Cleveland Rocked

Vote for Change and Vote Often

"The Rising" is told from the point of view of an emergency worker climbing the stairs of one of the World Trade Center's towers in the minutes before it collapses. He can't see anything for the choking smoke that fills the stairwell, and he's

Lost track of how far I've gone . . .

How high I've climbed

On my back's a 60-pound stone

On my shoulder a half mile of line.

As the first chorus comes in--"Come on up for the rising"--it seems like he's calling for more help, for other firefighters to rise through the tower to help him get at whatever victims have been trapped in the floors above. And that's part of it, but what we soon learn is that the higher he rises, the more dangerous it is, and that our emergency worker is actually rising to his own sacrifice, that he's working up his own courage to face the annihilation he's going to suffer alongside the trapped ones he's hoped to save:

There's spirits above and behind me

Faces gone back, eyes burnin' bright

May their precious blood bind me

Lord, as I stand before your fiery light.

Suddenly, the fire around him isn't the terrorists' doing or even Osama bin Laden's; it's the Lord's--it's God's, it's Fate's--and the song all at once bursts the bounds of politics. Springsteen imagines a man being consumed by flame and reaching out to the others dying beside him, praying not for personal deliverance but to be bound to the others' blood--love for other strangers is his last living feeling. The worker's heroism isn't addressed, and the guy is all the more heroic for it not needing to be.

Then, in a second remarkable and daring shift, we see what the worker envisions in the afterlife:

I see you, Mary, in the garden

In the garden of a thousand sighs

There's holy pictures of our children

Dancin' in a sky filled with light

May I feel your arms around me

May I feel your blood mixed with mine

Springsteen hasn't ever imagined in song what happens after death, but Sept. 11 evidently spurred him on to break the binds of realism that has always solidly encased his songs. Then, rising beyond this affecting vision of family love, Springsteen has his worker feel "a dream of life" come upon him. The dream is a vision of Manhattan's sky after the towers' fall:

Sky of blackness, sky of sorrow

Sky of love, sky of tears

Sky of glory and sadness

Sky of mercy, sky of fear

Sky of memory and sadness

Your burning wind fills my heart tonight

Sky of longing and emptiness

Sky of fullness, sky of blessed life

These are only lyrics, and of course you need to hear the searing barrage of guitars and synthesizers behind them to get the effect—mostly you need to hear Bruce's voice, which fully embodies the abstractions of the words and wrenches their contradictions until the tears, the sadness, the fear, the burning wind rise up, transfigured, and are redeemed into a sky of fullness and blessed life.

I go on like this because a song like "The Rising" is the kind of response to Sept. 11 that does full justice to what Lincoln once called "the better angels of our nature." Which, to put it simply, means staying human in the face of horror, remembering the ties that bind us to each and all, keeping alive the hope that shared suffering is the basis for love, and knowing that evil has every bit as much of a chance to set up shop within us as it did in the terrorists who savaged the country's heart that miserable day. (If you don't think so, consider that the U.S. has killed many more innocent Iraqi and Afghan civilians than were killed on Sept. 11 and that almost nobody cares about this.) Everybody remembers--and John Kerry has lately been reminding us--of the world's solidarity with us in the wake of the attacks. After Sept. 11, it was as if the U.S. finally began to share in the world-sorrow Europeans, Asians, Africans and South Americans have suffered always and which geographical distance, luck and a certain impervious disdain for suffering had always protected us from. As a nation, we were facing, on a smaller if still spectacular scale, the ravages—genocides, plagues, the awesome senselessness of war--the rest of the world has endured for centuries. We were finally one with the world--still a beacon of hope, but one now firmly set on history's slaughter bench and, remarkably, glowing all the brighter for it.

And then we blew it. We blew it because we have an administration that looked up into the empty sky where the towers used to be and saw only a sky of rage. Who panic the way ignorant xenophobes panic, which is by instinctively resorting to force to kill the Other. Who in their circling of the wagons don't care that in doing so, we are excluding our most trusted allies. Who are driven to war in the end not by courage, but by fear. Who respond to terror with terror. And who in invading Iraq gave great momentum to the cycle of terror that we'll no doubt now be living with for decades.

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