||Why Did It Have To Be A Perfect Morning?
An essay on September 11
Why did it have to be such a perfect morning?
On the streets of New York City and Washington D.C. and in countless other towns and cities in America, the day was one of those September idylls we almost take for granted. I was still sleeping, hundreds of miles away. A close friend was in a plane flying into New York. Another friend who had waved goodbye to me only two days before leaving the gym on his bike, had just left Boston for Los Angeles. A friend of a friend was drinking coffee and staring out of her office on the 102nd floor. Commuters were rushing into work; the children of businessmen and traders were hurrying to school; train stations and airports were bustling with early morning life. A routine fire drill in downtown Manhattan was filming a training video. And in a clip I have now watched so many times with a numbness close to dread, a firefighter heard a sound and looked up into the clear blue sky, with a kind of insouciant curiosity.
And then as a plane passed through the glass wall of the vast building, as seamlessly as a champion diver into water, something in the soul of America ended. We did not know this could happen to us. We did not know that we too were passing through a pane of looking glass into another time, another place, another world. And as I write these words, the throat chokes and thickens, the computer screen shimmers and blurs before my eyes. What was once unimaginable is now something that needs no imagination.
Why did it have to be such a perfect morning?
I wish it were possible to look at these words and regard them as melodrama. But how else can we account for the most searing experience in American life in modern times? When we write and analyze this event, we keep using terms that are inadequate to the task. This was not a terrorist incident. This was not a massacre. This was the first act in the first war in which America itself is at stake. This has never happened before. People keep talking about Pearl Harbour, as if it is a parallel. It is no parallel. Yes, there are resemblances. In the recent film of that name, the scenes that affected American audiences the most were the scenes of everyday life as the bombers approached: children playing, lovers cavorting, washing on lines, troops in practice runs. We saw in that moment the soft carelessness of a democracy still absorbed with itself, protected by two vast oceans, a hemisphere away from real danger. .
But that is where the resemblance ends. In 1941, the world was already at war on one continent. Americans, conflicted about their role in it and their responsibilities, were in some sense girded for something profound and deadly. And yes, the attack was strictly speaking on American soil. But it was on Hawaii that the bombing began - the most remote part of the United States, separated from the mainland by thousands of miles of ocean. Even reeling from the shock, Americans saw it as an attack on their military, but not on their heartland. And it was an attack on armed forces, not civilians. And even this near-miss was never to be repeated. In the conflict of the Second World War, and afterwards in the Cold War, there was never an attack on America itself - its soil, its cities, its land. Even in the tensest moments of the Cuban missile crisis, no-one in America was harmed.
And the sanctity of this continent - a sanctity embedded deep in the American soul - is hard to convey to outsiders. But it is at the very center of what America means to Americans. Its founders saw this new continent as a place apart, a place unlike the old world, a place whose geographic distance and defensive inviolability was intrinsic to its attraction. The Pilgrims came here to escape persecution, to a place where their tormentors could not follow. The Revolutionaries fought the British to insist on their burgeoning difference from the trappings of monarchy and established church. The forces of the Union in the Civil War triumphed in the bloodiest event in American history in order to preserve the unity of this sacred space and to affirm its unique role in the preservation of liberty not merely for Americans but for the world.
And the wave after wave of immigrants who followed arrived to claim a fresh start, a new beginning. They left their old lives behind, as I did mine, when I arrived here almost two decades ago. This place, they believed, was not merely somewhere. It was always, in some sense, an elsewhere. It was the place that would always be different, the place in which a secure refuge could always be found, a place where a new world was not just in existence, but ripe for reinvention with each passing day. And so when hostages were taken in foreign lands, Americans knew that, whatever happened, if the hostages could be brought home, they would be safe. Whatever horrors lay out there, there was always this place, where no external force could harm them, where no foreign threat could ever intrude.
Yes, much of this is myth. But myth matters. A nation that is not built on race or creed or an ancient history must build itself on something else. And Americans built themselves on an idea of liberty and wrapped it in the myth of elsewhere. Their most inspired leaders - from Washington to Lincoln, from Teddy Roosevelt to FDR, from John Kennedy to Ronald Reagan - knew that this myth was central to the success of America, to its self-confidence and cohesion and strength. While others around the world scoffed at the platitudes of cowboys or the rhetoric of log-cabin pioneers, the greatest American presidents spoke to their people in the language of these dreams. This was the myth of the place apart, the city on the hill, the eternal elsewhere. And when you saw the squeamishness of Americans to intervene abroad, their often dangerous reluctance to embroil themselves in foreign entanglements, it was at some level this myth that prompted them. Isolationism, for all its faults, was always the flip-side of American exceptionalism. It was a naivete that was nevertheless founded on a dream that refused to die.
