"It was just like a movie." The remark was too obvious and banal, but who didn't think it? On the morning of Sept. 11, 2001--a date now etched in black on the national memory--I was at home in my apartment in Greenwich Village. United Flight 175 flew low over the neighborhood on its way to crashing into the World Trade Center's south tower. I didn't hear it, didn't learn of the crashes until sometime later when a friend called to see if I was alright. Once alerted, I didn't run to the corner and watch the cataclysm live. I turned on my television and stayed glued to it. The event instantly translated itself into chilling imagery. Just like a movie.
In that sense, I experienced New York's part of the disaster as most of America did. It was the kind of real-life tragedy that television was invented for. But there are emotional, gut-level and even subliminal reactions that go with living near the site of the trauma. No doubt, I am among the luckiest of the lucky: I didn't know anyone who was killed, lost or hurt in the attacks. Yet that hasn't left me comforted. I breathed the acrid, yellowish air that whipped over Manhattan after the wind changed on Wednesday. I watched the trucks full of debris rumble up Sixth Avenue. I've stared at the walls of unbearably poignant "missing" posters that now cover my neighborhood. I've tried to get my mind around the overwhelming fact that over 6,000 people in my city were suddenly and cruelly murdered last week, just a couple of miles from my home. And I've thought of those over 6,000 bereft families.
A catastrophe that happens so close leaves a psychic wound, like a physical attack, and I know I'll be dealing with mine for some time to come. Since last week I've been recurrently depressed, distracted, unable to sleep properly, unable to focus and concentrate. I suppose I should long for things to return to normal, but the strange thing is, I don't. In some ways, I want to hang onto the horror that I felt most intensely last Tuesday and for a couple days thereafter. It was terrible, but it also felt fiercely clarifying. Even revelatory.
It left me feeling that nothing should return to normal, especially in the realm that we often unjustifiably dignify with the word "culture." I didn't want to see another TV commercial or network sitcom or hear a string of banal pop hits on the radio. I didn't want to peruse a magazine profile of another would-be auteur or hot young actor. I especially didn't want to see a stupid, empty Hollywood movie or read (much less write) another film review that spoke of the world as if 09/11/2001 hadn't changed everything.
What I wanted, and still want, was a break in time, a gigantic and solemn pause that would not only memorialize the victims and pain of this tragedy but would also force on us some serious collective self-inspection, an imperative to ponder the likely connections between our current moral, spiritual and cultural state and the disaster that befell us. One of the things I find most depressing right now, however, is the evidence that Americans are virtually immune to such painful, searching self-examination.
Two days after the disaster, by previous commitment, I saw what was, oddly, perhaps the most appropriate film to see in such unhappy circumstances. In the summer of 1990, the day after an earthquake killed 50,000 people in Iran, the filmmaker Abbas Kiarostami got into his car and drove into the devastated area trying to find two kids who'd acted in one of his films. His 1991 movie, And Life Goes On, fictionalizes that journey. At one point in it, the character representing Kiarostami meets a distressed man who yells, "What have we done, that God would punish us so?"
In traditional societies, the sort that comprised virtually all of the civilized world until a couple of centuries ago, and which today still predominate in the Middle East, that would be the first question to ask--and the only one that ultimately counted. What is God telling us about ourselves with this dire action? I happen to think that theological language is the most appropriate to use in this instance, but you could also use the language of psychology. Surely the least subtle, least perceptive and least useful understanding of any such event is the one that imagines that the problem, the evil, is all out there, concentrated in strange cultures and people far different than ourselves. Yet, so far, the coverage and commentary that I've seen in the U.S. media have suggested nothing other than this--that the "bad" is all external.
In a sour irony, the only exception to this self-insulating orthodoxy came from two of the most fatuous voices on the Christian right. The Washington Post quoted Jerry Falwell as telling Pat Robertson's TV audience, "God continues to lift the curtain and allow the enemies of America to give us what we probably deserve." Predictably, the two preachers blamed the visitation of divine wrath on gays, abortion, feminists, the ACLU: all the people they don't like, in other words. This tack entirely negated the opportunity for real self-scrutiny, of course, and a chorus of outrage prompted the televangelists' recantation. But as stupidly self-aggrandizing as the content of Falwell's analysis may have been, the metaphor of God "lifting the curtain" had an eerily accurate ring.
