Vocabulary Fades, ghostlike. What do we call what happened? I call it “the world-historical events” or “the events,” the events of last week, until it was no longer last week, the events of now two weeks, three weeks, several weeks ago. Others say “the atrocities,” or use merely the date, admitting our inability to describe those events, to draw a circle of definition around them. Since September 11, we are all holding our breath, waiting for the time when something, some new set of events, or atrocities, will define the limits of what’s happened. Maybe the next thing will allow meaning to emerge, retroactively, so that these events can take shape in light of subsequent events. Everything has changed, we keep saying, as if September 11 is a hinge, a turning point; something opens here, and we have to wait to see what it is. Until then the proliferation of possible meaning and possible outcomes continues, pouring out into the world in a terrifying cloud of dust and debris, unstoppable. We wait, suspended, wondering when or where these repercussions will take form, take place.
In the first days, there was talk of the US using nuclear weapons, as if these events had made the unthinkable dissolve into possibility. More and more people on TV call them radiological weapons (in a rhyming list with chemical and biological), as if renaming them makes it easier to contemplate their use. In the first days after the events, it became clear that nothing could be ruled out; not another act of terror, in another place, or the same place, taking another form—worse maybe: chemical, biological; not another war, not even nuclear war. The waves of devastation continued to move outward from downtown New York, immeasurable, and no one could say, No, that won’t happen. That’s out of the question.
To be far from New York at this time is difficult: to read about it, watch it on TV, is to find myself at a remove that widens as the days pass. I wanted first to speak to friends in New York, then to speak to friends who know and care about New York, who, like me, are far away. Here in Los Angeles, my throat closed as I listened to parents at my daughter’s school talk of war and retaliation, talk of unity as if debate and dissent were un-American. On the freeway, in brilliant sunlight, American flags were blowing on the beat-up pickup trucks and the shiny new SUVs. I turned back to the New York Times in despair, poring over the details until the details proved too much. So many possible outcomes, so many unthinkable deaths, so many unimaginable moments when people met death consciously, violent and sudden as it was.
My daughter Audrey is nine years old. I felt it was important that she didn’t see the footage, the ineradicable images of planes going into the towers. Nevertheless, she was aware of what happened. On September 12, she and I had dinner at home alone together. Out of silence, Audrey said: “There are 50 billion people in the world—”
“No,” I said, “there are about six billion.”
“Really?” she said. “Maybe there’re five billion, I thought it was 50 billion—anyway, five billion, six billion,” she paused. “There are much fewer people in the world now, because of all the people who died yesterday.”
“Yes, that’s true.” We ate.
Then she said, “There would be many more people in the world if everyone died of old age.”
“Yes,” I said—thinking, Wow, has it turned into a math problem?
“Sometimes people die when they’re 16,” she said. “Sometimes you think it’s terrible if someone dies when he’s 70, maybe, but people die much younger than that: they die when they’re 20, or 16. Sometimes kids die when they’re about three—sometimes kids die and they don’t have any idea what it means, what dying is. That’s really terrible.”
I thought, So this is what the events are for her, a meditation on dying. Later that evening she looked at a photo I had just framed of our friend Zusznna, who died very peacefully at home at the age of 81. She is the only person Audrey knew well who has died, and Audrey began to cry, remembering Zuzanna, weeping bitter tears that there was no one in the world who would be for her quite what Zuzanna was. And I thought, At last the tears.
Many people I spoke to were most upset about the suicides, the people who jumped off the buildings. I couldn’t see what was so upsetting about that. It was a bit like Audrey doing her subtraction calculation; I felt jumping was an obvious, even logical thing to do. It wasn’t until a friend told me about seeing people jumping holding hands that I felt it, the horror and the sorrow and shame, too, that I had felt nothing. It was a failure of imagination.