SEPTEMBER 11 and AFTER
The phone rang and woke me Tuesday around 10 a.m., and when I picked it up my ex-wife said, "better get to work; they just blew up the World Trade Center and the Pentagon." She would be at work, in her little crafts shop, with NPR on the radio, and she probably called me just for the macabre pleasure of being the first to inform someone. She knows I work the night shift and generally sleep past noon.
So I sat down in my bathrobe at the computer, thinking that she'd gone off the deep end, and I logged on to news sites (Reuters, AP) and I was looking at pictures that took a long, long time to register in my head. The first tower had collapsed. There was that ugly mushroom cloud blooming into the same blue morning sky that was out my window in Lancaster, Pennsylvania. The text was updating as fast as I could hit the "refresh screen" button, and within minutes of my logging on, both towers were reported down. And I kept looking at the pictures, and the words, and thinking, "That can't be right. That can't be right." I was there, just three weeks ago. As if that made it impossible. I had stopped watching TV years ago. Just then, I would have given anything to have one.
When I finally went in to start my newsroom shift, at 3 p.m., I kept one eye on the front of the room and the TV that is perpetually tuned to CNN or ABC News, and there I saw what everyone else had already been seeing for hours. I've spent years defending print media against people who live by video, but this was one story the moving pictures had to tell.
I was given two full inside pages to fill with wire news. Then two more. There were hundreds of stories, each one saying the same thing in slightly different words.
But there was the art. I had to figure out if the picture of the man falling headlong from the North Tower was going to fit my page layout better than the picture of the woman sobbing on the curb, covered in blood. I had to figure if "carnage" or "horror" fit better in a 54-point headline. I looked through stacks of victims' photos that came in, waiting to see a picture of someone I know -- another one. There was already one, a hockey scout from Boston I had gotten to know years ago.
In scrolling back through the stories I came across the first wire notice of the calamity, a bulletin datelined "New York" and slugged "Trade Center-Crash," bearing the time stamp 0856EDT. It was a single sentence: "Smoke poured out of a gaping hole in the upper floors of the World Trade Center on Tuesday and there were broadcast reports a plane had struck it."
I thought of some anonymous ink-stained AP wretch in the New York bureau, filling the quiet early shift on an election day till he saw the punctured tower from his window, flipping channels madly or listening to Howard Stern like everyone else in the city, wondering "what the hell was that?" And the second plane is screaming down the Hudson Valley at 500 mph, but he or she doesn't know that yet.
After the single sentence, as in all such AP bulletin stories that move in takes, is the single word "MORE."
For almost 20 years now I've been a print journalist. That day, for the first time, I didn't want to go to work. The ceiling seemed low, just above my head. Sound came muted. At some time the newsdesk phone rang and I picked up the receiver. A woman's voice: "Is this all they're going to show on TV today? It's so depressing!" I don't remember what I told her. She wanted to find a hole in the sand to bury her head and not look at the horror. Like a lot of Americans, her TV was the only place she knew to find one. But TV was where it happened.
I went home after deadline and tried to sleep. I lay down, dozed for an hour, but these images had been in my head all day and they wouldn't stop seething there. My handwriting changed today. I wrote a check, and the letters came out jerky and sharp. It didn't look like my hand at all.
Everyone saved the paper from the morning of Sept. 12, with the heart-attack headlines in 120-point Olympian. But I took home one dated Sept. 11, the issue we had put together the night before, with utterly trivial news all up and down page one, school board meetings and farm shows, and I stuck it in the bottom of a drawer to find 40 years from now.
It's petulant of me to "complain," because nobody should complain who didn't spend today breathing asbestos and digging corpses from tons of concrete. Or waiting by the phone for loved ones' calls that never came. I worked during the Gulf War, the Challenger explosion, and dozens of local calamities. You work hard in a tragedy, and that's good because it keeps you from feeling too helpless and angry. But this is JFK and Pearl Harbor and the "Titanic" rolled into one. There's not enough hard work in the world to drown out the emotions it brings up in you. You just try to say one step ahead of them.