But in one morning, this dream ended as America was wakened from its long sleep. The elsewhere is now somewhere. The refuge is now insecure. The threat from without is now also within. The new world is now just the world. Isolationism is no longer even a choice. It is lying in the rubble in downtown Manhattan.
An American writer last week used, perhaps typically, the metaphor of a movie. This one begins with a young woman in a home alone at night. She gets threatening calls. She dismisses the first. She ignores the second. Her fear grows. The threats get more intense. She calls the police and asks them to trace the calls. She locks the doors. She seals the windows. She sees her boyfriend masked and tied to a chair outside in the garden. The police call back. They have traced the calls. They are coming from inside the house.
What these demons have done is something that reflects not an ignorance of America. The war they have launched is based on a fierce insight into the American psyche. They have attacked from within. Because they have no ability to match American military force, they chose to use no weaponry at all. They used airplanes - civil airplanes - as flying bombs. Their only weapons were box-cutters and razor blades. The message this sends is a simple one: American military and technological might is irrelevant. If criminals are prepared to die, if they can infiltrate American intelligence, then no weaponry is necessary. Why didn't the Japanese think of that? Why didn't the Soviets? In one brilliant stroke, the enemy has shown that the way in which America had come to defend itself is completely obsolete. It is as we had confronted the Nazis with swords.
This is designed to encourage defeatism. It is designed not merely to terrify but to make an argument. That argument is that the very citadel of American democracy - its very Capitol - is defenseless. The plane that eventually crashed to a halt in the Pentagon had previously circled the Capitol, the Mall, and the White House, as if to show us what was possible. Only a few years ago, a light plane had crashed into the White House grounds themselves. Reagan National Airport is just over the river. I cannot tell you how many times I have landed in Washington and looked out the window to see the Washington Monument all but staring me in the face. What were the authorities supposed to do? Shoot down every commercial flight that could be steered a few miles in the wrong direction with barely a warning at all?
For any nation, this possibility is terrifying. For Americans, it is world-changing. The country that can send a missile half-way across the globe and hit a target with an accuracy of inches cannot defend its own White House. The country that has pioneered technology that has revolutionized the world cannot defend itself against razor blades. The eloquence of this is peerless. It is an argument that technology and power are irrelevant in the new war. To tell Americans this at the dawn of the new millennium is to tell them that their current way of life is unsustainable if an enemy is willing to disable it. In this sense, the new security precautions that went into force this week are laughable. There will no longer be curbside check-ins! How any government official could have announced that with a straight face is beyond me.
And the other weapon is America itself. Like a commandeered plane, America itself was hijacked for its own destruction. A free country with open borders and a multi-racial population carries within it its own self-detonation button. It seems clear now that several of the hijackers were trained in American flight schools. Others had lived here for over a year. The Muslim sect that pioneered the first attack on the World Trade Center in 1993 was connected to Osama bin Laden, but had as its inspiration a demonic mullah who lived in New Jersey! This is not an enemy in a uniform. It is not an enemy that in the ethnic cauldron of New York City even stands out an inch. And in a country which pioneered religious freedom, and guarantees it in its Constitution, there is no ability to deter or even stamp out even the most crazed religious sect. The enemy knows this. Like judo fighters, they used the might and freedom of the United States as a lever to fight back.
This first strike was not the first. We so easily forget that those very buildings were targeted before and that the bombs that went off contained cyanide that was never fully activated. American embassies were bombed. The USS Cole was bombed. The latest attack was an exponential leap forward, and, as such, it was more than a mere atrocity. It was an argument, a threat. If, as some intelligence experts are already speculating, this leap in ambition, with intelligence that extended to knowing top secret White House code, then we are fools to think it is the last. And yet already in America and around the world, there is a sense that this event was a single one, that it is some sort of unique occurrence from which we will now recover. One commentator in America even suggested last week that, given increasingly fast news cycles, this won't even register as a news item in a couple of months.
