I believe that each of us is given one sentence at birth, and we spend the rest of our life trying to read that sentence and make sense of it.
Li Young Lee
Everyone in New York has cried a wall of tears since it happened. Not only because we witnessed the brutal massacre of thousands of our fellow citizens, or have watched as countless others mourn their loved ones and lose their livelihoods. We have lost one of the joys that carried this city; our precious freedom from fear—trusting that when we awoke, our family, friends and neighbors would still be among us. Since September 11, New Yorkers have received heartfelt calls from all over the world, many from those who have experienced terror in other forms; the same message was sent to me by our Americas contributors Matilde Daviu (Argentina) and Nancy Morejón (Cuba): “Thanks be to God you are safe.” “We feel so helpless” was the other most common response. I know what you mean: helpless to help us. You’re not and you have. We will recover. But life in the United States has irrevocably changed.
Here in New York we have seen a level of compassion and concern for one another manifest itself in small gestures as well as the daring largess of our civil servants. We are no longer simply citizens of New York and the United States. We are all citizens of the world, and the compassion and concern for those around us must be practiced in the world at large. Stay informed and engaged, demand an end to the pabulum called news being fed to us by the networks and daily papers. Stand with people the world over against intolerance and self-interest—work for tolerant coexistence.
The following contributors’ essays are culled from experiences during and reflections directly after September 11. There are differing points of view; that right is our great strength as a nation. I’m proud to be a citizen—of Thomas Paine’s philosophical vision and of the world to come—one in which we here in the States will play a role as equals with our fellow global citizens.
Vocabulary Fades, Ghostlike …
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.
From A Transcript Written for the London Times, September 12, 2001
There is no reason for me to be inside the World Trade Center just as a commercial jet hits Tower Two at 8:48 AM, September 11, 2001. But there had been a hitch in the usual schedule. A new bus company had taken over the route to Brooklyn Heights where my youngest son Charley goes to school, and it was proving massively inefficient. Charley had arrived an hour late for his first day of classes, and Tuesday the 11th—his second—would apparently be no different. I promised over breakfast that I’d take him to school myself, on the subway. It was on the way back to Manhattan, an hour later, that I decide to attend to some errands, most of which could be done in the confines of the World Trade Center. It all sounds so normal, doesn’t it? It’s another person’s life, maybe my twin sister’s. She didn’t hear the screaming inside the building, or have to run for her life along with thousands of others. She’s my lost self.
Here I am then, standing across the street from the World Trade Center, looking up at a perfect blue sky. Why are there no intimations of disaster flashing through my mind? But no one shouts, “Beware the ides of September,” and I march purposefully toward the appointed target. The New Yorkers converge, we press ourselves close together, forming tight phalanxes, and in an orderly manner, we start pouring through rapidly revolving doors, and heavy swinging ones, into Tower Two.
At a jewelry store on the level below, my husband, Peter, had recently bought a watch. I’d coveted it, and he’d lent it to me. Now it is strapped to my wrist, and I check the time: 8:44. I dodge into place on the crowded escalator, and descend farther into the building. The masses of people crisscrossing the floor of this grand concourse have an almost hypnotic quality. They leap gracefully as they come into view on the steeply ascending escalators from the New Jersey PATH train.
I have reasonable hope that all of them survived. By virtue of not being upstairs, of not being too early, of risking censure by “cutting it fine.” And now I join them. And it was at that moment that the familiar routines that make up Daily Life blew apart, making it impossible for any of us to reassemble them in quite the same way again.
I am thinking, “Mustn’t forget Staples,” when it happens. A horrifying sound fills the vast concourse. Everyone freezes in their tracks.
There’s nothing natural about the sound. It’s not thunder; it’s not an earthquake. It is the bursting and ripping of a massive explosion. It’s come from somewhere high inside the building, though the vibration of it is also inside my head. The building shivers in response. In that second, I hold my breath. We all hold our breath. Then it’s pandemonium. I hear some screaming. There is one collective thought: That was a bomb. And one collective goal: Let’s get out of here. Somehow you know a terrorist attack when you hear it, and we are in the midst of one. The knowledge is writ on every frightened face whirling past, considering escape routes. Then I see something so intimidating it chills me to the bone.