My job is not an important job today. There's nothing we can tell people. I don't think we're putting out newspapers; I think we're putting out souvenirs for people's scrapbooks. Today we told people to give blood. Tomorrow we're telling them to stop giving blood. They gave too much.
Yesterday's Philadelphia "Inquirer" ran a poem by Chaim Potok on the op-ed page. The end of it went like this:
"Let us heal the sick and bury the dead.
Let us find the perpetrators.
Let us punish them without impinging on our own liberties.
Let us prepare for their next attempts.
For that is the way the world is.
And we had best be aware of its new nature."
Into which I would insert,
"Let us never again train mass murderers and turn them loose on our enemies, and think they won't be back to haunt us."
Which isn't very good poetry at all.
When this is all over I'm going to crawl out on the roof with a bottle of scotch.
As for our president and his behavior, I have strong opinions, but I'll keep them to myself for now.
You know who's been astonishing through this so far is Giuliani. He's the one I want to be the president. He's there. With his cops and smokeaters. He's calling the relatives of the dead he watched die. He's in charge of his municipality, but he's a man who knows he's not in charge of much else.
I also hope some hearts will be changed -- here and abroad -- by these endlessly recurring images of real people burning and falling and dying. The dead are not just Americans, of course; the WTC was home to
multinational corporations and the people who worked there were citizens of dozens of countries. But you can't tell the Americans from the foreigners, can you? So maybe the part of the world that only knows us from our own idiotic entertainment products, and from the self-serving blather of their own leadership, will realize every place is a real place, and when you blow up planes and buildings you kill real people and real children, not images, symbols, and abstractions.
[Sept. 13, 2001]
Welt mit uns
Amid all the post-Sept. 11 chaos, I wanted to write something about not blaming all South Asians and Arabs for what had happened, and I had that half written, but then I spent an hour or so before work skimming over some online message boards, and I didn't like what I was reading from the Americans. After talking to some friends -- both U.S. and non-U.S. -- overseas, I got the impression that something wasn't being communicated. So I wrote this.
Let us keep our rage pure and focused.
Let us reject the lie that says the rest of the world takes a smug satisfaction when catastrophes befall Americans.
In London on Thursday, an unprecedented thing happened at Buckingham Palace. The military band at the Changing of the Guard ceremony played the U.S. national anthem. The Queen ordered this personally, as a show of solidarity with the American people.
It's a gesture. It changes nothing. It brings breath to no one who has died. And it matters a great deal. Americans trapped in Europe during this anguishing time, with no flights home, gathered in ranks in London Thursday to hold up homemade flags, to be with one another, to find hands to hold.
It's a gesture from a land that takes its gestures seriously. And it deserves the full measure of gratitude we can muster in this sad time.
Since Tuesday's attacks, the world has poured out indignation and compassion, from heads of state in European capitals to common folks in West African marketplaces.
NATO is with us. Its governing council declared Wednesday night that the attacks against the United States, if directed from abroad, constitute an attack against all 19 NATO nations.
The United Nations is with us. The European Union is with us. Russia, Japan and even China are with us.
The president of Chile, who heads a coalition of 19 Latin American nations, said they all are ready to pitch in. "Our intention is to show the United States that they are not alone," Lagos said. "This fight is something we all share."
The people are with us. Firefighters in Hungary have tied black ribbons on their trucks. In Berlin, a sea of flowers spreads along the street in front of the U.S. embassy. Flags in Turkey fly at half-staff. Iranians gather with candles in a public square in Tehran, ignoring police orders to disperse.
Like most of us here in the U.S., there's just not a lot they can do right now. But they are with us.
U.S. media is focused on the carnage in New York and Washington and Pennsylvania, and on the search for survivors and the nation's horror. It has not had time to also tell the full tale of the world's reaction.
In the absence of such coverage, old feelings of resentment and abandonment surface in the American psyche.
