The Janus face of architectural terrorism: Minoru Yamasaki, Mohammad Atta and the World Trade Center
Ever since the United States became a world power, just over a hundred years ago, American foreign policy has been hammered out between two great forces, each deeply rooted in the American historical experience. One way of defining them is to think of them as the immigrant tradition, and the tradition of the frontiersman.
As the thick gray ash of the World Trade Center poured down on Manhattan, Americans were moved by messages of solidarity from every land. “We Are All New Yorkers”, we heard, and an American could be forgiven for imagining that new understandings might be pouring in, too. Here and there, yes. Along with straightforward, unqualified condemnation of terrorism came the passionate hope that the crimes of 11 Septembe 2001 crimes might elicit from Americans a stronger feeling for the whole of assaulted humanity.
I have been through this before.
During the last twenty-eight years, Tuesday 11 September has been a date of mourning, for me and millions of others, ever since that day in 1973 when Chile lost its democracy in a military coup, that day when death irrevocably entered our lives and changed us forever. And now, almost three decades later, the malignant gods of random history have wanted to impose upon another country that dreadful date, again a Tuesday, once again an 11 September filled with death.
Friday morning, I take the subway down the west side of Manhattan to the edge of the smoking ruin. As, we inch through one shut–down station and then another, I suddenly realize I’ve seen this movie before. It isn’t the billowing cloud smoke chasing the screaming crowds down the street as they flee The Towering Inferno. It isn’t Die Hard, or even the casually planet–demolishing Star Wars. It’s the postnuclear dystopia of Planet of the Apes. In such bleak scenes, we are meant to feel the futility of empire, the absurdity of confidence, the gargantuan fateful prophecy that this is how empires end, not with a whimper, but a bang. Ozymandias in a deserted underground plaza. But of course I haven’t seen this movie before. No one has. All these images are protective masks.
Ground 0.1 is still smoky from underground fires nine days after the twin cathedrals of world capitalism came crashing down. It must be said that the twisted segments of aluminum WTC facade still standing on the pavement, some scorched, some not, are weirdly beautiful. The interior of the Roman Coliseum, my wife Laurel Cook says.
Into the mind of terror
Staggered, mournful, enraged, we grope our way out of the shock of 11 September, trying to understand who these people are, where they come from, and why they want to kill. Is it because of our values, as President Bush said: if so, which ones? Is it because we in the United States are free or because we are powerful? Do they hate us because of who we are or what we do? When did this hate start? Who else feels it or is likely to start feeling it?
We had better inquire deeply into this hatred because terrorists are neither gods nor animals who massacre and ruin and call their acts godly. Others, possibly already in place, may be consecrated to their furious cause, ready to murder again, even with joy in their hearts. To stop terrorism will require more than military self–defense, more than police and courts. Can there be any doubt, to thoughtful people of all persuasions and nations, that there is an urgent need for some disciplined curiosity?
One provocative point of departure is Amin Maalouf’s In the Name of Identity:Violence and the Need to Belong, sent to me for review by the Los Angeles Times Book Review. It is not a biography of Osama bin Laden, or a history of the Afghan war, or a sociology of the Saudi regime, or an anatomy of the Israel– Palestine conflict, or an analysis of American power. A pungent polemic, mostly as wise as it is brief, it is searingly pertinent. It confirms that there really is a history to historic events, that the mass murder of 11 September, while indelibly shocking, is not wholly surprising. It was not inevitable—better security may have averted these particular assaults—but it had a design and a logic.
How does a man convert himself into the instrument of a massacre? What goes on in his mind or his heart when he sets out to smash a jetliner into a skyscraper? How does it happen that scores of such men decide that they have been called to demonstrate their piety by obliterating their enemies and the pride of their enemies, and that nothing will stand in their way, not even their own earthly existence?
To decide that some heaven– bent destiny calls you to heap up mountains of corpses, hundreds of thousands of mourners, and desolation all around is not the product of a moment’s revelation or a casual notion. It is a life work. It requires resolve, repeated self– renewal and tremendous feats of self–purgation. It requires moral suicide.
The people who resolve to do whatever necessary to destroy their Great Satan of choice devote themselves to years of planning. Their lives become the planning and they disappear into their tasks. He who signs up for such schemes convinces himself that there is a devil responsible for his and his people’s wounds; that his hatred is love—for his people or his God– and that he must regenerate himself as pure righteousness and fling himself against absolute evil. As a man, he does not matter. He melts himself down into a symbol, a symbol at war with symbols. Deploying himself against the heart of American capitalism and its chief military citadel, he will overcome earthly limits.