The doorway at the end of the concourse leading outside to the plaza has filled with a huge wall of white smoke. We’re not sure what we’re seeing, but in the same instant, the enormous wave of smoke rushes forward without a sound, and we flee like frightened villagers before a tidal wave. Whether the force propelling it is the “bomb”, or whether it is chemical gases, there is a sense of being in direct danger, as though this bomb has assumed a ghostly presence, in order to hunt us down.
Some faces stream with tears, but everyone is running fast, an army in panicked retreat from a greater and more terrifying force. We turn the nearest corner, past the Coach store. No one pushes or shoves anyone else, we just run to find the nearest exit. There is no hysteria. I remember that I myself felt quite clearheaded. There is no time for fear; this is survival, pure and simple. Frightened shop assistants run out of doorways, calling “What’s happening?” and receiving no answers, join our swelling ranks. There were only two ways my situation could resolve itself: I would die, or I would not die. For whatever reason, dying didn’t frighten me. But I wanted more than anything else to help Peter raise our boys. And so I formed a two-part prayer to my Higher Power, which I repeated over and over as I ran through the World Trade Center. Please let us make it out of this building. Please let me bring up my boys.
We made it outside, and most of us continue our walk/run away from the building. Looking back I could see the burning upper stories, but I had no satisfactory explanation. The area was covered in ash and burned paper. People watched, stunned, anguished, horrified. I didn’t know what they had seen—I didn’t think of a plane in the sky.
There were no police of firefighters yet, though I could hear sirens. I marched north on Broadway with an army of strangers, huge numbers of whom were on cell phones. You could tell those who’d been near the explosion because their faces and hair were full of ash, like mine. I thought of Armageddon. It felt like the end of the world. There wasn’t a vacant public phone anywhere. Everyone wanted to reach their loved ones. I had decided to stop when I got to my friend Bebe’s apartment building, on Broadway opposite City Hall. It felt far enough away from the disaster area. I wanted to use her phone to reach peter.
I rang her bell. She answered “Alison?” surprised to see my face on the video monitor. I began, “Bebe.” Then there was a second explosion in the sky behind me. It sounded like a bomb had fallen from high. I wondered if we were being bombed from planes. I couldn’t see either tower from this angle. People were running past, screaming, and I Joined them. I wasn’t taking any more chances. I had been spared. I was going to raise my boys. I ran all the way home.
From A Letter to Russell Banks on September 16, 2001
A year ago June the New York Times asked me to go to Jerusalem and do a travel piece for the Sophisticated Traveler. They said that for years now they had not done Jerusalem, but peace was so imminent, within reach, they felt that Jerusalem could soon be considered a destination again. So I went and tried to get a “take” on the city, and after a few days spent talking to people in the streets, in restaurants, to cab drivers, it came to me that Jerusalem is a kind of Rashomon tale in which each of its citizens sees the city entirely differently. Each has his own story to relate. I won’t go into how those narratives shaped themselves for each of the three major religions who claim Jerusalem as their own, but I will give you this one example: A Moslem guide at the Dome of the Rock explained to us how Jesus walked across the Dome to his place of crucifixion. As he told this, I was struck by the fact that from a Jewish perspective, Jesus could not have walked across the Dome because the Second Temple would have stood in his way. But to the Moslem guide, nothing impeded that walk. This was just one of half a dozen or more stories from Jews, Moslems, Christians—all of which contradict the stories of the others. I was proud of the Times piece, but mostly I felt satisfied that I had reached some understanding of Jerusalem. Then Sharon, despite the riots that would surely ensue, and amidst hundreds of Israeli police, visited the Temple Mount (where the Dome of the Rock rests) and the rest is, alas, deeply embedded and horribly complex history—all too sad and surreal, as we know it. And Jerusalem, according to the New York Times, is no longer considered “a destination.”