But who is served by talk that the world is not with us? Who wins when we complain that America doesn't get the respect it deserves? Do we win? Do the terrorists?
As a nation and as individuals, let us be worthy in speech and action of the role we claim: leaders of the world's free, strong and just people.
You may think we never got our money's worth on the Marshall Plan. Now is not the time. You may wonder why we help Bangladesh in a flood and they never help us in one. Now is not the time.
A free people can go to war and keep their freedoms. But they must work at it. As Americans, we are free to say anything. But not everything that can be said, ought to be.
Let the first weapon we forge for this war be that of wisdom.
[Sept. 14, 2001]
An Internet friend in Singapore and I have been arguing, sometimes heatedly, about the meaning and cause of recent events. We have been sending one another clips and links to other people's writings, too. She sent me a column from the British newspaper "The Guardian," which said, in effect, that Americans should understand that the world thinks we deserved this. So I wrote this to the columnist:
I agree with what you've written, insofar as it sketches reasons for the hatred of Americans, and urges America to address the root cause of it, not just the violent manifestation.
But it's not a truth that is going to be heard here and now. This place is in an ugly, angry mood. People who already see things the way you do are speaking quietly, if at all. The rest are in no mood to be lectured about why those 5,000 or so of their friends, family and fellow citizens should have expected to be killed like that and really deserved it. I know you didn't say that, but that's what they're going to read in your words. You can no more reason with them than you can with a hive of hornets whose nest has been kicked.
Americans see ourselves being generous with our wealth. We fail to see that we've had a lot of historical luck, as well as long years to rig the game so that so much of the world's wealth flows into our pockets in the first place. A great many people here would probably tell you that this was just "God's bounty" poured out on his chosen land. Never forget that this country was founded by Christian zealots and cultists. But that kind of lesson is even less teachable here than it was before last Tuesday.
It also seems to a lot of U.S. citizens that "the rest of the world" beseeches us to get involved in trouble spots, but then scorns us as bullies when we do so, claiming we only go where there's self-interest. The self-interest charge is almost always true, but then it's true of most nations. Somalia was an exception. Kosovo/Bosnia was a notable exception. There's no oil there, and in my opinion it ought to have been an internal Europeans solution, but there we are.
As for the government of the U.S., the political leadership here is far less free to act according to its own conceptions from day to day than is Saddam or Bin Laden or many other dictators. It is answerable to this angry cloud of outraged voters, and it must do right by them first, and the rest of the world second.
I would inform you of these things, though I suspect you already know them. This is not a very pleasant situation, for the U.S. or the rest of the world, for the thinking minority or the unthinking majority in any place.
But it is the way things happen to be right now, and sitting back in Britain or wherever and saying "see, we told you so," and "you know, you really deserved that," is not going to advance the cause of sanity here in a country that is already half-convinced it is at war with the world.
Your article would be seen by probably most people here as adding insult to injury, and it would further convince them that we have to act on our own, reflexively and violently, because we are fighting without the good will of people in any other nation (except Israel and except goddamn dead Gordon Sinclair in Canada).
I work for a newspaper here. I've been writing editorials lately. I'm going to have an impossible task doing my tiny part to convince my fellow citizens that it's a really bad idea to go blundering off into a war we have no idea how to fight, and no way to know if we're winning. It's going to be just as difficult to convince them not to turn on their fellow citizens of Middle-Eastern or South Asian background -- regardless of ethnicity, religion, or personal politics -- as "raghead" enemies of the state who should be deported if not exterminated.
I find it interesting that the sort of critique you've written comes from Great Britain, who ought to be a mentor nation to us in the experience of being the world's great power, and believing you're being the benevolent helper of less fortunate peoples, only to have them spit at you and stone you and drive you away or hack you to death.
Pardon the intrusion, and the randomness of the thoughts. Consider it a step toward world dialogue.
[Sept. 17, 2001]
"Whch Way is Mecca?"
