What you felt like was that you’d seen it before….
What you felt was that you’d seen it before, that it was like a movie, and you couldn’t shake that feeling, which in turn made you wonder about whether there is a difference, after all, between the impact of seeing something “not real” on the movie or TV screen and seeing something “real” on the same screen. In both cases, you’re too far away to feel it; it doesn’t touch you in the instant way. Through Thursday evening – that is, some 72 hours later – it was literally impossible to surf through the channels and not find at least one network showing the footage of the planes hitting the towers. From somewhere, they even found footage of the first plane hitting – though there’s only one shot of that; it was taken by accident. With the second plane, you have nearly endless angles. You could see those images as many times as you wanted, until, by Friday morning, there started to be breaks. One is tempted to call it pornographic. But what it is, really, is endlessly compelling. You start to be able to recognize the various pieces of footage. You know the one where you can see the nose of the plane, just for a split second, coming out the other side of the second tower before that image is lost in the fireball. You know the one where the fireman in the lower left of the screen will duck as he hears the impact, the one where you see the shadow of the cameraman on the wall as he runs past the front of a pizza parlor. Some of the images are going to be frozen in time; they’ll win prizes; they’ll be used ever after as icons for the event: the one of the three pieces of the skin of the towers planted in the earth in the background, splayed out into an oddly open hand reaching up from the ground, with smoke in the air and dust everywhere, and, in the foreground, the red helmets and yellow-and-black slickers of firefighters and rescue crews. The ash and dust feet-deep across lower Manhattan, like scenes we’ve seen of the aftermath of Pinatubo, Montserrat. The way everything is turned a uniform gray. The way everything looks to be beaten and scarred. A park bench, a filthy teddy bear, a car whose tires have melted in the heat of the fire are shown, a triptych of desolation and misery. In one way, I haven’t been able to get enough information; I’ve been obsessed with it, a glutton for it. I know other people are reacting this way as well, unable to leave the house because they are glued to the television or radio or the internet—or all three. It’s almost as if you want to force yourself to understand it, to try to connect with it, to “believe” that it’s real. Everywhere, included in yourself, you see evidence of what Auden called “the romantic lie in the brain.” The lie that it isn’t real, that it doesn’t “mean,” that the “why” and the “what to do” of it are clear. The most frightening are the people who seem to feel they know one or the other, if not both, and you steer clear of them, though their voices come to you on television and their words in your email inbox, and you reach a point where you just want everyone to shut up. You want to watch what’s going on, even if it’s only on television, and just watch in silence, to see if you can make sense of it. If only you watch carefully enough, in silence enough, you might begin to make something out of the forms and the pixels and the play of light. Surely, written there somewhere is reason; surely the detail will reveal its context, if observed clearly. What you can’t avoid is the stupidity, the thoughtless reactions, the insistence, which suddenly seems so American and so foolish, on “action,” as if it were clear what that would mean. People have seen too many movies; they’re infected by the same virus of unreality, and many seem to believe, in some Mission Impossible sort of way, that the U.S. can simply reach in and extract Bin Laden, if only we have the “will” and “resolve,” the two code words that are being bandied about a bit too much for comfort. And in the midst of all this, anecdotes that provide the perfect microcosm: American flags are going up everywhere. The rescue workers raised one over the remains of the WTC as they worked; they’re on people’s clothing, they’re being waved as people pray and cry and go to church. And yet: Now that the demand for American flags has reached an all-time high, major retailers are jacking up their prices. Who would have guessed how perfect a symbol it would actually be?