For the past year I have watched the bloodshed unfold in Israel, the West Bank, and Gaza. At a memorial service last week at our temple here in Brooklyn, our rabbi said words to this effect: Yesterday Americans were people who came from everywhere, but now all Americans are Jews; all Americans are Israelis. While I understood what he was trying to say (that we have now all experienced the terror), he chose what appeared to be a narrow interpretation. To some, while this was hardly his intent, his words seemed xenophobic and nationalistic. Instead of a sense of unity we were left with divisiveness. What struck me was, here is just one more myopic way of looking at the same story.
Obviously, war isn’t the answer. The problem, if I can use a medical metaphor, isn’t bacterial, but viral. I don’t see that we can obliterate anything because it will just crop up again. We have to alter the climate in which it grows. The 1967 war in Israel, the Gulf War, the ongoing struggles in the Middle East which have been exacerbated over the past year, these have led to the cells that are growing and breeding more cells. I honestly feel myself immersed in this hatred. In 1967 when Israel took East Jerusalem and annexed it, I went there with my cousins from the part of my family that fled the pogroms in Russia and settled in Palestine. These cousins proudly showed me the newly taken West Wall and West Bank and I thought to myself, This is a mistake. This city has to be an open city. And now all these years later I saw my husband come home, covered in glass and ash, having fled the collapse of the World Trade Center for his life. so now, alas, I have my own Rashomon tale to tell.
From an E-mail to a Close Friend from High School
Every time I see a construction worker, Red Cross worker, Salvation Army captain, policeman, fireman, Sanitation Department broom pusher walk by my Greenwich Street window, I want to cheer and weep—this brave parade to the pit of doom.
Now, I’m whipped in the subtler, less colossal, less urgent feeling ways. I went out to the country over the weekend and looked at chipmunks (ground squirrels, actually) for a long time. I looked at grass. I looked at leaves and stones and water. I marveled at these simple things. And I slept some.
Then I came back into the city and saw what was missing. Saw the big cloud of smoke that still permeates the neighborhood I live in with death. Saw the lights out where once they had glittered so tawdry and industrial, and yet so ours. A million reference points, gone in one terrible amputation.
What’s interesting is the way individual mood swings have begun to sync up into a community one. I’m not talking about patriotism or community spirit; I mean mood, emotion, the way we talk to ourselves in our heads and hearts. Out in the country, I was with shocked, angry, mourning people who had trouble talking about the event and all things pertaining, yet could not shut up about it. Me too. Everything said was a tangent or non sequitur referencing one gigantically resonant moment. Humanely, it was comforting, but socially, it was not so restful. But back here in my neighborhood, so close to the cauldron, the returning evacuees are organizing their neighborhoods, dealing with myriad utility problems, collecting coffee to keep the firemen energized and gathering at mealtime. Now I am hearing things said that align what I am thinking and feeling. That is a good thing. A very good thing, as one’s sense of reality careens, from the moment you open your eyes in the morning to the point it seems your dreams are the more real.
Last night at the dinner table, neighbors told the sad, heroic, touching stories—of which everyone down here has many—and I related something terrible I had seen during the collapse of one of the buildings. A woman at the table said to me firmly, yet lovingly, “Jack, you did not see that. You experienced it.” Somehow, this statement had a polarizing effect on me. It told me what I had been trying to get both into and out of my own skull. It is so weird to know and not know at the same time. To look at what you most want to look away from. It takes me back to feelings I had during my terrified childhood, and I don’t really want to go there. Yet one does.
October 1, 2001
Throughout the Cold War, the American people were successfully talked into conflating our constitutionally guaranteed freedoms with “free-market capitalism.” These are two different things. There is nothing in the Constitution about profits or markets or capitalism. It’s time to put an end to profiteering as the primary goal behind our foreign policy.
