September 11, 2001
When I turned on the computer this morning about 8:30, the first thing I saw were email messages with subject lines like “New York is Burning” and “World Trade Center collapse.” I read a few of them, not quite getting it – was this some kind of joke? Or a thread I wasn’t quite following? I started to log on to Yahoo, then realized, slowly and stupidly, that this would be on TV. For the next two hours I channel-surfed, watching the video of the WTC towers being hit by a plane and then collapsing. Over and over. What’s amazing is that the events happen so fast, but then the news that follows is painfully slow. You get the same images; the tapes are replayed, intercut with “live” telecast, until you’re confused about whether you’re watching “live,” “recorded live,” or “video.” Time becomes a kind of a loop—the moments before the second plane hit, the collapse of the towers. Then they’re standing again and the plane is coming in again. The same images of a section of the Pentagon collapsed, but a sense of scale is impossible. The confusion about whether all four “hijacked” (an assumption, though a very good one, it appears) planes are accounted for. Different stations have different information; they contradict each other. Bush’s statement—exactly what you’d expect and even want him to say, though the voice in your head realizes you’ve heard this before. The resolve to get even, to “punish” those responsible. Even though it isn’t always clear who’s responsible, much less how to catch them and make them “pay.” The pictures of the downed WTC so like the pictures from the Oklahoma City bombing. It’s being compared to Pearl Harbor. We always seem to look for a past tragedy to contextualize a current one. It’s not like Pearl Harbor at all, of course. It’s not like anything, which is why it’s so hard to talk about it. The reporters keep pushing Mayor Giuilani to say how many people probably died in the WTC – as if it matters. Fifty thousand people work there. How many do you think died? At the same time, ironically, Peter Jennings doesn’t want to say that all the people on the four jetliners are dead. How could it be otherwise? Then we get the local reactions: Willie Brown, the head of the Fire and Police Depts. in San Francisco (which is all but shut down—all schools, all state and federal buildings, B of A building, Wells Fargo building, Transamerica building; I wouldn’t be in downtown SF today either; it’s the first time I’m truly glad to be in Oakland.) All of which seems beside the point—nothing is really happening here. Of course you have to think of SF as a target; if a plane went down outside Pittsburgh (and you can only think that was a mistake – a fight in the cockpit so the real target couldn’t be hit?), something could go wrong here. It’s a bad day to be a Palestinian in the US, I would guess. Video of Palestinians in Iraq rejoicing in the streets, throwing candy and hugging passersby doesn’t help. No one believes Arafat when he condemns the action; especially we don’t believe the Taliban Foreign Minister when he says they didn’t do it and don’t know who did—and don’t go thinking about Bin Laden, because he isn’t “sophisticated” enough to have coordinated such an attack. Well, that’s obviously wrong. He apparently coordinated attacks on US embassies in Africa nine minutes apart, as well as the USS Cole bombing. So no one can believe that either. What happens is that you quickly become sort of desperate to have information: You channel surf; you surf the ‘Net for “new” news. As I say, though, it’s slow to come; the Internet becomes all but useless because so many other people are trying to do what you are, and you aren’t entirely sure what new information is going to do for you anyway. This is going to take months and years to unfold; volumes of newspaper ink will be laid down; books will be written. We’ll see the stories of survivors being pulled from the wreckage; we’ll see bodies, draped in sheets, and the “people-sniffing” dogs, and the rescuers with face masks pulled up over their hair as they vomit into the streets. My early thoughts were: “We’re going to declare war.” Some Congressmen have said as much. All we have to figure out is who to fight. It’s a bad day to be in Israel as well. And you think, with a kind of grimness you don’t much like in yourself: “Well, what do we expect?” In other words, you’re shocked but not surprised, if that makes sense (and it really doesn’t). Shocked by the enormity and the audaciousness and the deaths. Not surprised that it happened.