A "New Yorker" cartoon, circa 1940. Bearded man in a turban, kneeling on a prayer rug by the road, in the midst of his devotions. Beside him, a loudmouth American leans out from a Cadillac convertible and brawls, "Hey, Jack, which way is Mecca?"
It was funny once. The publishers of the "New Yorker" put it in the book of the magazine's best work. It told us that Americans were more ignorant than insolent, and we could laugh at ourselves about it, so it was OK.
This week, the cover of the "New Yorker" was black. You could see the barest ghost silhouette of the lost towers, if you tilted the magazine in the light.
Flags are everywhere. You can't turn in any direction and not see at least six of them. I told Kat, "you're not going to recognize this place when you get back." People are stealing them from one another.
Committed liberals are floundering. An absolutist pacifism is almost impossible to maintain. Even Gandhi, if I read him right, would approve violence in certain cases.
If America had struck back right away with a hail of missiles and bombs -- as I fear Clinton or Gore would have done -- in the general direction of bin Laden, there would at least be some focus for anti-war activity. So far, it reminds me of (another) old "New Yorker" cartoon, this one of a construction site with the sign "coming soon: Acme," and a lone picketer walking past the fence with a sandwichboard reading "Acme will probably be unfair."
When you get to the bottom of it, what rankles my liberal friends most is this surge of patriotism, which they've always associated with vulgar, blind bigotry. Nationalism is the last refuge of a scoundrel, but to them that's all it ever is. And they have ample evidence. Americans didn't distance themselves from unabashed patriotic emotion since the 1950s because they suddenly disliked America. No, we got burned too many times by unscrupulous leaders who used the people's national pride for selfish and destructive purposes. So my liberal friends tend to see the flag as the cloth that is used to strangle the Constitution, and they dislike it.
So they are reflexively antipathetic to anything undertaken by the American military, under a Republican administration, wrapped in stars-and-stripes rhetoric.
A co-worker, conscientious objector, veteran of the '60s anti-war marches, asked me privately, quietly, from the point of view of someone who had studied a lot of history, "don't you think we're overreacting to this?" Then he said something like, "After all, it's not Bataan. " I was kind of shocked. He didn't seem to be considering that this was not a battlefield defeat of military men, but mass carnage of thousands of civilian lives.
All I could think was that he needed to move the attacks off the center stage, to restore the balance of the world he knew, where certain qualities and behaviors were comfortably fitted into their pigeonholes. Now everything's loose.
At San Francisco's memorial service a few days after the attacks, one of the city's supervisors launched into an examination of the "root causes" of the regrettable incident. "America, what did you do, in Africa, where bombs are still blasting? America, what did you do in the global warming conference when you did not embrace the smaller nations? America, what did you do two weeks ago when I stood at the world conference on racism, when you wouldn't show up?" And so forth.
Christopher Hitchens in "The Nation" wrote a blistering critique of this sort of hand-wringing, and it began, "Western governments are responsible for many wrongs in the Muslim world, but that does not justify fascist fundamentalism."
"[T]he people who levelled the World Trade Centre are the same people who threw acid in the faces of unveiled women in Kabul and Karachi, who maimed and eviscerated two of the translators of The Satanic Verses, and who machine-gunned architectural tourists at Luxor. Even as we worry about what they may intend for our society, we can see very plainly what they have in mind for their own: a bleak and sterile theocracy enforced by advanced techniques."
... "[D]oes anyone suppose that an Israeli withdrawal from Gaza would have forestalled the slaughter in Manhattan? It would take a moral cretin to suggest anything of the sort; the cadres of the new jihad make it very apparent that their quarrel is with Judaism and secularism on principle, not with (or not just with) Zionism. They regard the Saudi regime not as the extreme authoritarian theocracy that it is, but as something too soft and lenient. ... (T)he bombers of Manhattan represent fascism with an Islamic face, and there's no point in any euphemism about it. What they abominate about 'the west,' to put it in a phrase, is not what western liberals don't like and can't defend about their own system, but what they do like about it and must defend: its emancipated women, its scientific inquiry, its separation of religion from the state. Loose talk about chickens coming home to roost is the moral equivalent of the hateful garbage emitted by Falwell and Robertson, and exhibits about the same intellectual content."