Violence is crucial in his scheme. Violence is at once his break from yesterday, his link to a glorious past and his door to the luminous future. Claiming ancient vindication and denying his modernity, except when it comes to techniques, he struggles to fuse the glorious past with a glorious future and burns up the present between them. To such a man, there can be no civilians. His pure totality is at war against the enemy’s impure totality. Of this, sacred men assure him. If the dead matter at all, it is as symbols themselves, symbols of the raw power, he believes, that has brought him and his people low. Their deaths will stand for his rectitude, inspirations to those who will come along behind him, inspired by his martyrdom.
As we walk up Broadway past Herman Melville’s custom house and Wall Street’s rip– roaring sculptural bull (two American flags taped to its horns), the line that comes to mind is Marx’s invocation of capitalism’s revolutionary power. “All that is solid melts into air”, the incantation turned to a title and theme in Marshall Berman’s book. All that is steel is vaporized. All that is stable floats away. But Marx thought that, at the end, humanity would finally be forced to confront its true nature. What is it we are finally compelled to face? The seductions of the apocalyptic imagination.
Jihad and counter–jihad. Politics is dissolving. One dissent in the House, none in the Senate, to the resolution pledging support for unspecified military action. Then the Senate Democrats cave in on missile defense. They decide not to resist the Bush administration’s request for $1.8 billion boost in spending for a fantastical project.
It was reported last week that the Clear Channel company, a major owner of radio stations, circulated a no– play song– list, numbering not only the complete oeuvre of Rage Against the Machine but some 150 other songs, including John Lennon’s Imagine and Simon&Garfunkel’s Bridge over Troubled Water – the former deemed by some moron in charge no doubt too utopian for this moment, and the latter? So it was probably not inadvertent that on the celebrity telethon broadcast over all the networks the night of 21 September, Neil Young took it upon himself to sing Imagine, in the soaring lyrical achievement of his career, and Paul Simon sang (what else?) Bridge over Troubled Water.
Entertainment is enlisting in more than one fashion. Marylou Luther, editor of the International Fashion Syndicate says: “If I were a designer, I would be working with NASA and perfecting clothes impervious to anthrax. I’d try to design clothes to solve the problems of our troubled world”.
Over and over during the recent atrocious days, US authorities and other public figures fling around overwrought metaphors that carry an immense emotional charge and stoke up grand expectations. Each metaphor circulates, amplified through the media, rallying opinion and sometimes demurrers. Sometimes there may come a partial retraction. Throughout, we witness the return of the repressed, an immense volcano of it. It has been reported that the president’s inner circle meet to review and revise the previous day’s metaphors.
But extravagant eruptions of metaphor do not emanate from George W. Bush alone. We hear this syndrome at work in many quarters. On 16 September, President Bush vowed to unleash a “crusade to rid the world of evildoers”. “CRUSADE” was the screaming front page headline in the next day’s New York Daily News, whose lead piece began : “Eight centuries after the kings of Europe dispatched their bravest knights to battle the infidels, the President of the United States called for a new crusade. Then as now the targets of the Western world faced Mecca when they prayed”. It went unmentioned that the first crusade of 1096 was launched with a massacre of Jews in western Germany, continued with the slaughter of every Muslim found within the city of Jerusalem, and went on to slaughter the Jews there too, for good measure.
Yet the metaphor came welling up out of Bush’s untamed consciousness, some sort of primal memory – Onward, Christian Soldiers. The next day, Bush abandoned the metaphor for the more home– grown Western motif, “Wanted – dead or alive”, readily adapted to another Daily News cover and pasted to some shop windows. This one he has declined to retract, even in his rhetorically more retrained speech of 20 September. Whether Afghanistan is the Wild West may be doubted, as may the efficacy of the sheriff.
Last week, we began to hear that the military operation getting underway was dubbed Infinite Justice – a rather grand label for any earthly pursuit. At a news conference on 20 September, a reporter asked Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld whether this was a proper label in light of the views of several Islamic clerics to whom he had spoken, to the effect that infinite justice was something achievable only by God. Rumsfeld backed off from the label. Still, someone had floated it.
Rumsfeld has also spoken of ‘draining the swamp’ that terrorists live in. A swamp is inert, of course. As attractive as swamp– draining sounds – at least before we learned of its environmental costs – these are dangerous associations. There are no innocents in a swamp.