A blind goat could tell you that both our president and vice president are oil magnates. George Bush, Sr. was an oil magnate (as well as one-time director of the CIA). The Gulf War was fought to protect oil companies. The rebel forces in the Soviet-Afghan War were funded, trained and supported by the United States. Billions of our tax dollars went to training and funding Osama bin Laden and others. Saddam Huseein gassed the Kurds with our full support. We had no problems with his human rights abuses until he threatened the oil fields of Kuwait. Today, we are still holding an embargo on food and medicine going into Iraq. It is internationally accepted that more than half a million children have died in Iraq as a result. And Saddam Hussein is more powerful than ever.
America’s prime export is weaponry. Guns and bombs far outweigh any other export item. Private American companies profit off of the boundless wars conducted around the world.
It is time we outlawed the sale of American weapons outside the United States.
It is time we insisted our leaders have no conflict of interest. Thomas Paine warned us in no uncertain terms what would result.
It is time our foreign policy places human rights considerations over profit.
It is time the CIA have an oversight committee representing all Americans, including private citizens.
Billions of dollars, your money, have been used to train and fund torturers and terrorists in a staggering number of instances, including the Shah’s government in Iran, Chile under Pinochet, the Dominican Republic, Honduras, Indonesia, South Korea, apartheid-era South Africa, Pakistan, Guatemala, Peru.
It is time our media be held responsible for presenting the full range of facts, opposing opinions. The private companies that own these media outlets are part and parcel of the global financial networks that benefit from arms sales. Demand more public television. The airwaves legally belong to us, even if congress thinks they can give them away to multibillionaires and private corporations.
I believe the American people are good. No decent citizen would have stood for the slaughter of 30,000 Nicaraguan citizens if they had known it was being conducted with our support, money, and training.
Now is the time to know. Now is the time to speak up.
Write your congressperson, your senator, and your president and tell them what you think. They work for us, not the other way around.
Where is the Danger?
On Tuesday Morning, the definition of danger that I had lived with was destroyed. Up until that moment, when I saw images that I will never forget, the answer was simple: danger was in Colombia.
Three weeks ago I arrived in Barranquilla, my hometown, from New York, where I have been living for 20 years. I had come to write a feature story for an American newspaper, an article that would talk about the absurd climate of insecurity that people in Colombia live with on a daily basis. I arrived with the intention of wanting to understand—by visiting the Colombia I used to know—what has happened while I’ve been away all these years, what has led this country to the state of civil collapse in which it is normal for a former classmate, now a successful businessman, to pick me up in a car full of armed bodyguards; where it is common to go to the movies in an armored car; where the word kidnapping is part of the vocabulary of those same children who still expect gifts from Santa Claus. I wanted to understand a country where a teenager, encouraged by nothing more than the audacity fostered by youthful ignorance, tells a presidential candidate who is in favor of peace talks that the guerrillas have to be shot instead of being engaged in discussion; a country whereupon asking after my childhood friends I am matter-of-factly told how they were gunned down for being involved in shady businesses; or where I am calmly told that there are people who can finally and peacefully go to sleep on their farms “thanks to” the paramilitary squadrons.
These deformities, which have become routine here, were alien to my life in New York, where to ride in an armored car—unless you are a gangsta rapper—is not a symbol of success or progress. In the US, gunning someone down is not an option that is often mentioned in political speeches, or at friendly get-togethers, as an acceptable course of action.
New York has always represented security, liberty, and above all, the protection of freedom. Colombia, as far as the entire world is concerned, represents danger, chaos and the destruction of liberty. On Tuesday morning as I sat speechless and frightened, at my grandmother’s place watching television, that symmetry, which had terrified me and yet consoled me, crumbled. While there is still hatred, fanaticism, and revenge there will be no end to the massacre of thousands of Colombians and there will be no end to those who are willing to kill people by the thousands in the name of Allah. On September 11, 2001, the whole world understood that the danger could be anywhere at all.
Translated by Miguel Falquez-Certain & Joaquin Méndez-Gaztambide.
—Silvana Paternostro lives in New York City but was at her grandmother’s home in Colombia when the attack occurred.
