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September 11: The View from the West

1.

On September 11, 2001, the United States reflexively contracted around the wound inflicted on its eastern seaboard, and for a short spell the country felt as small as Switzerland. Two thousand eight hundred miles west of the World Trade Center, roused by the phone ringing at 5:55 AM, I switched on the TV in time to see the second jetliner, flying at a tilt, aimed at the south tower like a barbed harpoon arrowing through the blue. It seemed at that moment as if the entire city around me were holding its breath. The bedroom window was open, but the usual white noise of a weekday waking morning was eerily absent. Somehow, in the eighteen minutes since the first strike on the north tower, everybody knew, and everybody was watching CNN. Unlike any news I can remember, news of September 11 was almost exactly simultaneous with the events themselves.

The blatant symbolism of the attacks—transcontinental American passenger jets destroying American skyscrapers—left no room to doubt their intended target. If you happened to live in Seattle, or Portland, or San Francisco, you were not excluded: the plane-bombs were squarely directed at the great abstraction of “America,” its daily economic life, its government, its military power; and every resident of the United States had reason to feel that he or she was under assault by the terrorists. September 11 was unique in this: other shocking and violent events in the American past were relatively specialized and local—the assassinations of presidents, the destruction of a naval fleet, the mass murder of children at a school, the fiery annihilation of an eccentric cult, the blowing-up of a federal building. Except when they occurred in your neighborhood or line of work, they were about other people. September 11 was different because it was so clearly and insistently about ourselves. Although only some three thousand people actually died out of a population of nearly three hundred million, everyone living in America that morning could feel that we were, in some more-than-merely- metaphoric sense, survivors.

An unnatural quiet pervaded Seattle. Emptied of civilian aircraft, the sky was silent except for the rare snarl of a low-flying fighter jet. On Interstate 5, which bisects the city, the thin traffic moved at the solemn pace of a cortege, everyone keeping their distance, no one leaning on the horn, no one breaking ranks to get ahead. The sense of awful occasion was reinforced by the withdrawal of commercials from the networks: the sudden banishment of shrilling upbeat salesmen lent to the day the air of a Presbyterian sabbath. In the neighborhoods, strangers were talking to strangers on the street. It was much as older Londoners fondly describe the Blitz—a time when people discovered in themselves an unexpected capacity to behave as members of a warm and supportive community, huddling together in the face of a common enemy. This was the gift momentarily bestowed on us by the attacks, though it would not be long before the gift revealed itself to be a Trojan horse.

But in the days immediately following the 11th of September America, from the perspective of Seattle, felt strangely snug and comradely, protected by its military aircraft and the red-and-white-liveried Coast Guard gunboats on Puget Sound. The President then was a relatively minor character, overshadowed by the ubiquitous figure of Rudolph Giuliani, who displayed at Ground Zero qualities that were previously kept well hidden—candor, a seeming modesty, and, most striking of all, a bleak wit as when, skin stretched taut over a face drained of color, he pushed back his Yankees cap to say, with a twisted grin, to prospective visitors to New York City, “You might actually have a better chance of getting tickets to The Producers now.” Giuliani’s rasping, barely inflected plainspeaking suited the country far more than George W. Bush’s poorly rehearsed ghostwritten eloquence.

That week, my compatriot Christopher Hitchens, stranded in Seattle after giving a lecture on September 10 in Walla Walla, Washing- ton, said over dinner that “at times like this, America turns into a one-party state,” and reminded me of the prophecy made by Robert Lowell back in 1966, when he answered a questionnaire sent to him by the editors of Partisan Review:

I have a gloomy premonition… that we will soon look back on this troubled moment as a golden time of freedom and license to act and speculate. One feels the sinews of the tiger, an ascetic, “moral” and authoritarian reign of piety and iron.

The mood of our fellow diners in the restaurant was one of forced joviality—a few jokes and laughs too many were coming from the tables around us. “I think we’ve just entered the reign of piety and iron,” Hitchens said.

The remark rang in my head the next day, Saturday, when I drove out of Seattle with my eight-year-old daughter, on the flimsy excuse that we needed to buy eggs from a small farm in the Snoqualmie Valley, some twenty-five miles to the east. I wanted to see how rural dwellers were responding to the attacks, and we were barely out of the city when the improvised roadside shrines began, with their prayer cards, two-stick crucifixes, wilting balloons, and pendulous stalactites of colored candle wax. In the valley, it seemed every house was flying the Stars and Stripes. Flags fluttered from windows, fenceposts, clotheslines (Wal-Mart reported the sales of 500,000 American flags in the days immediately following September 11). One householder in the town of Carnation had stapled together three bedsheets to accommodate the message, painted in massive irregular black letters, GOd HElP BLeSS AMERiCA.

