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.