I share an obsession with Tony Soprano. This startles me and makes me unhappy because it has been my experience that once my inner fears are echoed in the outer culture, some kind of grim critical mass has been achieved, and trouble ensues. (Does this sound oddly egocentric, even for a pundit? I think it may. Yet it’s true.)
On Sunday’s “The Sopranos,” Tony stayed up one night channel-surfing. This is not unusual for Tony. His sins keep him awake. Or rather a perplexing question about his sins: Why has the committing of them become so joyless? Why don’t they yield happiness?
He comes across a documentary about the potential use by terrorists of the nearby Port of Newark. The Port of Newark, the biggest port on the eastern seaboard, receives millions of ship containers each year; the feds say they can check only 2%; terrorists could easily smuggle in a dirty nuke.
Tony becomes alarmed. He knows Port Newark. The mob is there, his people are there. It is corrupt, lazy, badly run. Suddenly he realizes there’s nothing between his home and kaboom but a chain-link fence and a mall.
He shares his new anxiety with everyone, sounding like a crank. When a bartender doesn’t respond with the appropriate anxiety Tony becomes enraged and beats him up. Tony has anger problems. So does al Qaeda.
* * *
Here’s the obsession I share with Tony Soprano. The Port of Newark is my big fear. When I send out my intellectual radar screen to see what anxiety pings present themselves each day, Newark always comes up first. For Tony’s reasons and others.
Port Newark is just beyond the Statue of Liberty in New York Harbor. A hit on Newark would cause panic in al Qaeda’s great target, New York—stock market crash, terror in the streets. A hit on Port Newark would deal a blow rich in practical and symbolic terms.
We know that members of al Qaeda are familiar with the Newark area. Many of the terrorists who hit the World Trade Center in 1993 lived in northern New Jersey.
But there’s more and for me it’s more central, and the reason my pings began. New Jersey is becoming the center, in America, of the movement for cloning. Its governor just signed the most liberal cloning bill in the United States. There is money in cloning research, and status: We’re the coming intellectual center of science! We’re not just the Meadowlands and the mob, we’re Princeton and Einstein! There is greater suburban affluence to be gained, and higher tax revenues for politicians to spend on community centers built through no-bid contracts by big contributors. The Robert Torricelli Psychotherapy Institute for the Differently Abled. The Jim McGreevey Carpal Tunnel Trauma Research Facility.
Whenever I think of cloning, I think of Sam Ervin during the Watergate hearings. He quoted the Bible to Richard Nixon’s malefactors: “God is not mocked.” Indeed he is not. Once we can have cloning, we will have cloning. Once we can have cloning we’ll be cloning replacement-part humans to make new hearts for aging baby boomers. We’ll throw the rest away, or mine these beings for other organs and elixirs. Once we have cloning, we’ll start growing cloned armies. Why shouldn’t they fight for us? Once we have cloning, a lot of things will happen, including that we’ll be opening the mouth of hell.
New Jersey is now so confused about what is important, what is needed, and what time it is in history, that they are not only bravely and quite mindlessly going forward on cloning; their political figures are in the news because they feel this is a helpful time to go head to head with the Roman Catholic Church. The Democratic leader of the state Senate has announced he’ll leave the church because of its unfortunate stand against abortion. The governor, criticized by the church for his position on abortion, has announced he won’t receive communion anymore. The church is in a hard place. American cardinals and bishops, afflicted by the sex-abuse scandals they allowed to fester, seem to have lost their standing to persuasively instruct Catholics on moral matters. Rome doesn’t quite believe this, but it’s true. And if Rome directly involves itself—no one challenges John Paul’s moral standing—it will look like the Vatican is meddling in American politics. Which won’t play well in America, for about 28 reasons. In Kerry vs. the Vatican, Kerry would win.
But back to Jersey. Let us posit that its politicians are in politics; let us posit that they are not showily doing all this on the front page of the Newark Star-Ledger because they are deeply principled men in spiritual anguish; let us posit that they are pols who know the plays. Meaning they know the people of Jersey will approve of their stand, or at least not disapprove.
And they are, I believe, correct. Poor Jersey! When I was in high school and college there, it was, I believe, a more soulful place.
* * *
On “The Sopranos,” one sees a plot twist being signaled: Tony and Carmella will stay together, and Tony will attempt to extricate himself from his life, removing himself and his family to the Hudson River Valley farm where he spent some happy boyhood summers. On the farm, in the last scene, he is smoking his cigar, full face to the camera. We are left to wonder if it will work. Will Tony find out that sin is a trap, that, as someone once said, happiness is a cat? (Chase it and it will run from you, sit quietly and do your work and it will come and curl itself at your feet.) We will be left to debate it the next day, at the HBO water cooler.
This being “The Sopranos,” signaled plot twists are usually head fakes—we haven’t seen the Essex County prosecutor in a while—but it makes sense. Because Tony wants to get away from Port Newark. He thinks the world has reached some terrible critical mass. He’ll probably soon start talking about cloning. Being a mobster he would be a particular kind of conservative—aware of the bottom line, free of illusions about who human beings are, open in his own sick way to the idea of God, or at least the practical benefits to society of others believing in God—and would immediately intuit what cloning is. At least until A.J. needs a new kidney.
Here’s the point: Bad things are coming, and we all know it. But most of us can’t afford to buy a farm in the Hudson River Valley. Most of us can’t afford to buy the safety of being far, far away on a lake in the mists. Many of us are stuck living near Port Newark.
What are we to do? This is the great domestic policy question of our time. Why doesn’t our government provide us all with the means to survive an expected nuclear, biological or chemical attack? Why doesn’t our government provide us with what I think of as a “get out of Dodge” kit—a protective suit, a regulation gas mask, information on which direction to walk in, or rather run in, and how soon, after Port Newark, or Times Square, or the Sears Tower, or the Shrine Auditorium, is hit? Why aren’t they doing this?
More on that soon.