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…
This is exclusive content for subscribers only – subscribe at this low introductory rate for immediate access!
Unlock this article, and thousands more from our complete 55+ year archive, by subscribing at the low introductory rate of just $1 an issue – that’s 10 issues online plus six months of full archive access for just $10.