Nothing ever repeats itself twice; that is both the joy of
life, and the sickness of woe.
In the uncertain hour before the morning
Near the ending of interminable night ….
After the dark dove with the flickering tongue
Had passed below the horizon of his homing ….
That is how T.S. Eliot described air-raid duty in wartime London
under the threat of buzz bombs. In the predawn pallor he meets a ghostly
mentor, long distant, possibly dead. The arrangement of the lines suggests that
Eliot’s interlocutor is mainly Dante; the mood of the encounter is the mood of
Sept. 11 began with the bright pre-autumn blue that New
Yorkers flock home from vacations for. All the murk had been washed out of the
air the night before, when the flash floods ran in the gutters. Suppose the
enemy had set his clocks for then?
But he didn’t; he set them for morning with a visibility of
50 miles. Rolling those planes down the bowling alley of the Hudson
and into the big pins of Gotham must have been child’s
As an old fart, I will be telling bored auditors that I saw them
smoking, those unlovely no-nonsense towers, from a corner of Union
miles uptown. As I went to vote (first reaction: Who cares about
primaries now? Second reaction: Damn right we care about primaries-the fact
that we indulge such things is one of the reasons we were attacked), the stubby
little ambulances were bringing the wounded into Beth Israel hospital. There
were many more of them on Second and Third, hurrying
downtown, decorated with all the names of our great hospital network, now put
to military field use.
Then came the suck into television
land, and the nightmare repetitions. Outside my office windows, pedestrians
made their way in the flawless sunlight, looking like promenaders in some
impromptu Labor Day. Downtown, ashes and death. God
bless the widow, widower and orphan; God take the departed; God comfort the
wounded. Pray for them all.
There will be a second invasion in the days to come, the
invasion of nonsense. In the informal camaraderie of spectators, a van driver
expostulated with me on the senselessness of it all: “If they wanted to commit
suicide, why didn’t they fly into a mountain somewhere?” Very soon it became
clear that suicide in any sense we understand it had nothing to do with these
attacks. But other misunderstandings will rise up to replace this one. The most
popular will be that the attackers were “terrorists”-that is, criminals who
seek to spread panic and death among civilian populations by random acts of
They were terrorists like Rommel was a reckless driver and
Ulysses Grant was a barroom brawler. We were the victims of a military
operation of unorthodox appearance (every innovation seems unorthodox at first)
and considerable sophistication. The goal was to target symbols of American
power and wealth. The stroke hit home.
The response to such a stroke cannot be legal or
diplomatic-the international equivalent of mediation, or Judge Judy. This is
what we have a military for. Let’s not build any more atomic bombs until we use
the ones we have.
Why were we chosen as the target? This will be the second
fertile field of misunderstanding. If only we had fewer of one minority, or
more of another; if only our policy in this place or that had been milder, or
tougher. Our enemies had proximate goals, as every warmaker does. But we are
also a special target.
The United States
is perceived, correctly, as the incarnation of a dominant world system-an
empire of capitalism and democracy. New York City
is also perceived as the hub of one of those subsystems, the roaring dynamo of
wealth. Anyone in the world who looks at his lot and is unhappy, looks at
us-country and city-and sees an alternative. If he has an aspiring frame of
mind, he may try to come here or imitate us. If he has an aggrieved frame of
mind, he will hold us responsible. If he has the resources of a hostile nation,
or its functional equivalent, he will try to kill us.
The anarchists in Joseph Conrad’s The Secret Agent plotted
to blow up the Greenwich Observatory because it was in London,
the world capital of the previous turn of the century; and because it was a
symbol of the web of industry and finance capital which then overspread the
world. When a factory whistle blew in 1900, it responded to a clock that
somehow took its cue from Greenwich Mean Time. When men work in the world
today, their labor is touched to some degree by what happens on Wall Street.
Trying to hide from our eminence is like the sun trying to protect its privacy.
The world’s losers hate us because we are powerful, rich and
good (or at least better than they are). When those who acted on that hatred
have been repaid, seven times seven, we will rebuild the World
with one more story, just to rub it in. Meanwhile, we are open for business.