We were out of luck on the eggs front: earlier in the week, a wandering gang of coyotes had slaughtered all the hens. In the light of this murderous attack, the farmer and his wife were understandably the only people I met that day for whom the events of Tuesday morning appeared to be remote, though their sadness and anger amply rivaled those of their neighbors, and the farmer’s phrase “mindless killing!” was perfectly in tune with the national feeling.

That trip to the Snoqualmie Valley was on my mind when, on July 7, 2005, the day of the Tube bombings that killed fifty-two people, I drove out of London, again with my daughter in tow. We left the city at 3 PM (the bombs had gone off at 8:50 AM) and fed ourselves into the agonizingly slow-moving swarm of traffic on the South Circular Road. Five hours later, after a couple of brief stops, we reached the village of Aynho in Northamptonshire, less than seventy miles from London. At the pub-hotel where we found a room for the night, I took my notebook into the bar, expecting that the bombings would dominate the conversation there. Oddly, the air rang with the names of racing drivers—Schumacher, Montoya, Villeneuve, Coulthard. It took a few moments for me to realize we were just fifteen miles from Silverstone, Britain’s main Formula One racetrack, on the eve of the qualifying races for Sunday’s grand prix. There was no communal sense of shock, or grief, or great occasion; only a steady rumble of complaint that the enormous traffic jams following the bombings had delayed the arrival at the pub of numerous friends and family members (and providentially freed our room as the result of a last-minute cancellation).

For the next ten days, our travels took us all over England, north and south, and it was astonishing to find how little the coordinated attacks appeared to have impinged on people’s thoughts and lives. I was the bomb bore, nearly always the first to raise the subject, which elicited mostly only weary recognition and memories of the IRA bombs and bomb scares in the 1970s and early 1980s. Although the press and television were labeling the events “7/7” and giving them vast and dramatic space, the pub-crawling visitor would have found it hard to detect from the buzz of talk that anything of special significance had recently happened in England.

It was only on July 21, when the second, failed attack took place, and we were back in London, that the mood changed and the country appeared to be genuinely rattled. But even then there was no American-style talk of “war”: these were unambiguously criminal acts, to be handled by the police; and when a Brazilian electrician with no connection to the bombings, Jean Charles de Menezes, who was living in England on an expired visa, was shot to death by police officers at Stockwell Tube station in south London on July 22, the event caused outrage comparable to that aroused by the two sets of bombings themselves.

Initially, the Blair government responded to the attacks with exemplary coolness, determinedly refusing to go along with the Bush administration’s extravagant and bellicose rhetoric on the danger posed by radical Islamism. But tabloid papers like the Sun and the Daily Mail, known in the UK as the “red-tops,” mounted an onslaught against Blair, accusing him of being soft on terrorism, failing to prevent terrorists settling in Britain under the guise of “asylum-seekers,” and allowing the capital city to turn into “Londonistan.” In August, just before he left on a family holiday at a secret location, Blair announced a large number of ill-thought-out “anti-terror” measures, which precipitated a fierce exchange between the government and the judiciary. Having shown commendable bravery and restraint in the face of the bombers, Blair, or so it seemed at the time, had quailed before the force majeure of the tabloid press.

2.

In 2001, piety and iron came hand in hand, but piety led the way. The roadside shrines and public prayers were part of a great outpouring of uninhibited religiosity that would have been unthinkable in a European country. On September 11 George W. Bush quoted the 23rd Psalm and spoke of the conflict (though not yet the war) between “good and evil.” A Harlem gospel choir sang hymns in the ruins of the World Trade Center. Members of the US Congress sang “God Bless America” on the steps of the Capitol, and a month later passed a resolution to encourage both the use of the slogan and the singing of Irving Berlin’s song in public schools. On September 16, Bush announced that America was now embarked on a “crusade”:

This is a new kind of evil, and we understand, and the American people are now beginning to understand, this crusade, this war on terrorism, is going to take a while….

At the time, I heard it said that Bush used the word “crusade” by accident and was probably ignorant of its significance, particularly for Muslims. This seems unlikely, given the amount of writing and rewriting that goes into presidential speeches. Perhaps Bush himself was not entirely aware of what he was saying, but some White House scribe surely intended to put us at least loosely in mind of Richard Coeur de Lion:

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