The main metaphor in play, of course, is war. This is almost banal in the US. Since VJ– Day, presidents have declared more wars against scourges than wars against nations. We have had wars on poverty, on cancer, on drugs, now terrorism. But what is a war and when is it over? Large majorities of the public seem to agree with Washington that we ought to go to war – although there is next to no agreement on whom to go to war against. Officials have sometimes been at pains to explain that the war upon us now is not like the Second World War, as 11 September, 2001 was not like 7 December, 1941. This recognition is the least we can hope for. But the metaphor continues to drag officials into revelations that, if accurate, are astounding and terrifying.
Consider one essential war– related term, ‘victory’. On 20 September, a reporter asked Rumsfeld what would constitute victory over terrorists. Rumsfeld roamed in circles for quite some time before declaring that victory will have been attained when the American people are persuaded that they are safe. Victory in this unprecedented war will come not with a surrender or a conquest, but with a belief. But beliefs can be misguided, or manipulated. This then is not just ‘misspeaking’ or run– of– the– mill Washington inarticulateness.
A primal process is at work. The rage that Americans and many outside America feel after the immense crimes of 11 September conjures a metaphor to package the feeling. The metaphor entails other metaphors, as ‘war’ entails ‘victory’. And this is when we get into grave trouble. Metaphors can be lethal. People die and massacre in their name. The metaphor is that shining simplification that enables us to believe that we understand what we are about to destroy. We ought to have no trouble understanding how those who speak of ‘Holy War’ one minute become mass murderers the next. In an emergency, volcanic eruptions deliver the unvarnished truth. In the US today, most of those in charge seem to be thinking with their blood.
In the midst of life
As some hunt for precedents among earlier days of infamy – always mistakenly – the intellectual’s mind, reeling, gropes for literary forebears. Auden is the clear favorite. September 1, 1939 circulates, the phrases leaping out of the flames: “uncertain and afraid”, “clever hopes expire”, “low, dishonest decade” – the latter a staple that never goes out of fashion…
In midtown and upper Manhattan, where the stench of the ruin rarely reaches, and business is, if not usual, at least trying to prove that it is, people are more partial to Musee des Beaux Arts:
About suffering they were never wrong,
The Old Masters: How well they understood
its human position; how it takes place
while someone else is eating or opening a window or
just walking dully
Of all I have seen and heard in the last days, the story I most want to tell is this:
Thursday afternoon, around 5, my wife and I went down to the perimeter of the ruins along the West Side of lower Manhattan and fell in with a crowd that was greeting and applauding rescue workers – police, firemen, phone and gas company people, iron workers and welders, most driving slowly northward out of the smoking WTC area as other trucks drove south, heading in. Some came trudging out of the zone, their boots caked in gray ash. Some faces were gray. Mainly the fire fighters on foot had gray faces. The calls from the crowd were mainly: Thank you! Some people passed out cookies, bottles of water, soft drinks, cups of soup. There were some American flags. Some people came around handing out pictures of loved, lost ones.
We ran into a friend and walked a bit eastward along Canal Street, where the scene repeated itself. At one, a New Jersey off-duty cop with a Central Casting tough-guy demeanor said he’d been working on-site for more than a day, taking time out to go back home, get a hair-cut, and come back with a truckload of supplies. He impressed a young woman to get into the back of a pick-up truck with him, all the while casting aspersions on the masculinity of George W. Bush, who had just arrived to visit the remains of the WTC. This is the week of working-class heroes.
Out of the zone of ruins walked a man and woman in their early thirties, handsome, clear-eyed, wearing yellow slickers and boots. They were trying to figure out how to get to the subway. We advised on directions and fell in with them. Mary and Dean, friends or lovers, had driven down from the small city of Syracuse – 250 miles northwest – to volunteer, and had just spent some 36 hours in the belt of destruction, digging in rubble, dispersing whenever horns went off to signal that buildings near the WTC were in danger of collapsing themselves. They’d been directing themselves, more or less. Now the Federal managers were coming in to take over.
They said it hadn’t been easy to get into the damage zone: in fact, they’d had to trick their way in. They had reported to the main volunteer depot at the Javits Convention Center a mile and a half north. Mary, an image consultant at a cosmetic company, had some therapeutic experience and wanted to work with children. They found three hundred people lined up in front of them.