No Justice, No Peace
I was up early in the morning and saw and heard the television reports as it happened. I was shocked but not surprised. Later, I’d be horrified to learn how they took over the planes, but this just confirmed that, contrary to what we’ve been told ever since, it wasn’t an irrational act. It was horribly rational. Nor was it an attack on freedom as such. It was an attack on American policy in the Middle East, a payback for every American veto in the United Nations Security Council of every attempt to restrain Israel, for the 17,500 civilians killed in Israel’s invasion of Lebanon in 1982—which the American media never called either irrational or horrifying—and much else besides from the same source: for the massacre on the Ba’asra Road at the end of the Gulf War, when thousands of defenseless people in full retreat were straved for no good military reason, for the children who’ve starved in Iraq ever since.
Christopher Hitchens immediately sought to enhance his standing with the Republican Party by insisting that Islamic fundamentalism would have become intolerable whatever America’s policy toward Israel, but I thought this pure sophistry. Within days of the atrocities the British foreign secretary was under attack by the Israelis for daring to say the word Palestine, but bin Laden would soon confirm that Palestine is at the center of the question. It seems unlikely that this degree of fanaticism could develop and be sustained were it not for the intransigence of America and its regional client on every substantive issue having to do with the rights of the indigenous population. Twenty years ago fundamentalism was not an issue. Then the Israelis secretly patronized Hamas as a way of undermining the (secular) PLO, and the Americans followed suit and funded the Mujaheddin in order to destabilize the Russians in Afghanistan, and in doing so gave rise to forces they not only couldn’t control but which are not open to negotiation. It has been sickening to see Americans eager to hand over their civil liberties to an attorney general who believes in the Confederacy, and no one as far as I know has compared Jerry Falwell’s outpouring of passionate, fundamentalist phobias in the wake of the event with bin Laden’s rantings, but I suspect the comparison would be helpful if demonstrated.
When the events of September 11 happened, I hoped that at a minimum they might give Americans pause when it came to bombing people, and encourage some discussion of American policy in the Middle East. But initially at least, absolute denial was the order of the day, with only young people prepared to address the causes rather than the symptoms. Everybody concerned will have to do better than this, and not only because the chances of actually catching bin Laden seem remote (and those of permanently crushing terrorism more so); think of the example set by the IRA, a movement restricted to a small country and a few British and American cities, as opposed to about a quarter of the globe.
One fears what Bush might do if failure to bomb enough to please the voters in the heartland endangers the Republicans’ chances in next year’s midterm election. Only the Palestinians want to negotiate on the main issues. Fundamentalists on both sides, as remarked, won’t do it. Within a day of the atrocities I was being told that one doesn’t negotiate with terrorists but it seems to me that one does. Israel exists because a delegation from the US Congress made it clear to the British government that it would be bankrupted if it didn’t negotiate with the Zionist terrorists who assassinated the United Nations High Commissioner appointed to review the situation in the region, among other acts that don’t seem to have gone down in history as irrational and cowardly. What fragile peace there is in Northern Ireland follows from negotiation as much as conventional counterterrorism, and I think the same can be said of the Basque region. Fine with me if we end up ridding the world of the Taliban, but I also recall the shopkeeper in Kabul who recently said, “Let the Americans bomb all they like, I’ve lost half my life to the sound of bombs and artillery.” I had hoped without hope that a way of removing the Taliban could be found that didn’t add to the hopelessness that has caused all this. Fat chance.