Though it's hard to face, there was something miraculous about this tragedy. And I don't simply mean the fact that it could be several years in the planning and involve dozens of people working on U.S. soil and still go undetected by the congeries of cluelessness known as U.S. Intelligence. I mean that the form of the disaster offered a truly uncanny melding of biblical pith and Hollywood pyrotechnics. In the Old Testament, God makes a specialty of leveling human hubris by smiting physical towers and ostentatious civilizations. Babel, Jericho, Egypt, Babylon. For the chunk of the populace that no longer believes in such distant calamities, this one exactly imitated the modern, high-tech terror of movies like Armageddon and Independence Day. That true awe, as opposed to the movies' fake variety, was delivered to us in the guise of our own entertainment chillingly proves how easily our frivolity can be turned against us. A friend who saw the second tower collapse said it was the one time in his life he witnessed something that seemed akin to the Burning Bush, an incomprehensible incursion from Above.
It used to be claimed that Americans were a "God-fearing" people. We'll now see if there's any truth left to that assertion. If this tragedy doesn't strike a fear in the national breast that the horror of Sept. 11 was, at least in part, a judgment on us, a wake-up call to smell the cosmic coffee, then I fear the battle we're heading into may be lost before it's even begun.
What does America need to examine? Gosh, where to begin? By any meaningful measure, we have grown stupendously fat and lazy and complacent. Our recent history, especially since the collapse of the Soviet empire, scans like a textbook proof of the truism that any civilization's greatest enemies, the kind that produce internal rot like plaque produces tooth decay, are wealth, ease and unchallenged power. American suburbia is awash in SUVs and palatial homes even as the poorer parts of the world grow poorer and more desperate. CEOs make 100 times the salaries of their workers, who can't find affordable health care if they lose their jobs. While the current administration does its best to dismantle the agreements that have kept nuclear proliferation under control for a generation, American arms manufacturers are, in effect, the world's most successful and lethal drug dealers; they have tinhorn dictators around the globe hooked on their deadly wares.
We can't move decisively against the global AIDS crisis, thanks to the greed of our literal (and legal) drug dealers. A decade ago, in the first moments of America's emergence as the world's lone superpower, a previous President Bush launched a multinational military crusade against a megalomaniacal dictator who had overrun a small, helpless country. I supported that campaign and the hopeful declarations that it represented a "new world order" in which America's great might would be used for moral ends, to protect the weak and defenseless wherever they might be. Now, alas, I have to concede one to the skeptics who contended that the Persian Gulf War was really about prolonging our addiction to cheap oil. For even as the West was opening its shiny new Holocaust museums (with their lulling implication that Evil happened long ago, to one people), America and its allies stood by as another holocaust, this one called "ethnic cleansing," occurred on European soil. And then there was the one in Africa, which claimed hundreds of thousands of lives.
At the moment, in all the hyped-up media coverage of Afghanistan, I've heard nary a mention of the humanitarian holocaust that nation is undergoing. Millions are displaced, enduring the starkest deprivation. Countless thousands of children have starved to death. Meanwhile, U.S. kids are waddling through an epidemic of obesity.
Moral flab? How else would you describe the source of this decline? I'll grant you, it has been as hard to perceive as any disease that comes on very, very gradually. A similar, day-by-day erosion has blighted virtually all aspects of our public culture, but you can barely see it unless you step back and take the long view. Thirty to 40 years ago, in what now looks like the West's last great efflorescence of popular culture, The Beatles broadcasted a scathing indictment of violent militancy; Bob Dylan warned of the hard rain that nuclear brinksmanship risked; Michelangelo Antonioni, in Red Desert, equated the West's spiritual malaise and environmental degradation. These and many other artists attempted to speak from the moral high ground, and they were supported in that by audiences eager for moral vision and articulation. Yet in the years since, we have sunk to the point where there's barely art worthy of the name being created in the West, and audiences seem to ask nothing more than distraction or titillation, the dumber the better.