The only word for this is denial. What has happened so far is, in all probability, merely the latest in a slowly escalating scale of attack. We have been put on notice tha every major Western city is now vulnerable to anything - chemical, biological, even nuclear. We knew this was a possibility and National Missile Defense is a pathetically inadequate but still necessary part of our self-defense. But against the rest we are now clearly with our backs against the wall. It is no longer a matter of whether these weapons will be used against us - but when. In that sense, this is clearly not an American problem alone. It is a problem for civilization itself. If the effect of this day is to collapse the distinction between the new world and the old, it follows that we are in this together. And if the ultimate symbol of that free way of life is America, and if America is the only power capable of resisting and defeating this in alliance with its friends and allies, then something else profound has happened. In one sense, the Guards at Buckingham Palace who played the Star Spangled Banner last week got it right. We are all Americans now.
For the United States itself, however, this means one central thing. Isolationism is dead. Even the distinction between foreign and domestic policy is moribund. Last Thursday up to 50,000 reservists were called up to release active military for war. The streets of Washington are now regularly policed by armed guards familiar in London and Tel Aviv but still chilling in D.C. The question now is simply whether the current administration and Congress are up to a truly mobilized war, a war that could well mean American civilian and military casualties that make the World Trade Center seem like a training exercise.
The only honest answer to that question is that we still do not know. No-one should mistake the current lull for defeatism, or the lack of an immediate response for lassitude. The public mood is still one of the deepest shock imaginable. But there is, among the public, a unity that does not seem as if it will evaporate soon. Everywhere you go, you see American flags. They are draped on roofs, hung on fences, crammed into cracks in walls, stuck on lamp-posts. This tells you something. The response to previous acts against Americans was different. The hostage crisis, the last major event that deeply affected Americans' sense of vulnerability, was greeted with millions of yellow ribbons. But now of course the safe home that those ribbons represented has been attacked. So the symbol now is the brute one of American patriotism and pride: the flag that is the only national symbol in this country of the sacred.
Along with this, there is a sense of solidarity that is hard to convey. Perhaps those in Britain who still recall the Blitz have a sense of what is going on. I haven't been able to get to New York, but the mood of everyone I have talked to is of heroism and rage. Rudy Giuliani was made for this moment. He is New York's Churchill. Barely sleeping, charging through the streets, directing every detail, knowing every inch of his city, he is the only leader in America who has so far visibly grown and dominated the scene. He has reassured and commanded in a way that will never be forgotten. His combination of chutzpah, practicality and deep, deep compassion is the essence of New York City. His troops - the firefighters and cops and medics and volunteers of the city - would make the Londoners of 1940 proud. If New York alone were a nation - and it has almost twice the population of Israel - then this war would already be well under way, and its outcome in no doubt.
Bush himself has so far passed the test. The criticism of his flying to Nebraska on Tuesday rather than to Washington is specious. When given coded warnings that Airforce One and the White House were targets, he would have been criminally irresponsible to cripple the country's command center by putting himself immediately in harm's way. No-one knows yet the extent of the preparation for war that is now underway. But Bush's skill is in executive management. He is right not to strike out counter-productively. But he suffers from one critical weakness. He has yet to speak in a way that commands reassurance let alone resurgence. By Thursday, in an unscripted talk with reporters, he was beginning to improve. We know one thing about him: he can grow as a leader. What we don't yet know is whether he can grow quickly enough. He doesn't have the instinctive grasp of crisis that a Thatcher or a Giuliani or even a Blair has. That is not his style. But if ever there was a moment in which Americans needed to be told that they face a challenge unlike any in their history, it is now. They need to know the reasons for the sacrifices they may now face.
But in one sense, the terrorists have now done this for the president. No eloquence can match the impact of their evil. Americans' critical weakness in the past two decades has been their reluctance to shed blood for their goals. They believed they could construct a huge military and never have it fight real wars and suffer real casualties. They thought they could alter history and advance their interests from the air alone. With the exception of the Gulf War, which they hesitated to finish, they have shrunk from the fight. When the current enemy struck again and again throughout the 1990s, Bill Clinton responded without real credibility, struck back without real endurance, enraged the terrorists without truly hurting them. We are now living with the consequences of his appeasement, and of his refusal to challenge Americans beyond what the polls said they already wanted to do. Whoever launched this war on Americans has now accomplished the task Clinton didn't dare embark on. America has been bloodied as it has never been bloodied before.
