I spent most of Monday, September 10th, 2001 finishing a paper on stray references to the religion of ancient Iran in the Refutation of Sects of the fifth-century Armenian Bishop Eznik of Kolb. Sunday I had gone swimming, and a former student had come by for supper in the evening. Monday the Harvard Persianist, Wheeler Thackston, came for dinner with yet another student. I made a Russian-style salad with lots of mayonnaise and hard-boiled eggs. A bottle of red wine. Didn't go out Monday wanted to get the paper done and buy the new Dylan album due out on the 11th as a reward for my diligence. So, still in my flip-flops, I walked Wheeler to Linnaean Street, and it began to rain, so he invited me up for a nightcap. On the way back, I wondered to myself what the killing of the Afghan leader Ahmed Shah Massud by two Arabs might mean. But it was far away.
Not that I hadn't been thinking: two Tuesdays before, Bob Johnson, the man who cleans my place, had been keeping me company over morning coffee, and I said to him I thought the only reason Arab Moslem terrorists had not crashed a plane into midtown Manhattan or blown up the George Washington Bridge was that they feared our response. And I believed they did fear it; so I was really no more fearful than anybody else. On the night of the 10th I got home and copied out something about St. Gregory the Illuminator and a dragon from the Sharaknots, the Armenian Hymnal. Term was about to start, and course-books were ready. The cat seemed to have a bit of a cold, but it was getting better, and she and I fell into a pleasant sleep in a peaceful world, in the small hours of September 11th.
The clock-radio went on at nine: the BBC's reporter with a surprised, puzzled tone was saying a small plane seemed to have had an accident with one of the towers of the World Trade Center. This felt wrong, so I rang my mother in New York and told her this was no accident and she must not get on the subway, must not go to work. Just as my father shouted in the background that we should both stop our paranoid over-dramatizing, their tv showed the second plane sail in. Back here, Bob Johnson was at the front door. He started cleaning the kitchen as I brewed coffee. The radio reported a hit on the Pentagon. Some time before or after that my pupil Sergio rang from lower Manhattan, where he was staying at his girlfriend's place before leaving to taking up a post at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem, Israel. He told me he was watching the first tower collapse. I wandered outside and went to an empty HMV to buy the Dylan record. At the cash register, I asked the salesgirl if there was more news. She replied that she was not American, but Canadian, and was planning to go home as soon as possible. "You Americans think you're invincible," she concluded smugly. We are, I said, but we're vulnerable, too. Wait and see: we will win. Then I went to Harvard Yard to check my e-mails, but they were all inane. I went home. I went for a swim. Lucine and I ate dinner together.
That night, I went out for a walk again, and it was a beautiful night like the last, but the streets were dead. Later on, the only planes in the sky were F-16s patrolling Boston in great arcs. I did not think they were locking the barn after the horse has bolted. I did think every plane might be one of the enemy's that had got through, so I'd get up and with my arms make a tent over Cat in case the building collapsed. She could be saved in an air pocket that way. I gave up sleeping and called my teacher Nina in the Marais. Friends called from Manchester and St. Petersburg.
The above paragraphs, about the sweet prewar life and the terrible day, come from my notebook. I wrote on the Greyhound bus down to New York on Thursday, the 13th. The highway was empty. Lines: "the whole country never cheerful, sunny, open again, all the fun over, all the safety of the oceans gone . . . I'm dreading what's at the end of this road: it should be home and most of home's there. We just passed Food & Books in Connecticut. The old pit stop where you get a free book with your sandwich."
In the Lost City.