So they attached themselves to an upstate fire company, got their yellow slickers, boots, and smoke-protection masks, and made their way to Ground Zero. They didn’t know George W. Bush had made his appearance that afternoon (or that he’d been given a far less vigorous reception than Mayor Giuliani), nor were they impressed. At the time, they’d been catching a couple of hours’ sleep. Soaked by the first rain in days, they’d gone first to the shell of a nearby hotel, but there was a stench, and someone came up and told them not to sleep there, there were bodies. Searching for some other structure that looked as though it wouldn’t collapse on them, they followed fire fighters into another building. There too, Dean had seen human remains under the rubble.
I asked him what he thought the US ought to do now. “We have to do something,” he said, “but it’s not easy. We have to be careful about retaliating. We need diplomatic pressure. We can’t go bomb a lot of innocent people. Then we will have done what they’ve done.”
You will hear a lot in the days and weeks to come about jingo Americans who want to bomb someone, obliterate anyplace. There will be talk – there is already some – about bombing Afghanistan back to the Stone Age, as if it is not already close to that. The talk shows batten on bravado-laden would-be cowboy bombers, eyeballs saturated with endlessly recycled TV images of the explosions. There are probably more of these reckless talkers living out in the vastness of the republic beyond New York City – in what Mr. Bush is pleased to call “the heartland” – although on second thought Syracuse ought to qualify as a piece of that.
If and when military power lashes out in the days to come, Washington will claim that all Americans agree on what the government is doing. But there are an awful lot of Americans like Dean who feel spasms of anger and vengefulness and have not succumbed to them. Those who plan indiscriminate war may well roll over such doubts and dissent. But they are here. They have not been stampeded. They are the heartland. These patriots are not going away.
There’s more than one America. During the painful days ahead, let our allies and critics remember that we are not all mad bombers, racist or authoritarian bullies – far from it. The White House may claim that the American public demands all-out war, but there’s little sign of that. Even in high places in Washington there are counsels of restraint and focus – starting, it seems, with Colin Powell. Don’t understand America too quickly. Don’t box us in.
At the Times Square subway station yesterday afternoon, an African-American woman was striding up and down the platform, shouting angrily, ‘Repent for your sins! Repent for your sins!’ She might have been mad, the way people moved away from her. ‘You thought your dollars would save you’, she went on. ‘You were laughing! Laughing! Go to the hospitals! Look where it got you!! Look for yourself!’ She got into a Bronx-bound train and left.
In another corner of the platform, an unshaven African-American man began. ‘This is about racism, it’s about discrimination,’ he said. His tone too, was accusing. ‘It’s not out there, it’s in here. You have to look at yourselves!’ He too might have been talking to himself, for all the attention he got.
Like the fool in Shakespearean plays, they dwelt on another plane of discourse, poor and ignored individuals acting as unanswered moral commentators.
Meanwhile, the U.S. drifts into a state of emergency without any public self-examination or debate. An increasingly authoritarian state gains its long-sought carte blanche to guard against all real and imagined enemies. At such a time, there is a striking absence of engagement with the moral and political consequences of the U.S.’s own past and present.
Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld has declared that to swerve from ‘the American way of life’ would mean giving in to the terrorists. Which or whose American way of life?
‘Attack on America’ is indeed network news’ favored headline for this unfolding story. In fact, the attacks were strategic, aimed at financial and military nerve centers. But the distance between common people and the citadels of power on Wall Street and the Pentagon is erased in that title. ‘Freedom was attacked,’ George Bush announced. ‘But freedom has survived,’ Attorney General John Ashcroft reassured a press conference.
Innocent people have died. But the nation they worked within is the world’s presiding superpower. Innocence is a quality of individuals, not of governments or economies. Will this event reinforce or disrupt the paradoxical image of the innocent superpower?
Glittering and once seemingly invincible, Manhattan’s fame itself now feels a liability. The skyscrapers that were its most visible symbol, were precisely what made terrorists choose to attack it. After decades of impassively viewing the tragedies of other countries, the U.S. suddenly has to confront violence at home, of a scope and daring never witnessed before.
