-What people remembered about that morning was how incredibly blue the sky was — the kind of gorgeous day it was, making you feel grateful how heart-breakingly beautiful it was. We had skies like that this Labor Day weekend, a break from the oppressive bouts of heat. Blue as a baby, a Dutch painting. On the Tuesday that became a simple number — 9/11 — I hadn’t yet made it a habit to turn on my computer first thing after brushing my teeth. Instead, I headed out the door to take a 42 bus downtown near the White House, on my way to a photography exhibition opening at the Corcoran Gallery. I didn’t bring my camera, and I didn’t have a cell phone. I didn’t have a clue. As the bus neared the Farragut stop, you began to see a large number of people on the sidewalks, most of them on their cell phones, which was not yet a common sight. Many of them appeared agitated. More and more people started to pour out of office buildings and the Executive Office Building. At Pennsylvania Avenue, with the White House as a backdrop, I walked up to a policeman and asked him what was going on. “Oh, not much,” he said. “Two planes were hijacked and rammed into the World Trade Center in New York. Another one just hit the Pentagon. There’s one that’s supposed to be coming here.” He nodded toward the White House. My first thought was why the hell are we standing here? But I didn’t say anything except maybe “Jesus” or “Oh my God”. I couldn’t say. I decided to stay and see what happened. That was the start 9/11 for me. I saw a group of Christian stockbrokers fall to their knees outside an office building where they were convening and they prayed. I saw people start the long walks home to Bethesda, Chevy Chase, and the Maryland border. I saw people gathered around a television set in the Mayflower Hotel, and I saw the real-time collapse of the second tower. It looked unreal. A nurse who was here for a medical convention said “I’m going home to a different world.” Somewhere in a place called Shanksville, Pennsylvania, a fourth plane had crashed in a field near this small town outside Pittsburgh, after passengers had stormed the cockpit and fought the hijackers. On Thanksgiving two years later, we visited the site: there was a big memorial full of flags and angels there and a huge indentation in a field a distance away. The town was small, and it had a football field. It snowed into the quiet land. I remember the days afterward: the president’s speech, his stand on the rocks, the awful images from New York, the rubble, the many dead, and the pictures of falling bodies. I remember a girl, late at night, sitting on the steps, holding a lit candle. I remember being among a group of people in Adams Morgan, who had gathered to hold candles and sing folk songs from our youth — “We Shall Overcome.” I remember two survivors of the attacks — one from the Pentagon and a blonde office worker from the World Trade Center, who came to the Corcoran where an exhibition of photographs from 9/11 was opening. They told personal stories of their trials and still mourned those lost. The fact that the stories were plain-spoken and true made them seem like incantations. I remember that The Georgetowner ran something like five cover stories continuously after 9/11 on 9/11. The streak did not stop until the death of Beatle George Harrison, which seemed in a strange way oddly celebratory and sad at once. I know this much: wars came and continue, American soldiers continue to serve and die, and we and the rest of the world have an enemy that appears implacable in its devotion to destruction, violence, bombings, and war as a way of showing their hatred of cultures and nations that are different from them. This seems never ending — the carnage and that contrary idea of a holy war. This is the world we live in. They call themselves by many names — Jihadists, Taliban, al Qaeda, Hezbollah, Hamas. Here we call them terrorists. There the entire region seems in turmoil — Iraq after us, Afghanistan, Pakistan, flooded and bombed at once. It is a cauldron of suffering. That blue-sky day prevails in my memory. I saw the Oberammergau Passion Play in Bavaria this summer, in which the man playing Jesus — a dentist — wailed at Gethsemane, crying out to God that “you have thrown me into the dust of death.” That’s what we saw that day: the dust of death. It blotted out the perfect blue sky.
This past week the council completed its work on the FY 2011 budget. States and localities around the nation, of course, are dealing with problems similar to those facing the District: a significant decline in revenues matched up against state and local budgets, which have seen sharp growth through the current decade. Much like the housing mortgage market, irrational exuberance in the stock market or the sovereign debt crisis in Europe, state and local governments have been overleveraged for a few years and now that revenues have remained flat for a third straight year, it would make sense to make some adjustments. A good case in point is the dust-up which occurred over the funding for the proposed streetcar lines on H Street N.E. and in Anacostia. I’m pro-streetcar and supported the mayor’s original proposal, although I agree with the sentiment that we should put some more planning into what we are doing. That being said, as part of our budget deliberations last month we took what was a program funded by reallocating existing funds and changed it to a program for which we will now borrow an additional $47 million. I think this is a bad idea. As you may know, about two years ago the council passed a law to put a 12 percent cap on our borrowing, which I fully supported. What this means is if our operating budget for the year is $1 billion (it’s more like $5 billion!) then we can only borrow up to 12 percent of that, or $120 million. Borrowing an additional $47 million puts us very close to that line, not just for FY 2011, but going forward the next couple years. I don’t think we should play it that close. In fact, I would advocate we do the very same thing with respect to our operating reserves and fund balances, because we don’t know what the future may hold. If the District’s revenues go down farther — witness the plunge in the stock market over the past month, which would impact our income tax collections — then the 12 percent cap becomes smaller. If we either leverage our debt all the way up to that line, or spend our fund balances or reserves all the way up to the line, then when something bad happens we have no margin for error. No margin at all. That should make people nervous — I know I am. We should not borrow the additional $47 million. We can fund the streetcar project by maintaining the original proposed cut to the various Great Streets projects that are not going forward, by making the necessary recommended cuts by the Committee on Human Services and by reversing the plan to spend $7 million in cash on a proposal for small business streetscape relief (which is money we don’t have). It is likely the mayor and the council will revisit the budget when we come back from the summer recess on September 16, and hard decisions may well need to be made.