Like everyone I was frightened and stunned after the attacks. I was scared to say anything and told myself it might make sense to wait and see what unfolded before trying to come to any conclusions. I also didn't want to say anything until I felt I could say everything, until I could speak my mind fully. And like most I soon fell under the influence of those at the top who were not stunned for long and who seized the chance to wage a deliberate campaign of intimidation against their domestic rivals.
On September 11th, I woke up a little before nine, took a quick shower and then turned on the radio to hear the President talking about something that sounded important. I immediately switched to the TV and saw the first tower burning. I may have had the stupidest possible reaction to the sight. I was afraid Jews would be pulled out of their cars and beaten in the streets.
All morning the phone was ringing, friends of my girlfriend calling to see if she was all right. She worked at an immigration law firm in midtown but her friends in Washington and Hawaii didn’t know what part of the city her office was in. Come home now, I said when I talked to her, there’s still one plane in the air and the Empire State Building could be a target. Don’t wait for permission from your boss, just walk out. At home I watched out my window as lines of office workers marched up the long avenue, covered in white dust. I was so glad to see her when she came in the door safe and sound; I felt safe too. The rest of the world could go to hell.
The fires burned for days; we were that ineffective. The TV kept asking if there were survivors beneath the rubble, long after it was absolutely impossible. The TV said that a dog had survived beneath an SUV before retracting it. It said that a group of suspicious men were arrested in a van near a bridge before retracting that as well. Meanwhile everyone on the phone was saying that rats were feasting on the remains.
I winced when Brokaw stupidly pointed out that the date was 9-1-1, and I wanted to shout at the set when the commentators began to intone their mindless mantra, chanting as one, Everything’s changed, everything’s changed. 9/11 would inevitably be interpreted for the public by the same bunch of idiots who brought us Y2K.
As with any disaster, an air of quiet fell over the city, a mood of awe and contemplation. Our delicate friends became more delicate and we went and tended to their nerves, visiting and listening. One Jewish friend of mine became convinced he was getting dirty looks on the street from people who took him for an Arab.
All week my mom kept calling from California to make sure I was all right. She seemed not able to believe it. Later I learned she had seen the pictures CNN broadcast of people jumping out of windows to their death to escape the flames. I guess it was hard to make that match up with her youngest son being two miles north and not even smelling smoke.
Soon there were flyers posted everywhere, as if people were looking for lost dogs, or as if after the explosion the dead might now be bodies walking around without selves, unable to speak their own names. Imperceptibly the function became memorial; the posters became shrines.
Everyone went to give blood, even though
there was no one to receive it.
The biggest question was, Did we deserve it? My answer was emphatically no, we did not. The financiers, secretaries, cleaning staff, security and restaurant workers did not deserve it, New York did not deserve it, America did not deserve it. But was it a direct consequence of certain specific U.S. foreign policies? Without a doubt. One can still defend those policies, and even make the argument that the attack proves the need for such policies, but to deny cause and effect would be absurd -- and yet that is just what the weak-minded press proceeded to do, asking, Why do they hate us and answering, They envy our freedom.
Could it have been prevented? No one can say, but it is clear that Bush would not have been the man to do it. His administration is beset not only by rampant cronyism, but as Paul Krugman has pointed out, by a core indifference to the public welfare and a blinding obsession with ideological battles.
Every year the Economist does a special issue of predictions. In the year 2000, I read their prediction that a major terrorist attack on American soil was inevitable. It struck me then as an odd thing to say, and not knowing what to do with the information, I promptly forgot about it. There were certainly plenty of precedents, like the failed 1993 attack on the towers or the 1995 bombing of the Oklahoma City Federal Building, but they only became recognizable as precedents after the fact.
It was hard to understand an attack by an unknown and invisible enemy, particularly one using the startling and unprecedented technique of turning a hijacked passenger jet into a guided missile. There was a continual temptation to think of it as a kind of accident or natural disaster, made up of a crash, a fire, and a building collapse, something like a cross between “Airport 77” and “The Towering Inferno.”
The hardest thing was always waiting for the other shoe to drop. The hardest part of 9/11, without a doubt, was never knowing if it was over. The real question, the terrifying question we tried to ask ourselves and each other every night without ever being able to put it into words properly, was: Would it happen again?
I also wondered: If nothing happened,
would Bush get the credit or would people say he had exaggerated the
threat? And if something happened, would he get the blame or would the
public rally round him?
I knew from the previous season of NBC’s rescue drama “Third Watch” that firemen are not allowed to go into a collapsing building, and so what was being hailed as bravery was in part an error of judgment. Even as the firemen were being celebrated, their wages were being cut, their stations closed, and the effort to recover their friends’ bodies abandoned. A few may have taken advantage of the opportunity to loot some jeans and fancy watches, an allegation that was bitterly contested, most prominently by the widow of Stephen Jay Gould. Surprisingly few people I talk to now seem to have heard the story, even though it was on the cover of The Atlantic Monthly.
In my view, the firemen were essentially human sacrifices ex post facto. They would not have gone into the building had they known it was going to collapse, and they might have known if they had had better communications equipment. Instead death made them silent and silence made them the model citizens for an absolutist state. It was the idea that they had gone to their deaths without thinking, without analyzing the situation and weighing their options, by instinct of service to others and not prompted by intellect or good information, that made them heroic. In this they were already soldiers and foreshadowed more cannon fodder to come. The root error here is the public belief that action is no time for thought. In truth it is a moment for quick, well-trained and well-prepared judgments, as firemen know.
