I’m usually out of bed early. But on Tuesday, September 11, I just didn’t want to get up. I slept past my five o’clock alarm. I slept past Norma’s six o’clock alarm. I didn’t wake up until 8:20; this was later than I’d slept in years. As I shuffled to the bathroom, I recalled bits and pieces of the unsettling dream I’d just had. I was in a big city, its skyline dominated by a towering skyscraper. I heard a huge explosion and, looking up, saw the top of the tower enveloped by a mushroom cloud. I raced into the lobby to find out what had happened. People were running frantically in all directions. A reporter told me the explosion was the work of a religious cult. That’s when I woke up. I had no idea what the dream meant. I took a shower and got dressed. I turned on the radio.
Grief bangs the drum, and for Americans it’s no longer a distant sound: Israelis blown up on their way to work, or Palestinians killed by Israeli soldiers. Grief bangs the drum, and it’s no longer someone else’s funeral. People ask if I knew anyone who died. Yes, I think, I knew them all. But of course I didn’t. That wasn’t my wife who never finished her second cup of coffee. That isn’t her severed hand in a plastic bag, palm up, asking the question it will always ask.
The need to find those responsible for the violence becomes a war against terrorists, which becomes a war against terrorism, which becomes a war against evil. But who would wage a war against evil unless he’s unable to see the evil in his own heart?
Did the terrorists want to make a statement? Why didn’t they sit down in front of the United Nations and go on a hunger strike? Perhaps the example of Mahatma Gandhi or Martin Luther King Jr. wasn’t inspiring enough. Why didn’t they emulate the Buddhist monks who set themselves on fire to protest the war in Vietnam? Not dramatic enough; not enough pyrotechnics. If Tuesday’s events seem like a bad movie, perhaps that’s because Hollywood has convinced all of us, terrorists included, that the only way to get the world’s attention is to blow up a building and make sure plenty of innocent people are killed.
“The World,” a radio commentator says, “will never be the same again.” I wonder how many times such words have been spoken? Were they uttered, with the utmost solemnity, after World War I? After the Holocaust? After Hiroshima? After the massacres in Tibet, in Cambodia, in Rwanda? The world hears the words. The world holds its bloody head in its hands.
People ask when we’ll feel safe again. But, before September 11, we didn’t feel safe because of crime. Because of AIDS. Because of kids bringing guns to school. Because the hole in the ozone layer is getting bigger and the rainforest is being turned into particle board. Before the Soviet Union collapsed, we lived every day with the threat of nuclear annihilation. Did we feel safe then?
“The United States just doesn’t get it,” a friend says. The attacks were “karmic retribution” for a nation unwilling to acknowledge its greed, its arrogance, its exploitation of the dispossessed. I know, I know. But talking of “karmic retribution” at a time like this seems heartless. Yes, the United States has done many terrible things. But I can’t bring myself to say this tragedy is anyone’s karma. Would I stand over the bodies of the dead and say that? Would I look their loved ones in the eye and say that?
My cats know I’m sad, though they don’t know why. Cats don’t kill each other to win God’s favor. Cats don’t kill each other to wipe out evil.
On the radio, a psychologist is talking about people’s inability to concentrate, to sleep. Many are depressed, she says. She calls them “secondhand victims.” If herbs can’t help, she says, there are prescription drugs. But do we need relief from our suffering right now — or do we need to open our hearts to the suffering of the world?
If we could ask the people who died in the attacks what to do now, I wonder what they would say. Wouldn’t we want to take time to listen to all their voices? Voices of rage. Voices of sorrow. Voices of compassion. Voices of hate. Voices that say, Do something. Voices that say, Don’t do something stupid.
Never, before September 11, have I had so eerily prophetic a dream. Then again, never, since the Cuban missile crisis, have we been so dangerously close to a world war. I hope I’m wrong about that. Three weeks after the attacks, the president’s advisors are still undecided about what to give the country for Christmas; wars come in so many shapes and sizes. So I pray to be wrong — as wrong as I was the last day of 1999, expecting a worldwide computer crash that never occurred. All I know is this: On September 11, with a clash of cymbals, the curtain came up on a strange new world. A handful of terrorists, armed with nothing but knives and box cutters, brought down the tallest buildings in New York. In a country where size counts, the World Trade Center was a symbol of this nation’s unbelievable wealth, its enormous power, and, let’s face it, its manhood. Now, the United States is going to war to avenge a wound that can’t be healed. The people are dead; the towers are gone.