[Sept. 27, 2001]
Check from a sheik
NEW YORK -- Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani refused to accept a $10-million check Thursday from a nephew of Saudi Arabia's King Fahd for a World Trade Center relief fund after the prince urged the U.S. government to "adopt a more balanced stance toward the Palestinian cause."
Prince Alwaleed Bin Talal toured the ruins with the mayor. But he later issued a written statement that angered Giuliani.
"Our Palestinian brethren continue to be slaughtered at the hands of the Israelis while the world turns the other cheek," Alwaleed said. "At times like this one, we must address some of the issues that led to the criminal attack."
No, your highness, not yet. We're not ready to hear that. Not ready to hear anything that could be construed as, "America deserved this," or even, "You wouldn't be in this mess if you weren't so blind about Israel."
I'm also tempted to respond to the prince, "Sure, we'll look into our Israel policy, and meanwhile you look into why your country's officially sanctioned religious education and social order produced -- what was it, six of the 19? -- murderous fanatics who wrought this havoc you see." Those weren't dispossessed Palestinians or starved Iraqis slitting throats and incinerating women and children; they were for the most part pampered rich-kid students from the oil states.
OK, but what about Israel, then? It must frustrate the Arab nations to see Americans so deliberately blind to an awful lot of Israeli aggression. To them, Israel is the swaggering well-armed bully; to us, it's the plucky underdog, and we love nothing like a plucky underdog.
It goes deeper, though. Defending Israel is the one cause that most clearly unites the "left" and the "right" in American politics, the secular and the evangelical strains, but they both come at it with gobs of irrationality. The Xtians, for instance, see the creation of that state in that place as a startling step toward the fulfillment of their "End Time Prophecies." It's macabre; they long for the in-gathering of all the Jews in the promised land -- so that the Anti-Christ can kill them all there (well, except for the 144,000 who will convert to Xtianity).
Then on the other side of the scale, liberal Americans see the Jews as a helpless people who were victims of every horror our ancestors (in Europe) could visit on them, and whose culminating passion in the gas chambers was ignored by America. Our culture did that to them; our government turned them away. In short, we owe them, big time.
It does not occur to us that abused people often turn abusers when they have the opportunity, or that the way to make atonement to a victim is not to set him up in his parents' old home, evicting whoever lives there now. The ghettos of the 21st century are inhabited by Palestinians, not Jews.
It is possible to be an anti-Zionist and not be a Jew-baiter. Yet that happens so rarely. And every time public voices from the Arab world repeat the stupidity about Sept. 11 being a Mossad plot, or the mythical 4,000 Jews who walked out of the WTC moments before the attack, Americans will find it still harder to separate "anti-Israel" politics from the Third Reich. And every image of blown-up buses and discos in Tel Aviv, sidewalks strewn with body parts of young girls still in the shreds of their party clothes, is going to lance that much deeper for Americans as long as these Sept. 11 horrors are fresh within us.
[Oct. 12, 2001]
One of the strange qualities of this time is watching our home-grown, Xtian Taliban wanna-bes grappling with things. Suddenly religious purism stands unveiled as a deadly force; fundamentalist attacks on secular culture are the great enemy. Some of them get it, some clearly don't. And thanks to his international coalition, George W. Bush has to stay far, far away from his pals in the Christian Coalition, the people who put him where he is.
Are we really ready to be "America United"?
If so, we'll put aside old feuds, and make peace with one another "for the duration." And some people just don't seem to want to do that.
They'd rather exploit the current crisis. They'd rather treat America's rush to battle as an open door to advance their pet agendas.
Under a bill overwhelmingly approved (200 to 1) by the state House of Representatives on Oct. 16, Pennsylvania public and private school students, unless excused in writing by their parents, would have to recite the Pledge of Allegiance or sing the national anthem. Every day.