I would be a fool to predict what happens next. But it is clear that Bush will not do a Clinton. This will not be a surgical strike. It will not be a gesture. It may not even begin in earnest soon. But it will be deadly serious. It is clear that there is no way that the United States can achieve its goals without the cooperation of many other states - an alliance as deep and as broad as that which won the Gulf War. It is also clear that this cannot be done by airpower alone. As in 1941, the neglect of the military under Bill Clinton and the parsimony of its financing even under Bush must now not merely be ended but reversed. We may see the biggest defense build-up since the early 1980s - and not just in weaponry but in manpower. It is also quite clear that the U.S. military presence in the Middle East must be ramped up exponentially, its intelligence overhauled, its vigilance heightened exponentially. In some ways, Bush has already assembled the ideal team for such a task: Powell for the diplomatic dance, Rumsfeld for the deep reforms he will now have the opportunity to enact, Cheney as his most trusted aide in what has become to all intents and purposes a war cabinet.
The terrorists have done the rest. The middle part of the country - the great red zone that voted for Bush - is clearly ready for war. The decadent Left in its enclaves on the coasts is not dead - and may well mount what amounts to a fifth column. But by striking at the heart of New York City, the terrorists ensured that at least one deep segment of the country ill-disposed toward a new president is now the most passionate in his defense. Anyone who has ever tried to get one over on a New Yorker knows what I mean. The demons who started this have no idea about the kind of people they have taken on.
But what the terrorists are also counting on is that Americans will not have the stomach for the long haul. They clearly know that the coming retaliation will not be the end but the beginning. And when the terrorists strike back again, they have let us know that the results could make the assault on the World Trade Center look puny. They are banking that Americans will then cave. They have seen a great country quarrel to the edge of constitutional crisis over a razor-close presidential election. They have seen it respond to real threats in the last few years with squeamish restraint or surgical strikes. They have seen that, as Israel has been pounded by the same murderous thugs, the United States has responded with equanimity. They have seen a great nation at the height of its power obsess for a whole summer over a missing intern and a randy Congressman. They have good reason to believe that this country is soft, that it has no appetite for the war that has now begun. They have gambled that in response to unprecedented terror, the Americans will abandon Israel to the barbarians who would annihilate every Jew on the planet, and trade away their freedom for a respite from terror in their own land.
We cannot forsee the future. But we know the past. And that past tells us that these people who destroyed the heart of New York City have made a terrible mistake. This country is at its heart a peaceful one. It has done more to help the world than any other actor in world history. It saved the world from the two greatest evils of the last century in Nazism and Soviet Communism. It responded to its victories in the last war by pouring aid into Europe and Japan. In the Middle East, America alone has ensured that the last hope of the Jewish people is not extinguished and has given more aid to Egypt than to any other country. It risked its own people to save the Middle East from the pseudo-Hitler in Baghdad. America need not have done any of this. Its world hegemony has been less violent and less imperial than any other comparable power in history. In the depths of its soul, it wants its dream to itself, to be left alone, to prosper among others, and to welcome them to the freedom America has helped secure.
But whenever Americans have been challenged, they have risen to the task. In some awful way, these evil thugs may have done us a favor. America may have woken up for ever. The rage that will follow from this grief and shock may be deeper and greater than anyone now can imagine. Think of what the United States ultimately did to the enemy that bombed Pearl Harbor. Now recall that American power in the world is all but unchallenged by any other state. Recall that America has never been wealthier, and is at the end of one of the biggest booms in its history. And now consider the extent of this wound - the greatest civilian casualties since the Civil War, an assault not just on Americans but on the meaning of America itself. When you take a step back, it is hard not to believe that we are now in the quiet moment before the whirlwind. Americans will recover their dead, and they will mourn them, and then they will get down to business. Their sadness will be mingled with an anger that will make the hatred of these evil fanatics seem mild.
I am reminded of a great American poem written by Herman Melville after the death of Abraham Lincoln, the second founder of the country:
"There is sobbing of the strong,
And a pall upon the land;
But the People in their weeping
Bare the iron hand;
Beware the People weeping
When they bare the iron hand."
September 16, 2001, The Sunday Times of London ("America at War: America wakes up to a world of fear).
copyright © 2001 Andrew Sullivan