Seen from the perspective of a devout, modest culture like Islam--which in some ways resembles nothing so much as premodern Christianity--much of the "culture" that now spews out of America's movie and music factories looks like raw sewage, or the spiritual equivalent of crack cocaine. Who can wonder that they recoil in horror? But we don't have to look abroad for that kind of judgment; we only need appeal to the better angels of our own past. Imagine reviving John and Abigail Adams, H.D. Thoreau, Ralph Waldo Emerson, and Henry James, and giving them a tour of the current culturescape, with its Howard Sterns and Jerry Springers, its pierced belly buttons and vapid shopping malls, its cult of the ugly, the vulgar and the trivial. Would they not gape in shame? What would Martin Luther King Jr. say to rap's crude ethos of misogyny and greed? What blessing do you suppose Jesus would bestow on a nation hooked on fat cars, brainless celebrities and Internet porn?
None of what I'm saying here is meant to provide the slightest iota of excuse for the perpetrators of the Sept. 11 abomination, a crime of unspeakable beastliness. They, no doubt, will face their version of divine wrath, compared to which even the fiercest U.S. retaliation will seem puny. Nor am I saying anything as simple-minded as "the United States is all bad." On the contrary, the goodness of Americans as people, as individuals, is staggering. The intense faith that shines forth from its places of worship arguably dwarfs that of any other nation in the West. We have given the world its most extraordinary examples of government by the rule of law, of a vital and broad-based civil society, and of multi-ethnic, multi-faith inclusiveness.
But George W. Bush is wrong to say that we were attacked because we are a beacon of freedom and liberty. No people, no faith or part of the world despises those values in their pure form. We were attacked, if anything, because we now also represent the corruption and decadence of our own brightest ideals: the freedom that degenerates into license, the eminence that corrodes into arrogance, the unchecked power that breeds swaggering irresponsibility. Unfortunately, nothing so clearly illustrates the effects of such reversals as our conduct at the world's most volatile political juncture. In helping deny the Palestinian people their legitimate desire for statehood and self-determination, we have betrayed, and go on betraying, the principles on which the United States was founded. And it is a peculiarly American form of obtuseness, or corruption, to ignore both this historical parallel and the fact that the entire rest of the civilized world disagrees with us. But then, no other nation has allowed its lawmakers and media to become tools of the Israeli right, which can envision "security" only in brutal oppression.
Is it possible that a wily bandit with a ragtag band of followers could topple the most powerful nation the world has ever known? Until a month ago, such a thing would have seemed beyond ludicrous, absolutely absurd. Now it seems frighteningly possible. If you wonder how, consider what happens when the proverbial 97-pound stringbean uses judo to defeat the 300-pound bully. The weakling's only "strength" lies in turning the giant's might against him. So it is with Osama bin Laden. If we don't cooperate with his strategies, if we don't fall into his traps, his goose is cooked, his threat neutralized. But he has placed a large wager on our clumsiness, our bad habits and stupidity, our smug self-righteousness and deep ignorance of the world, and on the likelihood that we won't wake up and look at ourselves before it's too late.
Make no mistake, if our actions spark wars across the Islamic world, and/or a war between us and other countries, then he has won his wager and achieved his goal. It won't matter who eventually wins the war(s), because by then the relative peace that we've enjoyed for the last generation, a peace largely dependent on an Arab world of stable states and moderate rulers, will have been blown to smithereens.
What do we do to defeat this diabolically brilliant chessmaster? We might begin by asking our artists and media institutions to offer us enlightenment and insight rather than mere eyewash and drooling idiocy. Yet though this may sound like the most reasonable of wishes, the omens aren't promising. On Sept. 16, The New York Times reported on Hollywood's likely reaction to the current crisis and offered a singular prediction: "more escapism." So rather than helping us to understand ourselves, the perilous world around us and our current predicament therein, our most powerful moviemakers only propose to help us bury our heads further in the sand? If so, let no future historian say that we didn't cooperate in our own doom.