Sunday, May 28, 2006

A Clash of Symbols

Published as "With Unthinkable Now Fact, Focus Turns to the Living,” New Haven Register, September 8, 2002

When the dust settled, I realized I had traveled back in time. The skyline was the one I had grown up with as a boy in Brooklyn Heights, walking along the Promenade and looking across the East River at downtown Manhattan. The two great bridges -- the Brooklyn and the Manhattan -- framed the right side of the scene. To the left in the distance: the Statue of Liberty. And straight ahead -- no twin towers.

One year ago. Do you remember how strange it was? For days no airplanes crossed the sky. We all took note of such things. But there was much about this event that was not spoken, even though we sensed it.

For one: the powerful Biblical resonance. Often to my mind came an image of the Tower of Babel -- its hubristic aspiration, then its destruction, when humanity was forever split asunder. “World Trade Center” -- the very name recalls that ancient dream. Was this not an event of mythic proportions? Will its memory not become legend? Will it not serve as an eternal symbol? -- although only future history will decide a symbol of what.

But will there any longer be a single history? Maybe it is just another myth that there has ever been a single history. (Could this be what the Tower of Babel story is really about?) For our culture this will be forever a symbol of infamy -- like Pearl Harbor ... and Hiroshima to a Japanese? (And now we too have our Nagasaki.)

To another culture (or cult?) it will be a clear proof that "God was on their side." This act -- brazen beyond description, so intricate, of such magnitude, and crowned by a "success" surpassing even the wildest dreams of its planners and executioners: toppling the entire towers ... and both of them! It could only be an outrageous fiction ... but it happened; hence, it must be by God's hand ... it must contain a divine message. Or so another culture could imagine it.

I think also: David and Goliath.

And if this had been Star Wars, would we not have been rooting for the small band of men who were up against the mightiest power known in the galaxy, with nothing to rely on but their will and their wits (and a lot of luck ... or was the Force with them)?

The images are so confusing, for they do not jibe with the murderous intent of the perpetrators. These were the bad guys!

But the great acts by "our side" will stir us until our own dying days -- concrete acts of heroism, even though we must rely mainly on imagination to fill in the details.

What would you have done? The South Tower has collapsed. The North Tower is ablaze, with thousands of people trapped inside. You are a fire fighter or a police officer just arrived on the scene. It is your job to try to put out the fire and lead as many people to safety as possible. You can't use the elevators, and most of the damage begins above the 80th floor. You have no idea what is going to happen or how long you have. Would it be foolhardy to enter the building? You wish you could calculate the odds, but the odds are incalculable, because the situation is unprecedented.

You are on Flight 93, which has been hijacked. You have heard via cell phone about your likely fate, unless you act. It is your initiative, and your body that must make the difference. You have nothing to lose, but there is still the wall of fear and pain to clamber over.

The firefighters performed their selfless duty. The airline passengers fought for their lives (and the symbolism of our nation's capitol). It is instructive that these very different sorts of actions were equally heroic.

President Bush's reaction upon first learning the news of the attacks was anger. "I was furious," he said. I was completely surprised by his reaction. (Would that surprise him?) What I felt when watching the scene were horror, disbelief, and sorrow. Since then I have had an overwhelming desire to enter into dialogue. He has gone to war. Is that what it takes to be a leader? I think there is a place for both approaches.

I am supremely proud to live in a country whose liberality has permitted an increase in favorable opinion about Islam in the last year (and where I can write this essay without fear). The President has led this "charge" too.

Yet, it is so strange to be hearing open talk by our government, and by its sympathizers (and proxies?) in the press, of attacking another country -- Iraq -- which has not even been implicated in the events of September 11. "Pre-emptive war" is an infinitely useful concept. I have before me a photograph in a Newsweek column by Fareed Zakaria ("Invade Iraq, But Bring Friends," August 5, 2002), captioned "Iraqi training: Ripping raw chickens apart." I recall the propaganda posters that illustrated the chapter about jingoism and yellow journalism in my grade school social studies textbook.

We now have the perfect enemy. He is everywhere. Total and universal and perpetual war seems justified. There is no longer a square inch of this planet that shall be permitted to remain free of governmental control; for any desert, jungle, mountain pass, cave, or slum that is unsecured is a potential haven for terrorists.

So this is what it is like to live in history. I grew up with December 7, but it was mainly celluloid to me. Now we have been sneak-attacked on an island in the Atlantic, as before we had been in the Pacific. But this is live!

But it is still celluloid. How many times have we seen the skyscrapers of New York City obliterated? ... by alien saucers, volcanoes, floods, radioactive monsters, asteroids, even existentialist outlaws (in "Fight Club"). Will somebody create a trailer of all of these episodes, concluding with 9-11?

Had any of the hijackers ever even heard of the movie "The Towering Inferno"? It starred "Connecticut's own" Paul Newman. That flick more than any other captures for me what it must have been like to be in the twin towers on their last day.

And it was pure science fiction cinema to see people fleeing towards the camera down the middle of a city street in lower Manhattan, the buildings forming a perspectival V on either side of the frame, while a billowing debris cloud barreled down on them.

Yet the events of that day have made us aware of our actual vulnerability. I don't mean to terrorists only, but to incoming comets or whatever. Science fiction can become historical fact. A single space rock could wipe out all of humanity forever, at any moment. So will we act in time to "pre-empt" that scenario too?

And there are many other urgent realities, which, while not Armageddon, do not deserve to be ignored either. 3000 perished in one location on September 11, 2001, but 40,000 died that same year on the nation's roads. Is there a war on hazardous driving? How about hiring as many additional highway patrol officers as FBI agents and Special Forces personnel and airport screeners?

And how many millions are victims of natural and human catastrophes in other parts of the globe, which often "merit" only a filler in the local newspaper?

But, then, how much greater still would have been the devastation we ourselves were prepared to inflict with a single "Go" signal from the President to our nuclear forces worldwide (indeed, from even a single submarine built in Groton)?

We have lived with all of that. Do we refuse to live with this? Heretofore people seem not to have hesitated to reside in or visit San Francisco. Now we understand that New York City and Washington, D.C., lie in a fault zone as well.

And how quickly we forgot that, just six months before our modern double-Wonder of the World was leveled, the Taliban had demolished a 2000-year-old double-Wonder, the two giant Buddhas at Bamiyan. In fact, only one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World is extant. Why? Because the standard operating procedure of all "civilizations" has been to destroy one's enemy's most impressive structures (and put his citizens to the sword). Tourists must in the main remain content to view ruins and monuments and to use their imagination.

So what makes this day different from all other days? Perhaps less than we might have supposed. Our country has been dealt a heavy blow, both in lives and in symbolism. But let us hope that our leaders, while doing what they must, can see beyond the celluloid and the symbols and focus on the living. We are a nation that has been to the moon and back; we do not lack for symbols of our own.

The author wishes to acknowledge valuable suggestions by Nora Porter.