September 10, 2011

Terror and dust

I heard about 911 (“a wake-up call from hell” as Benjamin Netanyahu 
put it) like a billion other souls, when the news bulletin hit on television 
that morning, and appropriated the television screen, and global 
attention, for many days and weeks to come. I got on the phone with 
Stu, a fellow ex-New Yorker, and we both watched the disaster 
unfolding, phones to our ears, saying little, until Stu realized he had 
other phone calls to make. Within the next couple of hours a real-life 
replica of the destruction scene from Independence Day, whose 
monstrous majesty I’ve always suspected inspired Bin Laden, was 
played out in the dreadful cinematic slow motion that no one can forget, 
and the towers lay collapsed, along with three thousand lives, 
in a tower of dust.

My friend, and Staten Island ex-neighbor Pat, told me that a lot of 
Staten Islanders who worked in the World Trade Center perished in the 
attack. I could see the towers from nearly every room in my Staten 
Island apartment. I’d always loved them, and admired the balance 
they had achieved between brute scale and an austere delicacy. Looking
up at them (“giving the double finger to God and the taxpayer,” as a 
friend of mine once quipped) from the ground, you could scarcely believe 
what you were seeing. Audacious, ghostly, sensitive to light and 
therefore always changing, you could watch the shadows of clouds 
passing over them, and at sunset their tracery was limned with gold.

The photograph of President Bush, tucked down on a classroom chair, 
looking up from My Pet Goat, deer in the headlights, while the nation 
was under attack, will forever emblematize the man and his 
misbegotten administration for me. Sometimes things are precisely what 
they seem. He responded to 911 like a humiliated brat, stupidly, 
viscerally, opportunistically. And with ruinous cost to the nation.

What a transformative moment it might have been - drowned at birth by 
the Bush administration’s reptilian-brain response and venal ambitions. 
We should have done exactly nothing except quietly find Bin Laden... an 
accomplishment that was denied to Bush and given to his successor. It is 
impossible, in my opinion, to overestimate the leap in global 
consciousness that was rising on the horizon in the aftermath of 911, 
or the magnitude of the loss with which it was trashed. There were 
candlelight vigils for the U.S. in the streets of Tehran, fer Chrissakes. 
Al Qaida was finished. The world was our family. In perhaps the most 
tragic failure of vision in history, we traded gold for ashes. Which now 
we must eat.