Without hope I also hope that Israelis will think about their future, specifically about what their grandchildren will do if and when America can’t do for them what it doss now. There were people immigrating to British colonies in Africa in the ’50s, secure in the belief that the Commonwealth would remain white-dominated. By 1964 they were all either independent or well on their way, not least because Britain couldn’t afford the empire any more. But I don’t think Israelis or those who love Israel will think about that. Sharon had the impertinence to welcome Bush’s entirely unexpected endorsement of a Palestinian state with a comparison between Israel and Czechoslovakia in 1938, but the analogy was infelicitous, leading the European press to ask, Who were the Czechs, and who, therefore, was Hitler? Israel, whose founders refused to consider the original arrangements a final settlement, has always refused to compromise on the grounds that the other side can’t be relied upon to mean it when they say they’re willing to compromise. A week or so before the atrocities America and Israel walked out of the UN conference on racism in Durban, and now I fear there will be a campaign to simply suppress those who don’t like America’s foreign policies, by force abroad and subtler intimidation closer to home. Bush’s inner circle wants to extend the war to include Iraq, and perhaps Syria and Lebanon. Nor should those who look to Tony Blair to restrain Bush be sanguine in this regard. Now as in the ’40s the British Labour Party is split between pro- and anti-Zionists, with Blair firmly in the Zionist camp. His personal advisor on the Middle East is Lord Levy, who has a house in Israel and whose son worked for Barak. If Bush manages to start a civil war in Pakistan and accompanies that with an expansion of the conflict to the countries just mentioned, then it’s quite possible that America’s allies will go along, and almost certain that Britain would, because regardless of Blair’s inclinations, there as here people generally feel that something must be done, which it obviously must. I can therefore see no satisfactory end to what has now been set in train, which Steve Prina has correctly described as “America’s arrival in mid-narrative.” I don’t believe people commit murderous suicide because they’re opposed to the social mores of Americans. I think they do it because they are without hope, and to the extent that they have now introduced us all to a regime of hopelessness they have gone some way to achieving what they presumably want to achieve. I fear that we shall do little but add to the hopelessness of those who hate us, denial deferring what eventually will have to be resolved through negotiation. If not in my lifetime or yours, then eventually.
September 26, 2001
Everyone is so tired—everyone I speak to—so forgetful; it’s so difficult to concentrate, everyone says. And no wonder, considering how hard we’re straining to locate the moment when it won’t have happened, or to return to the moment before it happened, or to reach the moment when it will un-happen. And then, too, there’s the draining effort of trying to comprehend what this “it” is—the utter alteration of our lives, which came about in minutes, or at least the utter alteration of the way we’re to understand our lives now.
Those of us who were fortunate enough not to have lost friends or family downtown on the 11th must nonetheless struggle with the loss of precious illusions. Most conspicuously missing, perhaps, is the illusion that the future will continue to provide for us the nearly unprecedented degree of well-being and security that most of us have enjoyed throughout our lives and the illusion that our own beloved cities are, alone among the cities of the world, inviolable.
I was away from New York on the 11th, and, to my sorrow, I am away again, but I flew home for some days a week after, into the smoldering cauldron of the mutilated city. The plane had taken a blinkered, northern approach—itself like a revocation of privileges—to New York, and so it was not until my taxi headed toward Manhattan from the airport that I had my first sight of the shocking, graphic absence of the World Trade Center, the towering absence that dominates our skyline now.
The next shock was the spectacle, on the way to my apartment, of the American flag flying from many buildings. By morning, the flag had proliferated into ubiquity. In our current situation, there aren’t a lot of symbols around to manipulate, as others have observed, and even a casual and unsystematic inquiry indicated this spontaneous (or semi-spontaneous) yet inscrutable phenomenon to be an expression of entirely irreconcilable feelings and opinions.
The flag springs up promiscuously in times of crisis, but never in my life have I seen it draped over such unsorted heaps of combustible stuff. Some of the people I spoke to apparently had no clear idea why they were flying—or wearing—a flag, as if it were simply a cozy length of fabric to snuggle up in. Others intended it to represent an expression of sympathy for the victims and their families. To still others, it seemed to be an oblique reference to the fact that ideals such as tolerance, inclusiveness, and the institutionalized and indivisible protection of rights, traditionally espoused by our own country, are at odds with the ideals of fundamentalist extremism.
But once again the aggressive, or even menacing, aspect of the flag is much in evidence—the flag as a proud reminder of our historical ruthlessness, our evidently insatiable drive toward economic and military supremacy, no matter the costs. And how especially painful it is in this sorrowful moment to see it forced into service to beautify, ennoble, and disguise an unpresentable bloodlust.
But amid all the confusion of feeling and intent, perhaps a rare degree of clarity is also available to us. One thing that became completely clear on September 11 is that it’s astoundingly easy to wreak an astounding degree of destruction. So, is it not correspondingly clear that we would be much better off if we did not encourage people to want to destroy us?