The Port Authority Bus Terminal. On the subway uptown, people wan from crying, or in shock, everybody somber, exaggeratedly polite. I visit my parents, my brother and Lara and their baby, Isaac. I get home to Dennis, we drink some wine and recall sitting over a bottle on the corner where Bld. St. Michel meets the Seine, a few weeks before. "I had a picture of it all in my head, but the picture makes no sense." Later on, we walk to Lola's place. She's an Armenian who lived through years of civil war in Beirut. There is tea, pastry, Mozart: comfort from somebody who's been there. Late at night my oldest friend, Steve, stops by. Usually he just munches leftovers and growls. Tonight he is haunted, visibly aged. He is a computer programmer for a downtown firm, and he was a few blocks away. Usually he got off the train at the World Trade Center stop for a stroll to the office, but Tuesday he was late and got off down the line. Walking through the office, he heard noise, then saw a lot of black smoke billowing out of the first tower. They decided to go for the stairs, down to the lobby, and the second plane hit soon thereafter. They went out. The police were telling people to go north, away but he says many just stood there, looking. As he reached Washington Square Park the towers began to fall, and people started running south for a better view. He would not turn around. He walked uptown, up to his parents' at Columbia, had a few whiskies, and got a ride home. His friend Ari saw the second plane, and the people falling. A friend of his girlfriend saw a falling body crush the woman next to her. Why did he not turn? The indecency of allowing evil to become a spectacle? Steve doesn't cry either. Thursday he went into a deli to order a sandwich, got choked up, and walked out hungry. (Every weekend of this fall semester I go home to New York, and Steve is a ghost, repeating what he saw. But his old mannerisms are returning though it is those that seem now relics of a ghost world, like the frivolous covers of prewar magazines, the stupid movies, the self-assured confidence.)
Friday, September 14th.
Early in the morning I go down to midtown, to my childhood dentist Dr. Hendell, who sends me a few blocks east for a root canal operation. I'm absurdly grateful that amidst this murder there are gentle, brilliant souls performing intricate operations to make people well. (Lola's friend Olga was near the towers when they fell, on Liberty Plaza, and was pelted with a hail of teeth. Teeth? Teeth.) As the Novocain starts to wear off, I join the crowd in a foul rain outside St. Patrick's Cathedral. All are quiet, immensely dignified, profoundly sad. Everybody shares his umbrella. The sermon: of all the possible means of expression, the Creator of the Universe has chosen to communicate with us through an emotion, that of love. The recessional is "America the Beautiful." Outside the rain is still falling out of a filthy sky. We are breathing the smoke, a fine, endless dusting ash made of thousands of incinerated people, two quarter-mile buildings and everything in them.
My jaw hurts as though someone had spent the morning punching it. I gingerly drink some strong coffee in a Soho cafe. The galleries are shut, people look broken, and the chic and energy of this district a week ago is as dead as -- as the Pyramids? No, ancient Egypt had a natural death. This is dead like the Jewish life of Warsaw or Krakow is. This is not some other place, after all. This is New York, home. It's my world they have murdered. On the way downtown, I purchase: a bunch of dill for tonight's soup from a Tibetan on Union Sq., and two American flags from a Black woman whose family are downtown and are not accounted for. On lower Broadway, near NYU, the Lubavitcher Hasidim are waylaying people as always; so I put on tefillin and they tell me Rosh Hashanah is the great chance to announce that God is the king of the world, and to transform the world into light. But the truth is that I went into St. Paddy's to be with New Yorkers, that I wanted to chat with these insanely, obscenely optimistic Hasidim. I don't give a flying leap just at the moment whether God chooses to talk to us by telegraph, or by nailing His son to a cross, or by sending the incoherencies of the Qur'an to be howled out by some epileptic prophet, or by establishing a fucking monarchy.
It all ends at Canal Street with an eerie barricade right across the island. Where the twin towers were, in the frozen zone, "weird billows of white smoke. Completely silent crowds, lots of sirens and dump trucks." A fighter plane circles low overhead. It's still raining. I pull the maroon hood of my Harvard sweatshirt over my head, open my book, unscrew a black Waterman pen, and, standing on native ground amidst my family gays from Chelsea, displaced Tribecans, gallery-owners, bond traders, Chinese peddlers, Mexicans with candied-peanut trolleys, Black guys, Columbia boys, lots of volunteers from everywhere, the invited ghosts of Washington, Whitman, Melville, and Emerson, the bodies in ashes falling endlessly with the rain write.
