Who needs your opinion when the sky is falling? The apocalyptic morning of Sept. 11 tested and defined the whole American menagerie--not excluding, at the low end of the scale of importance, the class of people responsible for commentary. After a decade or two, the effort to respond intelligibly to every major news story can harden into a compulsion, where ego vies with genuine concern. If I ever suffered from that compulsion, I believe I'm cured. When I saw the second flaming 767 tear the 110-story office tower in two, I understood that first-reaction, trembling-fingered journalism was out of the question. I felt no need to weigh in, no need to be heard from. This isn't about me or my feelings. It's a time of fear and of insubstantiality, when nothing is solid; nothing is what it seems to be or seemed to be before.
The vertigo is familiar to most of us who experienced the assassinations of the 1960s, the bewildering murders of the Kennedy brothers and Martin Luther King Jr. They made orphans of us all. But this time it's more personal--not another cry of terror from the remote violent world of the great and powerful but a Nightmare on Elm Street, on your own block with your neighbors' blood on the pavement.
Sept. 11 defined people. Innocents who believed that God is on duty, that America is invulnerable and that people are basically good woke up to find permanent fractures in their world view. Sad pilgrims who doubted all these things had their worst suspicions confirmed. Simple souls, their complacency shattered, responded with bluster and rage. More reflective individuals were sorrowful, perplexed, numb with dread. And down at the bottom, of course, the smell of blood pulled the vermin from their holes. While the fires were still burning, profiteers turned gross profits in gasoline, rental cars and American flags; police reported false charities collecting money for the victims' families; and Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson agreed that God no longer protects America because we tolerate abortions and homosexuals.
We all have our agendas. While America's feeling communal, while it's celebrating working-class heroes like the New York cops and firefighters who sacrificed themselves to help others, maybe shame will set in and bring an end to these hideous dog-eat-dog, devil-take-the-hindmost, anything-for-a-buck "reality" shows that are all the rage on TV. Americans might even look around and feel sorry for people whose chronic misfortunes are less spectacular than the ones they've been watching on CNN. Maybe when the crisis subsides, when we've all been victims together, partisan politics will be slightly less bloodthirsty and ridiculous. Or maybe not.
Don't ask us, as a nation, to make a connection when we can embrace a consensus or jump to a conclusion. "I'm a Tibetan Buddhist," said one Californian, "and I'm ready to kill." This is going to be a hard time for American Muslims and American pacifists. Already I've read furious denunciations of a sincere religious pacifist who wrote a letter to one of my local newspapers, counseling Christian restraint. Patriots are howling for the blood of Rep. Barbara Lee of California, the only practicing pacifist in the House of Representatives, who voted against special anti-terrorist powers for President Bush. The vote was 420-1.
For once I don't blame television. This month it was indispensable. These national crises, these historic breaking stories are television's best argument for its own existence--at this stage perhaps its only argument. Overpaid news celebrities surprised us with professionalism, perceptiveness, even restraint. Only a few tabloid tough guys embarrassed themselves, competing to find words vile enough for the terrorists; "rats" and even "hyenas" fell flat.
Television, like the White House, abuses the word "war," a word sane people hate and disturbed people relish. But it's the one word politicians can rely on to rally the masses--the majority who don't have to fight. And when they chose to act on such a grand scale, the terrorists and their supporters brought the word "war" on themselves.
"Revenge" and "punishment" were the words we heard most often. Revenge is a natural instinct, one I understand very well. But there are few reports of rich satisfaction for people who act on it. Punishment, in the case of these terrorists, is kind of a joke. These were deliberate martyrs who chose to burn to death in jet fuel at a temperature of 1,000 degrees centigrade. How do we punish such a person, in a country where lethal injection is the worst thing we can think of? Convicted of murder, such a zealot might demand burning or flaying or boiling in oil, in order to qualify for a loftier perch in Paradise. There's every indication that Osama bin Laden, accused as the mastermind behind the Sept. 11 attacks, is cut from the same cloth. With an appropriate martyrdom he could become the most celebrated Muslim since The Prophet Mohammed. Americans imagine him begging for his life, but what I imagine is more like Brer Rabbit and the Briar Patch. Anyone who thinks killing bin Laden ends the terror is unfamiliar with the myth of Hercules and the Hydra.
Revenge and punishment are hollow, ill-considered abstractions, as opponents of the death penalty have been telling us for years. Self-defense is something else. You're not punishing a viper if you cut off its head to save the life of your child. This time I'm one of the compromised pacifists who believe that to do nothing, or too little, is to open the door to Armageddon. No city in the West will ever sleep peacefully if the strongest country in the world proves impotent against the special strain of fanaticism that wrought these horrors. With terrorism as with criminal justice, the point is never retribution, but prevention. Civilization defends itself by prophylaxis, by conscientiously removing rogue cells from circulation.
But America faces equal danger, strategic and moral, if it does too much. Terrorism for any cause is the most loathsome crime in the human repertoire because it destroys innocent lives in the service of abstractions, of unjustified generalizations. You kill a person who has never harmed you, who wouldn't harm you, because he shares race, religion or nationality with others who may have harmed you. When bin Laden issued his directive to kill Americans indiscriminately, he stepped outside the human community.
Terrorism is the gross moral astigmatism of outlaws who worship abstractions and despise life. If we overreact and massacre civilians, if we ignore the distinction between the innocent and the guilty just as the suicide squads ignored it, we become terrorists ourselves--and forfeit the right to our outrage.
Even in this moment of national agony we need to recognize that there are countries where terrorism, catastrophe, civil war and despair are constant companions. They're infected wounds that never heal.
Afghanistan is one of those countries. It was hard to hear their voices, over the wail of the sirens in New York and Washington, but ordinary Afghans were saying some arresting things to reporters.
"We have suffered so much. Every night so many children go to bed hungry," said a teacher named Zalmai. "What do we have to live for? Let the rockets come and set this whole country on fire once and for all."
"There is no pleasure in life anyway, so I don't care if the bombs come and I have to die along with my children," said a mother of six in Kabul. "But the United States should know that the Afghan people are not their enemies."
That's a level of fatalism and despair you won't encounter very often in the United States of America. If we say, "Who gives a damn about the innocent Afghans?" we vindicate the lunatics who said the same thing about innocent Americans.
This is what I think, but my whole heart's not in it. We have the pictures, more pictures than we could have expected, almost more than we can bear. Words look awkward beside them. After Sept. 11 it seems presumptuous, even self-important trying to say something no one else has said. This isn't a wisdom-under-pressure competition; this is about huddling together and trying to stare into the void without flinching.
The wisest response, the most eloquent, relevant thing I heard anywhere wasn't exactly original. It concluded a sermon at St. Matthew's Episcopal Church by the Rev. Dr. Bruce Lawrence of Duke Divinity School, and you'll find it on Page 816 in the Book of Common Prayer. It's called "A Prayer For Our Enemies":
"O God, the Father of all, whose Son commanded us to love our enemies: Lead them and us from prejudice to truth; deliver them and us from hatred, cruelty and revenge; and in your good time enable us all to stand reconciled before you."