Why not, for example, give financial and educational support to peoples whose ordinary and decent lives are corrupted or endangered by violent, authoritarian regimes, rather than support, as we almost invariably do, those very regimes? Rather than continuing to devastate the infrastructure of Iraq, bombing the country on a regular basis and impoverishing the residents, why not make aid available? Why not give substantial amounts of relief to the Afghans, who have suffered so severely under the Taliban and others, rather than pursuing a course that is sure to kill so many? Surely we would prefer friends to enemies—unless, as it sometimes seems, we would actually prefer enemies to anything under the sun.
This is a moment of terrifyingly delicate balance. It could be, on the one hand, the occasion—as crises have been before—for the instant annulment of liberties and dignities that have been laboriously assembled over centuries. It could be the occasion for a perilous firestorm of undiscriminating retribution. But it could be the occasion for us to learn to conduct ourselves with the humanity and rationality incumbent on a nation so rich in resources.
Now it is evident that we are as vulnerable as the rest of the world and that we will have to live as most people do and always have. Now we know exactly how it feels to have our property invaded and our countrymen murdered. On what grounds is it possible to justify answering this terrible crime with an identical one? One illusion we might do well to lose is the illusion that it is in some way fundamentally all right for us to kill distant civilian populations—that it is fundamentally different for us to kill others than for others to kill us. How terrible to degrade the death in flames of more than 6,000 of our friends and neighbors by allowing it to be used as a pretext for more brutality.
New York Cut Up 9/11
Lines taken from Ashbery Berkson Berrigan Brownstein Buddha Burroughs Cohen Denby Dorn Gallup Ginsberg Koch Mailer Malanga O’Hara Ouspensky Padgett Sanders Schuyler Waldman Yeats in a void of words the night of September 11, 2001.
I grew up in the hum-whee-hum of low flying aircraft, their mission in 1951 to blow Manhattan to smithereens, off the map. It’s just a city darling. Great New Yorkers shack up, include, identify, embrace me. The liberty bells are ringing.
And that’s when it happened. The fucking enemy shows up. All these people show up hating America. The smug guns. Their muzzles are at the door. As if anything could take it away.
All at once the glittering skyline of Manhattan vanished. How strange to be gone in a minute. Now it is beginning and everyone saw it: The light that falls and is numerous. Where does the evil of the year go when September takes New York and turns it into ozone stalagmites, deposits of light? The television is just on. I am just on.
Disastrous world—out of control. This new realism is planted on the surface of eyes that is to become our future time. A great plane flew across the sun, and the girls ran across the ground. They tread the air, and fall not where they rose. The sky is a hoax. Beautiful New York sky harder so much than soft walls you see here.
Raving maniacs are destroying the planet. He will seize space by his Arab-tap of shoulder. He is the Evictor. Their Garden of Delights is a terminal sewer. Their Immortality Cosmic Consciousness and Love is grade-B shit. Throw back their ersatz immortality!
What characterizes every psychopath and part psychopath is that they are trying to create a new nervous system for themselves. In love there is concealed a tremendous amount of egotism, vanity, and self-pride. Funny of evil is its self-importance.
Do you remember the storms, the depressions, the unbelievable disasters? We stand together, all of us, all shards of Ra and the embers of God, to create an era of justice and sharing. We weep for the blood, we weep for the sorrow, but we will pull American from its coffin and bash it against the sun. Civilization people make for fun.
Yes, a majestic crash is heading our way. Gravely the Statue of Liberty turned and faced the nation, finally! In the sky there is no distinction of east and west, people create the distinctions out of their own minds and then believe them to be true.
The moon is staggering the sky. It’s one of the unfortunate things that can happen to you in the modern world.
When you sit at home in a chair and think about God in heaven you are probably thinking about something else. I can’t bow down but to baby.
I believe that each of us is given one sentence at birth, and we spend the rest of our life trying to read that sentence and make sense of it.
Li Young Lee