"The city is changed and sorrowful and it is all unimaginably and horribly different. However New Yorkers love it and, it turns out, each other. And I find I love the city more than ever, and cannot tell you how proud I am if it and us, and how grateful to be in it now, where one has to be, here, after the unbearable loss, here as nowhere else in the whole universe, here, Canal Street changed and grim, here where we strolled and ate dim sum, here where Dennis and I went to parties in lofts in those electric, illuminated fall nights of our youth, here where the great towers rise, stranger and more glorious than Egypt or Persepolis, though two are gone, where the autumn is not gaudy and chic, but somber, every face fighting back a tear, people staring as they walk, all these cars with flashing lights coming out of the frozen zone, the land of the lost, and the rest of us, from every country on earth in this country made for all. The strangeness and sorrow of all this horrible quiet aftermath, and what is to come."
After that I walked back uptown, past the thousands of little posters of the missing people. The names were Indian, Korean, Chinese, English, Irish, Jewish, German, Italian. Often the pictures are in color: the man or woman at his or her wedding, or on holiday, or dressed for a business day, with a smile. One guy is described as having a facial scar from a skin cancer and a titanium hip. A middle-aged guy, smiling in the picture, with the war wounds of getting older on the job of living. Makeshift memorials and shrines everywhere: flags, flowers, inscriptions, pictures of the towers, a bumper sticker with the two of them forming an inscription: we will rise again. (I always loved them. To me they were two tall, shining boys standing over the island and rivers and harbor: Castor and Pollux, the Dioscuri. The taller one had that radio mast, which offset the symmetry in a pleasing way.) I get home, Dennis and I have a drink and cook for Shabbat, and I read him my chronicle, having a hard time with the part about the missing-person posters. Sergio and Melina arrive: Sergio's been a relief volunteer since the attacks, and looks very sad, like everyone, but also very determined: I knew him when he was an ungainly freshman, and now he's grown up. It's our home, our home, I keep saying, and at last totally lose it. He keeps me from falling down. Somehow we eat dinner, and I pass out. Crying, vomiting, unconsciousness, the sense that less sunlight is reaching the earth than in August, the grainy ugliness every morning when a few minutes after waking you remember the way the war reached in and befouled our lives, though the night, if you slept, almost made you forget, unless you dreamed of planes falling.
The days after: Israel & "Why do they hate us?"
When this war began, there were discordant notes. People asked,"Why do they hate us?" and the answer came back: U.S. support for Israel. A letter to the Christian Science Monitor suggested, not that support for Israel was morally wrong, just that it was more trouble than it's worth. A student of mine (named, embarrassingly, Christian) wondered aloud to me that Israel might have been a mistake. Are other nations errors, provisional entities to be corrected by deletion? One looks back. A year ago, Arafat rejected all of Clinton's and Barak's peace proposals and launched another Intifada, complete with lynchings of Israeli citizens. I said Islamic extremism, and a murderous anti-Semitic hatred, had become the dominant the only discourse of Arab political and intellectual life. The Taliban dynamited the Buddhas at Bamiyan: I said to anyone who would listen that those who start by burning books will soon be burning men. In Spring 2001, the Egyptian police made mass arrests of gays. Since it's not illegal to be gay in Egypt, they charged them with being Israeli agents: the Jews, said the Egyptian press, invented homosexuality to undermine mankind. Jew-hatred is the first symptom of the bacillus, and direct assaults against democracy will follow soon after. Bernard Wasserstein has written perceptively since 9/11 in the Chronicle of Higher Education of the knee-jerk anti-American enmity of many Europeans as an extension of anti-Semitism, that venerable "Socialism of fools", warning Americans not to accord to our enemies the respect of considering their motive for wishing to murder us. But his was at first a lonely voice. Tony Blair and others now chime in to tell us Islam means peace (it means "submission").