I wanted to write HERO = MARTYR on the sidewalk in chalk, to help people make the connection. I wanted people to see that the problem was not that Christianity and Islam were so different but that they were so similar, that they were rivals with the same goal, to kill their own and call it noble. We were told a death created a debt, à la Jesus. They died for us though we had not asked them to or bargained in advance for the price. We were simply given the bill for the goods and told to pay up. What we owed was first our silence, and more if asked. What we owed was everything, in exchange for a counterfeit salvation. We owed everything to the heroes of history, and honoring this debt was what learning history meant.
The need to worship runs deep. I find its roots in myself all the time. The more I search my heart, the more there seems to be. Watching Pennebaker’s documentary about Bob Dylan, I ache with the desire to be as emotionally constricted as he was, as taut and inorganic. I long to have my own messy unworthiness cancelled, to be relieved of my name and face and mass and mind, not so much to be him as to disappear before him and thus fulfill my insignificance. Even the phrase “my unworthiness” is an echo from his lyrics.
One can argue for other heroes and other virtues like Socratic truthfulness, or argue against any heroes at all, any false identification with the supposedly great; I take the latter view. I say think for yourself to the limits of your ability, which you can only find by reaching them each time and which will recede further each time with effort. Cut out the middleman and get your virtues direct from the source, get them fresh from the fields and not vacuum-packed in the shape of a man. Don’t be a lamb just because some shepherd once said to, some thousands of years ago; lambs end up in shepherd's pie.
By letting others decide for us, we avoid
our greatest fear, having no one else to blame. We instinctively fear
taking responsibility for ourselves more even than dying.
After the attacks, the world passed from a harmless to an urgent and lethal absurdity. The TV ran that same clip over and over. For months they ran it whenever they had a chance, wallpapering our minds with its horror. Just turning on the TV became a more traumatic experience than the day of the attacks had been.
If I have confined myself largely to my own impressions here, it is in no small part because I have been unable to take in any of the latest shows or recent articles on the subject. I feel their vulgarity only compounds the atrocity. The subject is poorly suited to the direct approach and has been massively overdone for weeks, so I certainly can't blame any reader who quit this essay after the first paragraph.
People were being told to remember before they even understood, so what exactly were they going to remember? Were they going to remember people they didn’t know as if they had known them? Were they going to remember events that happened to others as if they had really happened to them? Perhaps the best way to remember that day would be a timeline, but all the timelines I found on the web were revolting and insane. 9/11 has become the JFK assassination of our era, the locus of all paranoia and concomitant pedantry. Years later it has left paper debris as hard to sort through as the glass and steel and stone were.
What I wanted was a timeline of everyday life in New York City in the years after the attack. People buying up all the gas masks at the army surplus stores. The e-mails about nuclear suitcases. Watching packets of food dropped in Afghanistan and missing their targets. Sikhs wearing buttons that said I Love America hoping they wouldn’t be taken for Muslims. Susan Sontag saying in the New Yorker that the hijackers could not fairly be called cowards.
There was the vicious rumor that the
Israelis knew and let it happen or were even behind it, and the similar
supposition that the Federal Government knew or even did it on purpose.
This kind of superstition illustrates that the ignorant would rather
believe in a malevolent order than an incompetent or incomplete one;
they would rather have an evil system than none at all, a god who hates
us instead of a void where they feel a god should be. They must believe
that every major effect has some higher intention behind it as its
animating force. There can be no accidents or easy answers. If you look,
you will find educated people on the web calmly asserting that Flight 77
vanished à la Copperfield and it was actually something else that
hit the Pentagon, that a diabolically quick-witted Rumsfeld saw in this
moment a golden opportunity to fire a missile at his own headquarters to
win sympathy; they can tell by looking at the photos.
I had temped for several months at 3 World Financial Center next to the towers, and met some very nice people, one secretary who, when I was given a thick binder to photocopy one page at a time, took it back to her boss and told him that big jobs like that had to be sent out, another guy who when he saw me reading a novel started bringing in his favorite comics for me to look at and who taught me the cheat codes for Doom. They all got out okay.
At a rally to protest the INS detention of
Arabs, an Asian-American woman sent from the mayor’s office approached
me and asked if I had been the victim of discrimination after the
attacks. Oddly, I found the question itself offensive. She had not asked
me my ethnic background but instead assumed, incorrectly, and on the
basis of the narrow presumption that we were all there looking out for
our own. With her script and clipboard, she seemed an embodiment of
bureaucratic stupidity: Let’s quantify the fall-out from the last
atrocity, let’s examine the damage to our sacred idol of equality, to
the credibility of the empty promises of ascension which we dangle in
front of the underclass. It was the wrong place and the wrong time
for the question, the wrong question and the wrong person to ask. If she
really wanted to find discrimination, she only needed to turn around,
but her real function was to perform a kind of pantomime, pretending
that discrimination is hard to find.
In time Saturday Night Live began to parody the Bush administration’s senseless raising and lowering of the threat level and people started to breathe easier. As it turned out, the idiot anchors were right, everything had changed, or almost everything, but the thing that mattered most unfortunately had not. People hadn’t gotten any kinder or wiser. Nowhere did anyone draw the same moral I did, that we need the good will of all mankind in order to live in peace.
Said Shirazi lives in suburban New Jersey. He is writing about music and television on-line for Printculture, where this article first appeared.
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