It was instructive to visit the scene of the disaster on 11 September. People were streaming away from the downtown area. Many were talking on their cellphones. One man was screaming into his phone, ‘I was supposed to be in that f***ing building!’ Four-wheel drive vehicles came out of the barricaded downtown area laden with a whitish ash, and the plume of smoke and dust behind them extended for fifty yards, like a ghostly visitation from the netherworld. Every now and then, someone would jump off the building to escape the fire. From the height they were at, and with the fire raging beneath them, there was no chance of rescue. Each time someone fell, a sigh would escape the crowd - Awwwww! Then silence. And again, Awwwww! It could have been any of us up there. At first glance it was hard to tell the difference between the falling debris and the falling people, but I noticed some were spread-eagled, some kept their legs together but bent and swayed in the wind, graceful to the end.
A young African-American girl near me was doubled up and weeping inconsolably, crying, ‘All those people! All those people!’ An older woman was trying to hold her and comfort her, in vain.
How could a disaster of this magnitude be comprehended? Each person had to struggle to make sense of the event, erupting as it did without warning, in the midst of an ordinary day. Some people scooped up pieces of debris or ash to gain some palpable hold on what had happened. In an undeclared war waged by an invisible enemy, the sense of danger is all-pervasive. The extraordinary is made ordinary, the intangible is rendered tangible.
People who were weeping became a magnet for attention, expressing what others could not. There was a new sense of intimacy amongst strangers. We had all been reminded of how close we are to death.
Two men in suits were talking, speculating on what road they could use to exit Manhattan. I tried to join the conversation. But with my entry, the topic changed. ‘It must have been Bin Laden who did it,’ one of them said, cocking an eye at me to see if I would confirm or deny this idea. Suddenly, something about my appearance made me an authority on terrorism for lay Americans.
Here was a delicate reflection of a response to the disaster. My foreignness became the pivot of the interaction, and a familiar enemy was being invoked. This was an all-too-popular way of making an extraordinary situation ordinary again.
One immediate reaction to the 11 September attacks has in fact been to suspect foreigners and immigrants. A rhetoric of patriotism is growing, and tests of patriotic virtue, including witch-hunts for culprits, will likely follow. But there are threats not only to citizens, but also to prevailing ideals of citizenship in the U.S.
The U.S. is the most open society in the world: nowhere else are immigrants allowed to make themselves at home to the extent they can here. Yet this pluralism could not exist if those at the center of power did not feel confident and assured of their stability. When confidence is replaced by fear, the character of the society itself changes.
Against this seeming inevitability, and the shutting down of any space for reflection, it is important to ask what levels of coercion are appropriate and in what context. This is a deeply paradoxical nation, wanting to be the super-cop of the world, but intolerant of any criticism of its self-image of pure virtue. This impossible desire to be both omnipotent and blameless deserves the same degree of examination the media are directing at the immediate events of the disaster.
I woke up Wednesday after a rough night’s sleep. I started walking in Manhattan and my feet sorta led me south to the financial district. I could see what looked like a big off-white cloud in an otherwise crystal-clear day. As I passed Fourteenth Street I notice the businesses were mostly closed. The small delis had signs saying ‘Sorry no newspapers being sold today’.
When I got close to the World Trade Center the police were turning people away. A man on a bike told me I could volunteer to help out at the Jacob Javits center on 34th. I started walking up the West Side Highway which is usually packed with cars, but today was empty.
I came to a stop light and looked over at two guys wearing heavy metal t-shirts in an old car. I said “Hey you headed up town”. They said “Jump in”. Turns out they were two guys from the Electrical Union and they were headed downtown to volunteer as well.
We go to the center for volunteers and there were several hundred people lined up. They were taking names and addressed and having you sign a different sheet if you had a skill like EMT (Emergency Medical Treatment) or Engineer.
I signed up and listened as the nice lady told people to go home and come back later when they needed more people.
Apparently they had 44,000 people come to volunteer. Two dump trucks showed up and asked for laborers. I was not quick enough to get on them but I heeded the point. Soon as the next two Ryder moving trucks showed up I jumped in one. They were full of Evian water.
A huge fashion show had been cancelled at the center and two Jamaican stage technicians were donating the water to the rescue effort. Five of us at the back started forming a human chain to deliver the water quickly.
We got to the early rescue site and began unloading. People just popped out of nowhere to help and the work went quick.
The Salvation Army had a large support area and I started making sandwiches and getting them ready to be moved down to the front-line people.
We loaded up a pick-up with water and food and headed down to “Ground Zero”.
As we passed anyone in a uniform from military to police to Fire Department or anyone covered in dust we tossed them cold water. Once we got to the main area we unloaded at a makeshift cafeteria consisting of two tables, which was being run by the curator of the local service building.
