You could easily have mistaken the daze in the city in the hours
after the attack for a snow-day feeling. Traffic had disappeared,
pedestrians had spread into the road, most city noises had subsided,
and strangers spoke openly to strangers. Basic services -- cell
phones and mass transit -- were no longer working. The task of getting
somewhere was the outward focus.
But the main preoccupation for most of us in those first hours
was interior: to circle around our own feelings, to keep them at
bay. If you knew someone in the towers or in the area, the challenge
was to arrive at no conclusions. Never before had so many people
witnessed the real-time occasion of such mass destruction. The collapse,
the falling away of the two tallest buildings in the city before
everyone's eyes, would become part of perceptual history, as well
as the history of warfare.
Even if it had been possible, I don't think anyone wanted to start
to comprehend; there was protection in the inconceivableness of
the event. The media, always obsessing about numbers -- right numbers,
wrong numbers, estimates no matter how guessed at -- could not say
what was obvious: Almost everyone in New York would know someone
who had died a violent and macabre death. The obvious was unsayable,
which meant that through the day there was a strange, limbo-ish
refusal to quantify or to frame the scope of the disaster. It was
possible, it even seemed, that some old-time civil-defense plan
was in use: Get as many people as possible home and off the streets
before letting on to the magnitude of the horror.
Only the most foolish of us would not now
acknowledge that anything is possible, that, necessarily, there
are even worse horrors to be afraid of.
There were the unfathomable, even beautiful, pictures of the planes
penetrating the towers, then the magnificent plumes, then the heaving
and condensing of the buildings themselves -- they seemed to drip
away -- but not many pictures from the ground. There were few instant
images of the carnage -- the iconic twisted steel, bloody people,
and terrible screams that have become standard in a terrorist attack.
It was this very lack of information that began to hint at the
truth: No screams are worse than screams.
Within a few hours, the city was divided into two, carefully separated
sectors. The one sector, above Canal Street, the other sector, below
-- an instant dead zone, populated by hundreds of firemen, police,
medical personnel, and emergency volunteers.
There was an army of ambulances at ground zero plus three or four
blocks -- none of them going anywhere. Nobody was coming out. Volunteers
-- former military personnel, people with medical training, good
Samaritans -- were sent from post to post, across one street and
then another, from Fire Department command to police command to
the EMTs. But there would be no rapid response. What response there
was had already engulfed a significant part of the Fire Department.
There was nothing to do. Everything was dust. So much of the World
Trade Center -- Sheetrock, glass, insulation -- had simply vaporized.
("Where are the bodies?" was the unasked question.)
There. And then not there.
The catastrophe was so complete that the rescue phase, for all
practical purposes, passed immediately to aftermath and cleanup.
Unavoidably, there was awe and amazement. The coordination of
the attack, the complexity of the logistics, the appalling cleverness
of the concept itself -- to use a plane fueled up for a transcontinental
flight as a bomb -- demanded some kind of awful respect. Here was
an example not just of our unexpected and striking vulnerability
but of their bizarre and breathtaking audacity, skill, and, certainly,
single-mindedness. (It damaged the president's credibility to have
called these people cowards -- they may have been many things, but
they were not cowards.)
The obsessiveness of the plot -- involving possibly as much as
eight years of planning since the truck bomb failed to bring down
the towers in 1993 -- is one of the things that is most terrifying.
To have come back again -- to have succeeded in what must be one
of the most far-fetched enterprises in the history of warfare --
starts to seem like some supernatural act.
What strange, incomprehensible hatreds and unfathomable strategies
drew them here? These towers were, obviously, so much more symbolic
to them than to us. These too-large, too-square real-estate gimmicks
(for much of their 30 years, white elephants) stood, it would seem,
for our gigantism and arrogance and dominance. We might accept those
faults, but hardly that symbol. ("Twin Towers" is not even a name
used by New Yorkers -- it's out-of-towner nomenclature; the tallest-building
thing is for tourists.) But this time it was, surely, not just the
symbolic satanism of the towers that drew the suicide bombers, but
also the matter of proving their resolve: They will not be dissuaded;
they will not accept their own failures; they will be back.
