Ground Zero, 9-11-08, 9.20 am.
My essay for the New York Times magazine on that day – written days after – is below:
''What are days for?'' the poet Philip Larkin asked. We used to know the answer to that. Days were for living, for working, for the rituals of normalcy that make up the way of life we have come to know as American. These days had their ups and downs; they had their surprises and shocks. But they had as well a sense of reliability or modest predictability. We barely noticed these small moments of routine that, strung together, formed the ballast of a culture: the commutes to work, the family outings, the plane rides to friends, the coffee breaks and household chores. They acquired a rhythm that, although we easily forgot, took a revolution to begin, a civil war to resolve and dark and bloody wars to defend.
This normalcy was not the same thing as freedom; but it was quietly dependent on it. And so this security built slowly upon itself, broadening and deepening until we took it for granted, the threats to it always remote and, though involving us, not about us. We watched those threats on television, like a reality show that never fully became real. And when we saw Americans abroad in trouble or distress, we knew that there was always a hope for a homecoming, a return to safety.
To arrive from elsewhere onto American soil was always and everywhere a relief. It presaged the joy of security again, of family and friends and faith and work. We knew what days were for; and knew also that even when disaster struck or news shocked, the days themselves would encompass what we had to deal with. They would bracket us, shield us, support us.
I look at the calendar now and see the last time I felt this way. I check my voice mail and hear voices recorded before it changed. I haven't erased them. Something stops me. I want to remember their unwitting innocence — of dates fixed and dinners planned, of trips scheduled and work to be done, of assumptions of regularity that seemed banal before they ended, when they suddenly seemed more precious than the gorgeous sun that beat down on that Tuesday morning. I miss that blithe assurance that things will be what they have been — if not in degree but in kind. I miss the America that knew deeply that it was different, apart, protected, somehow open to the world and yet immune from its worst evils.
As any immigrant knows, this was the thrill of this country, its irresistible pull, its deepest promise. It was a symbol that the world need not always be the impenetrably dark place it has often been. It was a sign that someplace, somewhere, was always secure — as powerful an icon to those outside this continent as those within it.
This was the new world. It is now only the world.
We like to think that there are regular patterns in history, that events can be foreseen, that consequences can be predicted, that the world moves slowly from one era to another. We shrink from believing that in one instant, history can be stopped dead, or that the deepest part of a country's meaning can be altered. We do not want to contemplate the chance that history is in fact a series of unique moments, each as contingent as the last, with nothing inevitable, nothing foretold.
When the first tower of the World Trade Center was attacked, we thought immediately that this was an accident: because that is what the past had prepared us for. Although we had fantasized in movies or concocted in novels the scenarios in front of our eyes, we kept seeing them as if they were not actually happening, as if by force of will we could simply negate the evidence of our senses. And even as the hours proceeded and the worst got worse, we somehow resisted that this was the case, as if we would wake the next day to find it had not really happened, that our country had not absorbed a wound deeper than even now we can fully articulate or absorb.
We can talk logistics and details. We can recover our dead and comfort our survivors. We can look at what shone in that day almost as brightly as the sun: the passenger heroism aboard the planes, the sacrifices of countless firefighters and policemen, the acts of dignity and courage that no one will ever truly know in the nightmare of the stricken building in the minutes before it collapsed — the last phone calls of doomed fathers and mothers and sons and daughters, taking their last moments to speak to those they loved. We know we will endure. In fact, we know that it is at moments like this one that true heroism is born and leadership forged. We can anticipate the day — not yet here — when we do not think at some point of this gaping gash in our collective soul. And we can build now a solidarity and patriotism that eclipses even that of our founders and defenders for centuries.
Nobody seemed to know if this was the end or just the beginning. But what we did know was that only one word really sufficed to define the scale and gravity of what had taken place: war.
And in that very formulation, in the depths of our psyches and souls, we took the bait.
The bait was meant to entice the United States into ruinous, polarizing religious warfare against the Muslim world, so that the Islamist fringe could seize power in failing Muslim and Arab dictatorships. The 9/11 attacks were conceived as a way to radicalize a young Muslim population through a ginned-up war of civilization against the Great Satan on the Islamist home turf of Afghanistan and, then, Iraq. It looks obvious now. It wasn’t then. We were seized with righteous rage, every ounce of which was justified. But the victim of a rape is not the best person to initiate the strategy to bring the rapist to justice. And we, alas, were all we had. Our president, meaning well, did his best, and it was more than good, at the beginning. But in retrospect, he never mastered the fear or the moment either. Instead of calming the populace over the coming months, he further terrified us with drastic measures that only seemed to confirm the unprecedented gravity of the threat.
As mysterious envelopes containing anthrax began to appear in mailboxes, as our airports shut down and reopened as police states, as terror-advisory color codes were produced, as the vast new bureaucratic behemoth of the Department of Homeland Security was set up, as a system of torture prisons (beginning with Guantánamo Bay) was constructed … many concluded the threat must be grave enough to justify shredding some of the Constitution’s noblest principles and precedents. This handful of fanatics was supposedly a greater threat than the Nazis and the Soviets. And so much of our inherited moral wisdom—such as the absolute stricture against torture and the ideal of habeas corpus—were tossed aside. Dick Cheney, the man elected vice president as a calming father figure, became the most terrified of them all. And so we joined him in fearing that Al Qaeda was on the cusp of arming itself with WMDs that could be used to end our civilization.