A guy came by asking for ice for the triage unit and morgue in the building next to the WTC. They had converted the next door Merrill Lynch lobby into the area where they were bringing bodies in.
I loaded ice and headed there with him. When we got there the lobby was a combination of medical teams, food volunteers and hundreds of firefighters and other rescue personnel.
They were breaking the remaining glass out of huge windows in order to make the area safer. Amidst shattering glass and construction equipment sawing at the wreckage we fed everyone who came by.
The day wore on. It was 90 degrees. The stench of smoke turned to the stench of thousands of bodies at the end.
We considered moving the food stations but there was really nowhere that had lights. Twice in the day parts of the building we were in collapsed. We grabbed injured and fled like crazy in case the entire 80 stories went. The only bathrooms were on the third floor. This was freaky as there were no lights and long escalators. When you got there it was pitch black. I had a pen light from a convention that was scheduled to have taken place the lobby. I made a wrong turn and walked into a conference room which had the eerie look of a place where people were about to return. The bathrooms had heavy fire doors so they stank terribly, as there was no running water.
Wave after wave of food came in from the docks. I have never seen so much. By 2am I found that I was the only person manning 15 tables piled high with every conceivable food item from McDonalds cheeseburgers to Gumdrops, to exotic vegetarian cuisine.
About that time I was getting pretty dead on my feet so I ask another volunteer to take over. I had serious sunburn. I ached from moving cases of water and standing on marble for 18 hours. The smoke was starting to make it hard to see and breathe. I wandered out and started walking north. I walked 40 blocks till I got a cab. There were a group of yahoos at the police line with signs and t-shirts cheering vehicles as they left the area. One even waved his shirt to me as I walked by.
Before going home I stopped for a beer at an Irish bar which stays open late. I started talking to a guy next to me who had not heard from several of his friends in the building.
I turned to look at the TV. When I turned back this guy had broken down in tears at the bar. I held his shoulders and though I didn’t really believe it I told him everything will be all right.
In front of fire stations candles are burning, hand-printed messages propped up: THANK YOU TO OUR HEROIC FIRE FIGHTERS. (Possibly one in fifteen or twenty of them died in the inferno.) Who said civic virtue was dead?
Today, the smoke from the ruin now known as Ground Zero blows north and so the airborne remnants of the World Trade Center have been seeping into lungs elsewhere on Manhattan Island. Vagaries of the wind. The acrid tidings are not conducive to equanimity or assurance. Nor, I must add, to appreciating the bitter, somewhat gloating smirks cropping up here and there on the Internet to the effect that chickens have come to roost, imperialists are getting the blowback they deserve, and other such effusions of brutal incomprehension or worse.
The fact and stench of the ruins – steel, cement, plastic, asbestos, and God knows what – further downtown is sinking in, and with it irreversible knowledge of the human, material, and moral immensity of Tuesday’s assaults. With awareness of the immensity comes a lot of psychic groping for implications. Our famous and notorious sense of invulnerability was crushed, criminality broke records, and now what? It’s as if the process of making sense of the senseless is running a few days behind, like videotape, but with the voice out of synch with the picture.
I have the sense today that bewilderment is down, the sense of the surreal is down, and a new reality is trying to crystallize. One clear thing: the emotions of citizenship are in flower. Reassurances circulate. People are nice to each other, even excruciatingly. On the subway, strangers wish each other good luck. Manhattan above 14th Street went to work. Below 14th St. there are still checkpoints – you have to demonstrate that you live down here (as we do). The subway’s been interrupted below 42nd St., reportedly because the rumbling from trains might destabilize some standing buildings that suffered structural damage.
What’s the import of endlessly broadcast images of the plane-bomb explosions, the building collapses, the rubble piles, the ashen streets, the injured, the lost and the saved? They keep up grief and underscore the irreversibility. There’s a legitimate fear that incessantly repeated images terrify people, freeze them in horror, incapacitate them into a love of vendetta. But maybe these appalling images shouldn’t be scorned. Maybe the heart-freezing pictures, endlessly replayed, of the jets smashing full speed into the World Trade Center towers, of monstrous clouds of smoke chasing panicky people down the street, underscore brute facts. They escort the American public into the coming age of nonexemption. Unlike the 24-hour-a-day image-and-sound onslaughts that American cable news networks fancy, the current wraparound coverage is about something important. And they serve not only the taste for sensation, but also the moral seriousness that is upon us. This moral seriousness is a tremendous achievement, which is not to say it is irrevocable.
