her least talented fellow essayists: taffy-like wads of sentiment that rolled out endless without achieving a discernible point. This was odd because Ms. Noonan first made her bones as the Riefenstahl of Reaganism, and driving sentiments to climax had been her stock in trade, at which she excelled.
But here we had a new Noonan, turning out the journalistic equivalent of embroidered memorial pillows in an endless, obsessive stream.
Noonan's condition has recently progressed to a new level.
In her October 12 column, Ms. Noonan noted the discovery of a "steel-girder cross" looming from the ruins of the WTC, and saw religious significance in it. This is an understandable observation, rather sweet in its way, like the devotion of people who see Jesus in a bit of frost on the windowpane, or Elvis in a mini-mart. But Noonan has a busy brain, and she followed up with this odd passage:
"If you are of a certain cast of mind, it is of course meaningful that the face of the Evil One seemed to emerge with a roar from the furnace that was Tower One. You have seen the Associated Press photo, and the photos that followed: the evil face roared out of the building with an ugly howl -- and then in a snap of the fingers it lost form and force and disappeared."
I have not seen this apparition. Could someone with a subscription to the Weekly World News please send it to me? Better yet, can you send it to the Pope? Even the claims of Bernadette of Lourdes had to be investigated and approved by the Church before getting the sort of treatment Noonan gave the "face of the Evil One."
Or maybe Noonan, in her own mind, is Bernadette: "I believe this quite literally," she went on to declare. "But then I am experiencing Sept. 11 not as a political event but as a spiritual event" -- in the same sense, I would say, that a lot of people once saw the appearance of Halley's Comet not as a meteorological event, but as a spiritual event.
Of course, Jerry Falwell famously saw WTC as a spiritual event, too, one that flattered his well-known prejudices. But what significance has this spiritual event for Noonan?
Clues are available in her October 19 column. Noonan and her son were standing outside St. Patrick's Cathedral in New York, she writes, and noticed "two 'Mideastern looking men,' as we all now say." (We do?) "They were 25 or 30 years old, dressed in jeans and windbreakers, and they were doing something odd. They were standing together silently videotaping the outside of St. Pat's, top to bottom. We watched them, trying to put what we were seeing together. Tourists? It was a funny time of day for tourists to be videotaping a landmark -- especially when the tourists looked like the guys who'd just a few days before blown up a landmark."
Moments later, the "Mideastern-looking men" walked past Noonan and her son: "We were about 20 feet away from them, and we eyeballed them hard. They stared back at us in what I thought an aggressive manner: a deadeye stare, cold, no nod, no upturned-chin hello."
Let's see now. Two dark-looking fellows are videotaping one of America's greatest tourist attractions and most photographed buildings. (If there were Taliban, couldn't they have just bought some postcards?) A white lady glares at them. Surely they needn't have been terrorists to take offense.
Noonan thinks otherwise. She points to other incidents involving Arabs looking to videotape sensitive locations such as the inside of a petrochemical plant -- a cause for concern, perhaps, because such locations are not videotaped by strangers every day, as the Cathedral is. But this fuels Noonan's paranoia (or, as she would have it, patriotism):
"We know the profile of the bad guys. I think I saw some of them that night across from St. Pat's, and I continue to regret not confronting them, questioning them and, if I had to, tackling them and screaming for help. I could have gotten us all arrested. If they had been innocent tourists I would have apologized, begged their forgiveness and offered to buy them a very nice dinner. If they had not been innocent, I would have helped stop some bad guys. In the past month I have evolved from polite tip-line caller to watchful potential warrior."
If you're standing outside St. Pat's sometime and see a mild-looking, 50ish blond woman glaring at Arabs (or Sikhs or Hindus or whatever they might actually be) with video cameras, wait a bit and you may see an astonishing sight: Peggy Noonan tackling the could-be-terrorists and hollering, "Police!"