I was in Manhattan that day, and I watched the towers collapse from the 40th floor of an office building on West 17th Street. Wherever you were, you‘ve heard the story of that day. I want to talk about New York, and the nation, in the days that followed.
We commuters were allowed back into the city on September 13. The sorrow was palpable. Already the lampposts and scaffolding were covered with photocopied photographs of the missing — have you seen him? Have you seen her? they implored. And, of course, none had been seen, or ever would be again.
Already the city was festooned with American flags. They flew everywhere on Madison Avenue, as far as one could see. Times Square was a festival of flags, waving against a blue sky in the bright sunlight. But grief remained. It felt as if the fabric of reality itself had been ripped.
One could also see fear. Sitting on a downtown subway train I saw a man in a good suit, with a bright gold watch and thickly stuffed leather briefcase. And he was terrified. He trembled and muttered to himself. His feet shuffled; his hands move aimlessly here and there. Other commuters stood around him, clinging to poles and swaying with the subway car. They were silent and respectful, and they clustered around him like protective angels. But the fact is we were all flesh, and we were locked inside a metal and glass thing hurtling through miles of unguarded underground tunnels.
Over the next few days fear in New York remained close to the surface. A rumor went around that a bomb had been found on the subway; one of my co-workers fainted and had to be driven home. For a few days there were military planes flying over New York to protect us, or to reassure us, or something. Every time we on the 40th floor heard a plane, we dashed to the windows to see if it was a good plane.
What we knew, even if we didn’t speak of it, was that we all remained vulnerable. To get on with our lives meant offering our bodies to terrorists and lunatics. To get on with our lives meant using iconic bridges and famous tunnels; it meant taking commuter trains and subways with countless miles of unguarded tracks. It meant going back to work in skycrapers. The entire city was permeated with possible targets — the Empire State Building, Rockefeller Center, Madison Square Garden, Grand Central Station, the Stock Exchange.
I remember looking at the defiantly waving flags, that I wished for a conventional enemy. If the 9/11 attack had come from a nation-state, as had the attack on Pearl Harbor, we could declare war and send our massive military to punish the enemy. But we had been attacked by something more intangible, by fanatics and ideologues with no fixed territory, who moved over national borders like smoke. What use are guns against smoke?
On September 14, President Bush spoke at the National Cathedral and promised “to answer these attacks and rid the world of evil.” Rid the world of evil? It speaks to how numb we must have been that those words didn’t alarm us. Soon enough the war on terror was declared, and the most powerful military the world has ever known was sent forth to battle evil and terror.
The nation’s trajectory after 9/11 was well summed up by Will Bunch at the Philadelphia Inquirer. “ Any national unity dissolved rapidly into fear and paranoia,” he wrote, “which a cynical new government in Washington preferred to exploit rather than tamp down — the better to plant our flag in oil-rich lands abroad and silence any dissent here at home.”
President Bush’s famous war on terror seemed to be more about stoking terror than resolving it. By 2003 we were being advised to create “safe rooms” in our homes by sealing them with plastic sheeting and duct tape. In some quarters, being afraid became a patriotic duty. In 2007, after the administration announced it had stopped an obviously unserious plot to “blow up” JFK airport, Mayor Michael Bloomberg sensibly advised us to disregard the fearmongering. “You can’t sit there and worry about everything,” he said.
Right-wing blogger Michelle Malkin erupted in outrage. Bloomberg was an “ostrich,” she said, as were other New Yorkers. New Yorkers weren’t nearly afraid enough, meaning they had no appreciation of the dangers they faced.
I had had it. I wrote at the time,
“I’ve got news for you, toots: People can’t live that way. And some of us, you know, live here. And if we choose to stay here, we must expose our precious flesh to the dangers of subways and tunnels and bridges and high-rise office buildings and Muslim taxi drivers every single damn day.
“But just because we are not in a constant state of mind-numbing, inchoate fear, does not mean we are not mindful of what can happen. A whole lot of of watched the worst that terrorism can do with our own eyes. We were not sitting safely in our living rooms watching a little picture on a television. We were there. We lived with it. And we lived with the shrines and the smell and the sorrow for weeks after.
“Believe me, you don’t forget something like that.”
Getting on with our lives meant making peace with our vulnerabilities. Fear won’t make you safer. All the guns and duct tape and plastic sheeting in the world won’t save you if terrorists crash a plane into your workplace or plant a bomb under the bridge you’re crossing or release gas in your subway car.
And that’s the first lesson.
We might also think more rationally about sending flesh and blood soldiers to fight evil and terror. I supported the intial action in Afghanistan, which was intended to strike at al Qaeda hiding places. Al Qaeda had retreated into Pakistan by then, unfortunately.
But for the next twenty years, we’ve been battling smoke. Strike one “headquarters,” and the smoke moves and reassembles elsewhere. Take out a “number two” leader, and another steps into his place. Al Qaeda was nearly destroyed, we were told, but another Salafi jihadist organization called ISIS organized and moved into the vacuum. Meanwhile, one did wonder if the real reason we couldn’t extracate ourselves from the “forever wars” was that the military-industrial complex was making too damn much money from it.
For a time George W. Bush and his supporters really did talk about “victory.” Clearly, they longed to be back on the deck of the U.S.S. Missouri receiving the surrender of Emperor Hirohito. When the enemy is not a nation-state, but a movement, who would surrender? Who would sign the peace treaty? A nation might be defeated, but a movement just reconstitutes itself and keeps going. A movement is smoke. There can be no victory in the sort of war we’d gotten ourselves into. It’s hard to even say what any satisfactory resolution would be.
I have no military training and am not going to lecture about “asymmetric warfare” or “fourth generation warfare.” There may be times when military force is prudent and necessary, but if the enemy is an ideology, or a grievance, guns and bombs are not going to destroy it. Guns and bombs might grow it, actually.
And that’s the second lesson.