Television is stuffed with stories that flash in many different directions – snapshots of missing persons, tales of anguish and solidarity, horror, desperation, appreciation, miracle rescues, improvised outdoor shrines. False miracles too: five rescued fire fighters were found alive in the rubble! No, it turns out, only two. Rumors floated, only eventually to sink out of sight. Endangered buildings on the verge of collapse. Hug your kids, says the governor of Oklahoma.
A bunch of middle-aged white Texan men caution unanimously against blind reprisals, for if we kill innocents, then we’re like the terrorists. A third-generation New Jersey flag factory owner, Gary Pontenzone, says on ABC that he sold 27,000 flags today. Easy to snort at. But listen to his words: “It’s not like the Gulf War. That was, ‘Get em, get em.’ This is more solidarity. I’m very happy to see true patriotism. This is so much warmth.”
The total viewing experience is a peculiar sum of these images and reports, rumors and fragments – a crazy, contradictory, kaleidoscopic disorder that craves clarification. There is absurd talk about “healing,” as if that could be accomplished so casually! As if nations were like skin! Yet “closure,” the other buzzword of choice, is not being frantically sought now. Not even by vengeance. Really, right now at least, this is not a jingo nation. It is sober but not bloodthirsty.
To be sure, there are also idiotic rumblings in bars and (as Steven Lukes reported) talk radio – Nuke ‘em. As during the Iranian hostage crisis, when some Arabs were attacked by racists who couldn’t even get their race-enemies straight: they thought Iranians were Arabs.
This week, too, there are attacks on Arabs and Muslims, their mosques and shops. These are frequently denounced by officials – the good news. They go on – the bad news.
More worrying is the slap-happy vengefulness of some “terrorism experts,” Congressional jingos, and gung-ho radio jockeys—onetime draft dodgers, many of them—who long to bomb something, anything, someone, anyone, as soon as possible. Shoot first, know something later. Not for them the niceties of Timothy Garton-Ash’s crucial distinction between unilateral action, rallying the NATO club, or thirdly, a wholly, not just Western international action against terrorists.
A slice of this nation yearns to lash out with vengeance missions in Afghanistan or wherever, yearning then to retreat behind delusional walls, from behind which it can continue to fund Israeli settlements and denounce inconvenient treaties. The size of this slice is hard to assess. Not for them the realization that Israel midwifed the birth of Hezbollah after Ariel Sharon invaded Lebanon in 1982 to put an end to cross-border attacks once and for all.
Does popular sentiment matter? I’ve been talking about the American street and screen. But the American street and screen don’t, in the end, make policy or war. Americans by and large feel patriotic, not necessarily bellicose, but surely in support of whatever war comes.
Colin Powell, the secretary of state who sounds, and even holds himself like a president, spoke today about forming alliances against terrorism – not only in Europe, but in Russia, China, Saudi Arabia, the Gulf states. Come the day, it might not be so surprising to see the Palestinians and Iranians numbered among the allies. They would have much to gain – as winning allies generally do.
Powell also said he was trying to jumpstart Israel-Palestine talks, on the basis of the so-called Mitchell plan. This represents a huge shift from the American hands-off attitude that a bare few weeks ago drove Joschka Fischer to exclaim to an Israeli left-winger, ‘Was there nothing to be done to get the Americans involved?’ When an important NATO foreign minister has to beg for American help by proxy, the American default is immensely clear. That Powell speaks of reasserting the American role is a step forward, a streak of bright light in the darkness. Powell seems to know that unilateral withdrawal is a disaster.
One can hope that he succeeds in steering feeble Bush, from whom continue to come gusts of fury and incomprehension.
A fog of terrorism has settled on us – America, New York, everyone I know. Affliction by the phantasmagorical. Dull fear – fear of what’s already happened, fear of the future. More than anything, perhaps, disbelief – a disbelief so bleak and wobbly you can’t even believe in it. Myself, I’ve been groping around in a fog since 9 this morning when my wife pointed out the window at the sickly yellow-brown smoke pluming eastward, one mile further downtown. A couple of minutes later, an explosion – the second one, I missed the first – and since then, we weave in and out of the unreal.
Staring into the unknown, we fall back on the aura of precedents – catastrophes felt so deeply in common they define the ground for a generation or more. Pearl Harbor, the marker in my parents’ lives and times. The Kennedy assassination, when the world went gravely strange, and we knew nothing would be the same. We were right. But of course we didn’t know the ways, not the half of them.
