Monday, September 11, 2006

9/11: the watershed

[On this fifth anniversary of 9/11, I am reposting the following. It is part of my "A mind is a difficult thing to change" series, and deals with the events of 9/11 and my reaction to them.]


Although I've written in my "About Me" section that I was "mugged by reality on 9/11," that's really just a convenient and probably misleading shorthand description of a much more complex reaction, one that began that instant but emerged only slowly, over a period of several years. It's probably still in the process of evolving and changing.

But the beginning wasn't slow. Not at all.

It began in an instant, the instant I heard about the 9/11 attacks. Like most of you, I remember exactly where I was at the time and how I learned the news. My story isn't a particularly dramatic one. I don't tell it for that reason. I tell it to learn more about the process by which a mind is changed--sometimes, as in this case, through a sudden and dramatic event that sparks intense feelings and begins a cognitive process by which a person tries to make some sort of sense of that overwhelming event and those chaotic feelings.


I was having trouble sleeping that night. I don't know why--I wasn't in pain, I didn't have a stomach ache, nor was I anxious about anything in particular. But I lay awake in bed for hours in a sort of unfocused but nevertheless unpleasant and restless agitation, until I finally fell into a fitful sleep from about 5 AM to 8 AM, and then woke up again.

I was visiting with friends, so I wasn't in my regular bed. My work didn't force me to get up early, so I tried to relax and sleep a bit more. But the strange wakefulness continued, and at about 10:15 I finally gave up and went downstairs.

My friend was at her job, but her husband John works at home in a basement office. Since he was nowhere to be seen, I figured he was down there working at his computer. I grabbed a yogurt for breakfast, and I was engaged in eating it a few minutes later when John appeared in the kitchen.

John is one of the calmest people I know, almost preternaturally so. I've never heard him raise his voice, and never even seen him look agitated, despite the vagaries of raising two teenagers and assorted pets. Nor did he appear particularly distressed that day. He seemed to be looking through some piles on the countertops for something--a pen? some notepaper?--when I caught his attention and started to ask some casual question.

John stopped shuffling through the stacks, and gave me a look I can only characterize as quizzical. He seemed to be studying me. And what he said next are words that are burned into my brain, a phrase I never want to hear again, not ever: "You don't know what happened, do you?"

I write it as a question, but it didn't really have a rising inflection at the end. It was more of a statement, an expression of intense wonderment that anyone could be so ignorant of something so obvious. It was as though he'd said "You don't know the sky is blue, do you?"

No, I guess I didn't know what had happened, I said, and waited for him to tell me.

What did I suppose it might be? I had already sensed, somehow, that it was nothing good. But in the split second of innocence I had left to think about it, I might have thought John was about to say that there had been an auto accident, a bus collision, or a fire, an upsetting but ordinary and generic tragedy of some sort or another.

But instead, John's calm words came out in one long run-on sentence, although their content was anything but calm, or calming.

"Two planes just crashed into the World Trade Center, and the towers have fallen, and then another plane crashed into the Pentagon, and a fourth one is missing, and a few others are missing, too" (the final destination of Flight 93 was unknown as yet, and a mistaken report had been issued that there were further planes still unaccounted for).

If John had told me that Martians had landed in Central Park, or that an asteroid was on a doomsday course towards earth and we had only a few hours to live, I could not have been more surprised. My body reacted instantly, before my mind did--my legs felt shaky, my mouth went dry, and something inside my gut was shaking, also.

I knew immediately and intuitively that a watershed event had occurred. I didn't know the exact parameters of it, nor any details of the direction in which we were headed, but I knew that this moment felt like a break with everything that had gone before. Assumptions I hadn't even known I'd held were dead in a single instant, as though their life supports had been cut. I didn't know what would replace them.

What were the main assumptions that had died in that instant for me? They had to do with a sense of basic long-term safety. Some utterly fearful thing that had seemed contained before, although vaguely threatening, had now burst from its constraints. It was like being plunged into something dark and ancient that had also suddenly been grafted onto modern technology and jet planes--Huns or Mongols or Genghis Khan or Vlad the Impaler or Hector being dragged behind Achilles' chariot--a thousand swirling vague but horrific impressions from an ancient history I'd never paid all that much attention to before.

I remembered having read articles within the last couple of years that had told of terrorist plans and threats, but managing to successfully surpress my rising fear and reassuring myself that no, it wouldn't actually happen; it was just talk and boasting bravado. The nuclear nightmares of my youth now came to mind: the fallout shelters, the bomb drills, the suspicion that I wouldn't live to grow up. I had suppressed those, too, especially in recent years when the fall of the Soviet Union had removed what had once been the likeliest source of the conflagration. It now felt like one of those horror movies where the heroine is chased by someone out to do her harm and then she gets home, feels safe, closes the door and breathes a sigh of relief--and then the murderer leaps out of the closet, where he'd been hiding all the time.

But all these thoughts and images weren't fully formed, they were a jumbled set of apprehensions that hit me almost simultaneously with John's news. In the next instant, I had a sudden vision of the two WTC towers toppling over and falling into the other buildings in downtown New York, crushing them as in some ghastly game of giant dominos. So the first question I asked John when I could get my suddenly dry mouth to function was, "How did the towers fall? Did they fall over and smash other buildings?

John didn't know the answer. The reason he didn't know was that the family television set had recently been unplugged and stored away, deemed too distracting for the kids, who'd been having some trouble in school lately. This meant that John had no visuals, and so he couldn't answer my question.

