What do Osama bin Laden, Saddam Hussein, and Susan Sontag have in common? All acknowledge a truth that most Americans would rather not: that what took place last week was, as Sontag put it, "[not an] attack on 'civilization' or 'liberty' or 'humanity' or 'the free world' but an attack on the world's self-proclaimed superpower, undertaken as a consequence of specific American alliances and actions." That those actions should be a source of pride and not a cause for selfflagellation is beside the point. Terrorist grievances aren't with America. They're with America's global power.
Coming home last Friday night, I stumbled upon a candlelight vigil. Hundreds of my Dupont Circle neighbors were walking gravely down Q Street, holding signs and dispensing leaflets. As I stopped to watch, a man pulled up on his bicycle, surveyed the scene, and began to scream. "Why don't you just commit suicide?" he yelled at the marchers. A policeman rushed over and tried to quiet him down: "None of that," he said, "this is a vigil. No politics." "My brother died in New York," the man answered, "and these fuckers..." And then he sped off. But the policeman was wrong.
On Wednesday morning, the train was silent. Grim, tight-lipped, and still. No one looked me in the eye and nodded; thus instructed, I also did not look or nod. In the tunnel underneath the Pentagon, the smell of smoke filled the car, but no one stirred or sighed. Out of the tunnel, the smoking building came into view. A few sobs escaped, and then we returned underground and were silent again. Silent because if we had spoken we would have wailed. In many ways, we americans have done well. We have rebounded, and with vigor.
An autumn of tears is upon us. The funerals have begun. There will be no miracles; there will be only DNA tests, and agonies, and eulogies, and theodicies; and then the injured lifetimes will begin. A New York minute now lasts an eternity. The grief comes in many forms. People saw things and heard things that cursed their consciousness, and ways must be found to lift the curse. Even television left scars: never was the distance between the screen and the world so completely annulled. So trauma is everywhere, near and far.
In the spring of 2000, I toured Afghanistan in an unusual way: freely. Normally, the Taliban tightly control foreign visitors. Journalists are quarantined in Kabul's former Inter-continental Hotel, forced to use government translators, and escorted by official guides. I was not. I had grown a beard and I can get by in Persian, which most Afghans understand. And one morning I simply checked out of the hotel, hopped in a taxi, and wandered for more than a week by myself, interviewing teachers, policemen, gravediggers, merchants, the unemployed, and the Taliban themselves.
The most searing images, of course, are of the aftermath--of the immediate survivors of the dead: parents, siblings, spouses, lovers, friends, hoping against hope that somehow those who live in their hearts might have survived in the flesh. They haunted the grim environs of ground zero with photos and handbills, pressing them onto journalists and cameramen, as if maybe the missing would see themselves on television and remember to call home. And then there were the uncomprehending faces of the children who will never see their moms or their dads again.
At first blush, it seemed like one of those town meetings staged for Dateline: about 35 people, sitting at neatly arranged desks, explaining how they first reacted to the terrorist attacks on New York and Washington. The answers were somber and heartfelt. The emotions--rage, fear, sadness--were familiar. Except that these weren't generic middle Americans. They were left-wing activists, meeting in a classroom at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. And when they talked about rage and fear, they weren't only referring to the terrorists. They were also referring to their rage at the U.S.
A thousand horrible questions present themselves, but one is how, as appears to have happened, four teams of terrorists could have hijacked four airliners simultaneously. How did they get their weapons through security? How did they take over aircraft so rapidly that, apparently, no distress calls were sent by pilots? This article was written within hours of the attack and, therefore, the possible answers it offers are highly speculative.
At 9 a.m. on September 11, I was sitting in a midtown Manhattan restaurant, reading an Israeli newspaper and feeling very far from home. Almost the entire news section focused on the suicide bombing at the train station in the northern town of Nahariya two days before, claiming three lives and wounding nearly 100. My 16-year-old daughter, who'd spent the weekend with a friend near the Lebanon border, had been at the Nahariya station and had boarded a train for Tel Aviv just before the suicide bombing; her friend's father, who'd dropped her off at the station, was lightly wounded.