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The Waking Nightmare
-- and the Dawn of Life in Wartime

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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.

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 Americanism.

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 things.

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 New York.

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 of war.

Now we must wait to see what kind of war it will be.

E-mail: michael@burnrate.com


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