And then John left to get his daughter, and I was left alone with my thoughts.

I had always been glad I'd been born after World War II because I had a sense that the stress of those horrific war years would have taken a terrible toll on me. I had often wondered whether I could have handled such a lengthy time of deep uncertainty about whether the forces of good or evil (not that I really thought in those terms ordinarily, but WWII did seem to present a stark choice of that type) would triumph. I wondered about the sense of impending doom and personal danger that a worldwide war with so many casualties would have entailed, especially in those early years when it wasn't going very well for the Allies.

I'd known war, of course--most particularly, Vietnam. But as much as that war had affected me personally by affecting those I loved, and as much as I'd been upset by all the killing and struggle, the actual fighting had been far away "over there," and in a relatively small area of the globe.

From the very first moment that John had told me the news of 9/11, there had been no real doubt in my mind that the attacks had been the work of terrorists. There had also been no doubt that this was something very different from what had gone before.

But why was that difference so clear? After all, there had been terrorist attacks before that had killed hundreds of people at a time. There had even been a previous attack on the World Trade Center, and I had known that the intent of the terrorists back then had been to bring the building down. So, why this feeling of something utterly new?

Each prior terrorist attack had contained elements that had allowed me to soothe and distance myself from it, and to minimize the terrorists' intent. Most of the attacks had been overseas, or on military personnel, or both. Or, if the attack had been in this country and on civilians (both were certainly true of the previous WTC bombing), the terrorists had seemed almost comically inept and bumbling. Each attack had been horrible, but the presence of one or more of these elements had kept knowledge of what was really going on at bay.

Those planes that had crashed into the towers and toppled them on 9/11 also had smashed the nearly impenetrable wall of my previous denial. These attacks had been audacious. I could not ignore the fact that the intent of the terrorists was to be as lethal and malicious as humanly possible. The change in the scope and scale of the project made it seem as though they did indeed want to kill us all, indiscriminately, and it gave their motives even less grounding in any sort of rational thought that I could fathom, or any real strategic end. The creativity of the attacks (and I do not use that word admiringly, but the attacks were indeed an instance of thinking outside the box) made it seem that anything was possible, and that the form of future attacks could not be anticipated or even guessed at. The attacks had imitated an action/adventure movie far too well, the type of thing that had always seemed way too improbable to be true. But now it had actually happened, and the terrorists seemed to have become almost slickly competent in the split-second timing and execution of the attacks.

After John had left the house, I did a few practical things. I called my family in New York, who were all safe, though very shaken (my sister-in-law had witnessed the second crash from her balcony, and their small yard was covered with ash and papers). I managed to get to a television set and watch the videotapes, and it was then that I learned that the towers had fallen neatly, collapsing onto themselves like a planned demolition.

And then I did something impractical. I went to the ocean and sat on the rocks. It was the loveliest day imaginable. I had been alive for over fifty years at the time, and I cannot recall weather and a sky quite like that before. It added to the utter unreality of the day and my feelings. The sky was so blue as to be almost piercing, with a clarity and sharpness that seemed other-worldly. It made it feel as though the heavens themselves were speaking to us; but what were they saying?

All this clarity and purity was enhanced by the fact that there wasn't an airplane in the sky. There were boats of all types on the bluest of oceans, the sun beamed down and made the waves sparkle, and it all seemed to have a preciousness and a beauty that came with something that might soon be irretrievably lost.

I thought there might be more attacks, bigger attacks, and soon. So I might as well enjoy the sky. I wondered whether I should go ahead with a house purchase I was about to make. I wondered whether it mattered. But most of all, I wondered why the attacks had happened.

I'd studied human behavior for a good many years, but I can honestly say there was a tremendous and unfathomable mystery here. I had always been a curious person, but the amount of time and effort I had spent studying world history or political movements had been relatively minor. I'd been more interested in literature and art, psychology and science.

Now, and quite suddenly, I wanted to learn what had happened, why, and what we might need to do about it. In fact, I felt driven to study these things, in the way that a person suddenly faced with the diagnosis of a terminal illness might want to learn everything possible about that disease, even if they'd had no interest whatsoever in it before. Samuel Johnson has written that the prospect of being hanged focuses the mind wonderfully. A terrorist attack on this scale had focused the mind wonderfully, too. That was, perhaps, its only benefit.

Even on that very first day, as I sat on the rocks overlooking the beautiful ocean that I loved so much, I thought we had entered a new era, one which would probably go on for most of my lifetime however much longer I might live. The fight would be long and hard, and there would be many many deaths before it was over. Perhaps it would result in the end of civilization as we knew it--yes, my thoughts went that far on that day. This war would encompass most of the globe. I had no idea how it would work out, but I knew that we were in for the fight of our lives.

The legal actions of the past--the puny trial after the first World Trade Center attack, for example--no longer seemed like an effective response. It seemed, in retrospect, to have been almost laughably naive. The situation didn't even seem amenable to a conventional war. Something new would have to be invented, and fast. And it would have to be global. It would have to have great depth and breadth, and it would probably last for decades or even longer.

So for me the day began with an emotional intensity--a stunning shock that very quickly was matched by a cognitive intensity as well. It now seemed to be no less than a matter of life and death to learn, as best I could, what was going on. I knew it wasn't up to me to solve this; I had no power and no influence in the world. But still something drove me, with a force that was almost relentless, to pursue knowledge and understanding about this event. The pursuit of this knowledge no longer seemed discretionary or abstract, it seemed both necessary and deeply, newly personal.

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