Zero Degrees Of Separation

How we Americans, with our sparkling optimism and perfect orthodonture, must grate on our friends and enemies.

With unconscionable meteorological chutzpah, New York had never been so day-after-day beautiful-blue skies and balmy temperatures, the crystal-clear air of the Upper East Side mocking the smoke and debris and burnt-flesh odors that filled the air of lower Manhattan. In my own typically bipolar corner of New York, we lurched from muteness to garrulousness, from too few words to too many. For several days, I sat connected to the world only through the television screen, talking to no one. It wasn’t a question of “making sense” of the tragedy-one of those nonsensical phrases trotted out at such times. After all, so-called senseless crimes like Columbine or Oklahoma City make perfect sense to the perpetrators, and the demolishing of the World Trade Center was an exercise in irrefutable logic to the zealots of Islam in their holy war against the Great Satan.

No, what television dazzlingly accommodated was the need to witness, over and over again, the actual images and to hear the numbers. Commentary was restrained, as was the choice of graphics. Over and over, the first plane flying into the north tower, the second plane, the buildings crumbling and the smoke billowing: For once, the networks’ crisis-mode repetition felt appropriate. I tuned in after both jets hit the towers, but in time to see them collapse in real time. My first reaction was that it was some kind of simulacrum, a graphic rendering of what it must have looked like, with the scale slightly out of kilter, so toylike did the tiny plane appear against the monolith, the David bringing down the Goliath of American commerce.

A reporter called to ask whether disaster movies had desensitized us to real violence. No. When Die Hard and Independence Day and Air Force One and the rest appeared, pundits complained that they fostered paranoia; now it turns out we weren’t paranoid enough. What the screenwriters of these movies understood was how technology had altered the landscape of power, providing little nobodies with a capacity for mass destruction. And they tapped into our collective unconscious, intuiting and giving voice to terror of the kind of catastrophe that our conscious minds couldn’t conceive.

After the adrenaline of the first days wore off, and the irreversibility of loss began to sink in, we called each other and babbled. Did you know anyone, or anyone who knew anyone? Whatever the case, it felt like zero degrees of separation. Even if no further disasters awaited us, the ramifications of this one remained unfathomable. We could no longer project the future based on a familiar past. You couldn’t write or make sense of it, yet you couldn’t think-or write-about anything else.

My husband and I attended a bar mitzvah on Saturday, Sept. 15, a six-hour triple-header marathon that in its very existence and insistence on the normal was reassuring. The rabbi dealt with the tragedy at the outset, reminding us that in the Jewish religion a wedding trumps a funeral. “Choose life,” Moses exhorts us in Deuteronomy, “so that you and your descendants may live.” The three 13-year-olds each addressed the terrorist attack naturally and personally in his religious talk. If we, as Americans, can be accused of complacency, of believing ourselves secure and untouchable, the Jews can always remind us what it means to be ever and always vulnerable. The boy whose bar mitzvah we’d come to witness surprised and thrilled me by saying, “I don’t believe in God as someone up in heaven, but as a presence within me, my conscience, telling me what is right and wrong.”

I wondered if in the preparatory stage his words hadn’t given the rabbi pause-but if so, the religious leader hadn’t muzzled him. I tried to imagine the reaction if, at my own confirmation in the Episcopal Church many years ago, I had denied a literal God while embracing the spirit.

This came the day after Jerry Falwell had made his shocking accusation of culpability on the part of a feminist-homosexual-libertarian-secularized America. The problem isn’t the excessive secularization of America, but that the Middle East isn’t secular enough: Weren’t there already a few too many people claiming to speak for God?

We were at a dinner party the Thursday night of the President’s speech where about half the guests were Europeans, and I sensed a slight irritation among them, as if we were making a little too much of a fuss. After all, they’ve undergone two world wars and live in more immediate proximity to all sorts of terrorists, enduring stepped-up security for decades-surveillance, spot identity checks, foreigners registering every three months with the constabulary.

It’s not that we haven’t suffered. The Civil War is embedded in our national memory and a sort of civil, or civilian, war has been ripping this country apart since the 60’s. The Cuban missile crisis was a more abbreviated but also more intense terror. Then, as a single girl in the city, I and my fellow workers felt we had about a 50-50 chance of escaping nuclear Armageddon in the next 48 hours. President John F. Kennedy, then his brother-as conspicuous symbols of successful American manhood as any skyscrapers-were assassinated by pathologically aggrieved underdog males. But somehow, like the spectacular castration we’ve just endured, these events take their place in the national psyche as bizarre calamities without altering our basic pattern of life or impatience with restraints. You don’t have to be a my-country-always-wrong, peace-at-any-cost appeaser to understand how we Americans, with our sparkling optimism and our perfect orthodonture, our can-do mentality and pain management, must grate on the sensibilities of our Old World friends and enemies, imbued with a melancholy fatalism from centuries of turmoil.

We now have to reckon with complexities beyond practical reasoning and tactical thinking: how difficult it is to root out our metastasizing enemy, an evil flower that when pruned will only blossom and proliferate; how intertwined are our own strengths and weaknesses, our materialism, our idealism, our creativity, our courage, our addictions and capitalism in all its abashing glories and arrogance. Just look at Rudy Giuliani. There, in some bafflingly contradictory form, goes America.

We talk and talk, climb out of pitfalls and gaffes of our own making, words trapping us, failing us, but finally providing the only means of coping with the transcendent horror of those images and countering the brute pseudo-mystical fanaticism that wants to end our civilization.

Zero Degrees Of Separation