The measure has been sent to the Senate, despite objections from the Amish and Mennonites, among others.
On the national level, U.S. Rep. Ernest Istook plans to reintroduce his constitutional amendment to foist government-sponsored religion on public schools. The Oklahoma Republican pushed a version of this bill through the House in 1998, but his majority fell short of the two-thirds necessary for a constitutional amendment.
Hard as it is to believe, in a country where "God Bless America" blares from billboards and bumper stickers, Istook thinks religious speech is in grave danger in the U.S. He's even suggested that his amendment is needed to protect people's right to pray in the wake of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.
Istook and his ilk perpetuate the lie that God has been banished from the public schools. In fact, all the law requires is school neutrality on religion.
Students have the right to read sacred texts in their free time, organize after-school Bible studies and pray before meals or tests or any time they please. The Constitution and the federal Equal Access Act guarantee this. Courts generally hold that individual students can wear shirts and buttons with religious or political sentiments.
Public school students may not impose prayers on a captive audience. They may sing "God Bless America." Public schools may sponsor recitation of the Pledge of Allegiance, but they can't compel participation by students who object or punish those who refuse.
All these things were true before Sept. 11. But scare-mongering about "anti-God conspiracies" filled the coffers of Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson. Such rhetoric was divisive and distasteful then. To persist in it now is downright disloyal.
If we truly seek to stand united as a nation, our political and spiritual leaders should urge unity rather than deepen division.
Prayer and pledging allegiance are the natural reaction of some people to recent events. Not all people. And not all people who pray, pray alike. It is vicious for anyone, most of all people in power, to assume that only one reaction is correct and anyone who deviates is somehow unpatriotic.
It was 1943, in the darkest days of World War II, that the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that students cannot be compelled to recite the Pledge of Allegiance.
"United We Stand" doesn't mean suddenly everyone prays alike and thinks alike. It doesn't mean the issues we passionately debated before Sept. 11 never mattered. Some, like those of religious liberty, matter more now than ever.
Our nation has been attacked by terrorists who disdain America's religious diversity and tolerance. They would see us become a theocracy where one faith is mandated by the government.
We must tone down our internal debates and turn our energy toward meeting a lethal attack. This will be required of everyone, even those among us who have been told over and over that God is on their side -- and their side only.
Many Western anti-Americans are scornful of the United States for answering a violent attack with a military response. I can follow the legitimacy in much criticism of U.S. foreign policies, past and present; I can join you in criticizing capitalist cultural hegemony.
But someone vows to kill your children, vows repeatedly to do it, then travels thousands of miles and begins to do it in your own home. Is the best immediate response you can suggest, "sit down and think about why he's so mad at you, then try to start a dialogue with him"?
I keep thinking of the defining moment of the 1988 U.S. presidential campaign, in the second debate between George Bush and Michael Dukakis. Right off the bat, Bernard Shaw hit the Democrat with a brick:
"You have two minutes to respond. Governor, if Kitty Dukakis [his wife] were raped and murdered, would you favor an irrevocable death penalty for the killer?"
Dukakis said, "No, I don't, Bernard." And he went on to generalize about deterrence and the crime rate in Massachusetts his proposal to call a "hemispheric summit" to fight drugs.
One commentator summed up the result like this: "The Duke was, by then, already dead meat, but his staggeringly robotic answer was the rhetorical equivalent of stuffing himself headfirst into a sausage grinder."
Dukakis made as much sense as any presidential candidate does in a debate. But something was missing. And that absence was actually horrifying.
I kept waiting for him to say, "you know, I would really, really want to see that rapist put off the planet, castrated with a plastic fork, whatever. And I'd do it with my bare hands; but as an adult and the leader of a nation, I would have to bring my intelligence and self-control to the decision and put my raw emotional reaction in the back seat, and god-damn you, Bernie, what kind of cruel pig-fucker asks a question like that?" Dukakis was already so far back in the polls; getting bleeped on live TV might have actually helped.
Nov. 8, 2001
INDEX - AUTHOR