Just back from a walk around lower Manhattan. It’s the quietest Manhattan gets short of a blizzard. People stroll southward under an unnervingly blue sky, the kind of occasional blessing the city receives fall and spring, for all its mania, aggression, and preoccupation. People want to get the closest possible look at the sealed-off catastrophe blocks. Mostly, they look stunned. A few jokes, not many. Mobile phones, umbilical lines out to the world. Clusters of people in bars watching TV. Closer to St. Vincent’s Hospital, where the wounded from lower Manhattan are being taken, people cluster waiting for word about loved ones. A couple, on mobile phones, are weeping.
A friend calls from Brooklyn. She left the windows open when she left to work in Manhattan this morning. Now there’s ash all over her flat.
After politics, violence
“This is profound,” a neighbor I’d never met said to me in the elevator this afternoon. More profound than Pearl Harbor, perhaps. That was war, armed force against armed force. America wasn’t supposed to be vulnerable. For my parents’ generation, Pearl Harbor cracked the old mystique, that old colonial fancy that the oceans were safety walls. The mystique grew back, but in attenuated form. In the 1960s, a lunatic fringe – not such a narrow fringe, actually – feared the Viet Cong would be landing on the beaches of San Diego if they weren’t stopped. That was crazy! Now the most fanciful anticipations of terror cannot be dismissed as crazy. Dire anticipations will be normal, now. This is our fate, now. This is part of the trauma we suffered and will continue to suffer.
On TV – how can we live our catastrophes without TV? – the same images burn into the brain, dozens, scores of times, past the point of banality. The networks compete for the most lurid amateur videos, which remind us of disaster movies. (Shouldn’t the digital quality be better by now?)
But here’s one piece of good news: in the media, though there’s some talk that war has been declared – strange, unprecedented war, but the term is hard to resist – there’s refreshingly little jingoism. It’s a relief to hear the mantra: no one knows who is responsible. Officials, news anchors, and terrorism experts alike are careful not to exaggerate what they know about who committed these mass murders. (As I write, Mayor Giuliani, who’s never been better, warns against blaming whole ethnic or racial groups.) There are hints and guesses about Osama bid Laden, but disaster relief is the main subject. Politicians are pompous, no big surprise, but the networks learned not to repeat their egregious rush to judgment after the Oklahoma City bombing of 1995, when they started out blaming Muslims.
Enough of the good news. There’s a perverse abuse of language in play from Washington officials. Disturbingly and repeatedly, they have been talking about freedom – freedom under attack. Bush spoke this way on TV tonight. This is pure ideology. It obscures the nature of violence and buries it in abstraction. The attacks were on human beings and, indeed, on a civilization. To identify America with freedom is to echo the blindness of the killers.
Outrage is simmering under the ashes. The murderers, if they can be found, will be murdered. This is not a political response but it will be an irresistible one. As the Israeli writer Nissim Calderon, who’s visiting in New York this week, wrote recently about the unending Israel-Palestinian disaster, politics is yielding to symbolism. Demands are not being made; war is being made. Symbolism doesn’t win. Symbolism doesn’t calculate. Symbolism invites symbolism. As Hannah Arendt said, violence is what happens when politics fail. Somewhere, mass murderers decided that America – or is it capitalism? Western civilization? Or the Great Satan? – had to be brought down. For them it is the intolerable It, a system, a machine, already a dead thing. To kill this dead thing is no big deal. For this great pleasure they die with joy in their hearts.
After terror, what?
And the White House incumbent has until now seemed to think that the US could afford to secede from the world, encase itself in a missile defense bubble, disengage from the Middle East and let the world hang! Whether they have the wisdom to think otherwise now – well, these are not deep thinkers. Intellectual numbness is their normal state. Evidently, I am not optimistic.
“Terrorism” is a more precise word than sometimes grasped. It’s an ism, a belief – in terror. Some fierce rationalists refuse to confront the fact that there are people willing to die to terrify whole populations. That willingness, even eagerness, brooks no arguments. As best I understand this mentality, it’s a belief that kicks in on the far other side of arguments. It asks for a focused military response - a precise one, not a revenge spasm, not an attack on a pharmaceutical factory, but an action that distinguishes killers from civilians . No easy matter. Nothing to rush into.
Tonight, grief abides.