It is all about what they are capable of -- the lengths to which
they will go.
Only the most foolish of us would not now acknowledge that anything
is possible, that, necessarily, there are even worse horrors to
be afraid of.
You couldn't watch the television pictures without being acutely
conscious of the nature of the island where the calamity was happening
-- that we were alone, cut off, not in any way part of the main
-- and more afraid because of it.
Confoundingly, it is not just the United States that has been
attacked, but the world's greatest liberal city. The greatest cosmopolitan
city ever to exist -- as far from American gung-ho-ism as any place
can be. As any New Yorker knows, New York really isn't America.
It is as well, of course, the world's greatest Jewish city -- who
can doubt that that is not a part of the message here? And Gomorrah
on the Hudson -- is that also the point?
The irony is great: All the redneck militarism out there in America
becomes part of the New York way of thinking now.
A double irony: The redneck president scurrying and hiding, heading
for safety to the heartland before getting ahold of himself and
reversing course. Then, emerging suddenly from the ruins, having
been under fire, there was New York's mayor -- unafraid, unscripted,
levelheaded, strong. Practically an American war hero.
It will be a further, supreme irony if now, after generations
of disenfranchisement, New York City becomes the great symbol of
Certainly, the President, in his scripted, tense, TelePrompTer-challenged
way, wasn't synchronized with the feelings here. He offered in his
initial, hurried address no example or even notion of bravery and
supplied no palliative words. (Giuliani, on the other hand, seemed
entirely in sync with the city's emotions.) But this is, perhaps,
only partly the president's fault. The language of war, of national
threat, and hence of bravery and resolve, has been out of use for
so long that it isn't immediately available.
We were stuck using the language of crime. There were "perpetrators."
There were guilty parties. There were the people who would be held
responsible. The president would give them a "whipping." We would
hunt them down wherever they were. The FBI was going to find the
culprits. The FBI was already amassing evidence against them.
The talk was about individuals, about conspirators, about terrorists
(almost as a professional designation) who can be taken out of the
equation -- even brought to justice! These are bad guys who do bad
But then, clearly, there was the dawning sense that in the era
of terrorism, we may have been expressing the threat all wrong.
This isn't, we began to conclude, about suicide bombers, nor is
it just about Osama bin Laden. Soldiers are fungible. Enmity this
vast must be structural, institutional.
You could begin to chart the transformation of the word war --
state of war, declaration of war, going to war -- from metaphor
to a new culture.
It is all so un-New York. the weepiness is so hugely out of character.
The timbre of the voices, the eyes that lock and then break away,
the neediness of the children in the house -- everyone's neediness
-- makes this a vastly different city.
And then somewhere there are the dead. But as the days go by,
the dead are hardly more identifiable or decipherable or calculable
than they were in the first moments.
The dread keeps increasing. The emotion becomes heavier and thicker.
And it will get worse. It will be the time of the 5,000 or the 10,000
funerals. It is indescribable and unutterable.
The media language fails, too -- as much as the political language.
THE BASTARDS! said the Village Voice on its cover. But such feistiness
seemed far from what anyone was feeling. The Post's tabloidism --
its overeager voyeurism -- was tonally way off; this wasn't about
other people. The Times seemed to be covering events in another
place -- with its foreign-desk voice. It was the Daily News, which
found some forties-style sense of war and disaster, that perhaps
came closest to the experience -- tough, straightforward, aptly
The shared, and as yet unanswered, question is: What comes next?
There's the fear. The bomb threats and the succession of evacuations.
Bags found on the street. Suspicious cars. Unidentified noises.
There's the fate of New York itself. Does this become who we are?
Is this an inescapable new identity? Does this mean, in some real
way, the end of the city? The sense that many New Yorkers always
have of being so incredibly lucky to have ended up in New York is,
at the very least, on hold -- it is now, more than at any other
time, more than the worst crime years, a terrifying place.
And then there's the change, the inevitable change, that comes
to our expansive, indulged, polymorphous culture. We are who we
are, not inconsiderably, because so many of us have never lived
-- and by all rights have assumed we would never live -- in a time
Now we must wait to see what kind of war it will be.