The West has been leaning over backward to prove to the Arabs, whose latest fad is little icons on the cell phone screens of the twin towers going down, that we are really nice. Please don't hate us, we feel for your grievances. The Aryan Nations and the Moslem leadership agree: it's the Jews' fault all this happened. But most Americans aren't swallowing this line, and there are hopeful signs that this collective Stockholm Syndrome, born of those imbecilities of cultural relativism and political correctness, having disfigured our public thinking and national mourning, may be starting to dissipate. In 1991, Israel sat tight while the Scuds fell, lest the Arab coalition feel aggrieved and cease to co-operate with America (when we sent our army to help the super-rich emirs of Kuwait and Saudi Arabia keep their oil and finance the folks who were to launch terrorist attacks against us: Khobar Towers, wtc the first time, the various Embassies, the U.S.S. Cole, and WTC this time). Ten years later, Ariel Sharon has declared, with the salutary effect of one dashing cold water on a sleepwalker, "We aren't going to be Czechoslovakia." That is, no appeasement, no passivity. Jews will not be the next sacrificial lamb: fascism, now with a Moslem face, will not get that far this time. The Bush Administration disliked the comparison and said so, and Sharon duly backtracked, just a little. But the penny dropped.
So I am more hopeful now than I was at first about the further prosecution and aims of this war, which should be to remove Saddam Hussein and other supporters of terrorism from power, to destroy the terrorists themselves, and to neutralize the political Islam that has become the principal ideological core of terrorist movements, from Morocco to the Philippines. The theater of this war is not just the Near and Middle East, but Western Europe, where these people and movements have established themselves, taking the fullest advantage of the conditions of civil society. To a lesser extent it is here, too. For the time being, Professor Samuel Huntington's theory of warring civilizational blocs, amongst which Islam is by far the most aggressive and violent, seems to me to be the most accurate description of our situation. It is a repellent vision, born of a reactionary understanding of human affairs that appalls me; and surely one reason we must fight is to defeat the tyrannies that make it possible to observe the world and then propound such a theory. Americans fought World War ii with the stated aims of freeing people from fear and want, and the record of the years from 1945 to 2001 suggests that there has been progress in that direction. The movement of mankind towards freedom must not be halted by the present Islamic movement, a retrograde thing that offers no vision except superstition, repression, and destitution. Those who have reshaped the Islamic world into a mass of jihad-warriors are guiltiest before their own people -- for there is an Islamic culture, part of world culture, and the relationship of mankind to it is irrevocable and irreversible. When the terrorists are gone, we can build the "bridges of civilizations" of which President Khatami of Iran has spoken with such luminous force. The art-destroying, queer-lynching, Taliban and their hated Arab gunmen are gone. Kites fly, music plays, and veils are slowly coming off women's faces in Afghanistan. It's as true as ever -- there's nothing as nice as losing a war to the Americans. But I fear Afghanistan was a battle. The real war, that must be fought, should be only just beginning.
"Come on, baby, take a ride with me, I'm up from Indiana down to Tennessee, everythang's as cool as it can be in a peaceful world." This is the refrain to a song by John Mellencamp that he plays in a haunting, acoustic version on a record that was the bestseller for weeks. It's a week to Christmas, after a fall term that seems to have lasted years. We were astonished by the people from Indiana and Tennessee and many other states who came to Manhattan to help and give unstintingly. They came to see New York as their hometown and we were glad to show off for them. We are such a different country now: This land is your land, this land is my land isn't hokey anymore. The friendly, harlequinesque icon of the Stars and Stripes means many things to us, to Americans; and in September 2001 in New York it became a talisman people clung to in the grip of bewilderment, when a familiar world was transformed suddenly into a bottomless grief. For me, the refrain of John Mellencamp's song may be an emotional relic of those days that will endure, for I knew the special "peaceful world" of America and lived through the surrealistic suddenness of its loss. The new reality is hellish, war is hell.
My parents have been a lot tranquiller. They have been through more. On December 7th, 1941, the boy who would one day be my father was at the movies on Coney Island. The girl, my mother, whom he was not to meet for five years yet, was a few miles away, also in Brooklyn. The houselights went on and a man came on stage and told the audience of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. Everyone went home quietly. The next day our President, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, addressed the nation. (I imagine my parents, sitting in their separate homes in front of sitting-room radios the size of coffins, shaped like cathedrals or church organs. But my mother says he heard the speech in assembly at school: of course. Dec. 8th was a Monday.) "No matter how long it may take us to overcome this premeditated aggression, the American people, in their righteous might, will win through to absolute victory." The wistfulness of Mellencamp's song, flickers of FDR's magnificent fire that is what it is like, in the early days of World War III, here in the United States of America.
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