"So let us understand what we are becoming part of, exactly which circle of hell we are entering, and while we pray these next days and months, let us not forget to pray for a way out." (BW, Opinion, "That Once Again Our Tears Run Sweet," Sept. 17, 2001)
The above was written over a September weekend in 2001, but it was conceived three days earlier at 7:03 a.m. MDT. My wife woke me. "You need to see this. Something's happening," she said as she switched on the little TV on the dresser. Per usual, I threw my legs over the side and used the torque to sit up on the edge of the bed, just as 2 feet from my face, the black screen blossomed into a bright New York morning. Before I had time to put on my specs or shake the grog from my senses, Flight 175 flew in from the right and penetrated the south tower like a dagger into a throat. My first coherent thought of that day was that I had just witnessed people die. There was no way then of knowing how many, but I knew it was a lot.
The next day, a man told me that the abomination we had watched unfold would be yesterday's stale news within a week, that Americans would soon shuffle on like they always do, from one temporary hot flash to the next. Another man told me it was all an East Coast thing, a New York thing, and that it had nothing to do with us, sequestered here in Idaho. I was astounded those two men could actually have responded to a horror of this magnitude with such surreal foolishness, but I didn't bother to argue with either of them. I could only walk away and shake my head in private.
It took years--two wars, tens and tens of thousands more dead, and the absolute corruption of America's most noble ideals--before I could put what those two men said in some sort of perspective. Referring to just one of the many eruptions of irrationality and delirium that followed in the wake of 9/11, a friend said he could explain to his own satisfaction what was happening to Americans only if he understood it all as a massive and lingering nervous collapse over the great trauma our nation had suffered. That on that dreadful day, we had been wounded deeper and scarred more permanently than we could ever have imagined at the time.
How else, my friend thought, could so many Americans continue to believe the lies that were being told them? How else could they continue to support the havoc our mighty power was wreaking on people who had nothing to do with the original offense, or defend leaders who with every inept decision and every inept action made the situation worse? How else could Americans continue to tolerate the thuggery, the criminality of those leaders as they defiled our values, our laws and our morality?
It could only be a collective disorder, as my friend saw it--a communicable hysteria, a case of PTSD on a pandemic scale, a glitch in our shared reality that, to this day, disrupts our politics, our relations with the world and with each other as Americans.
I came eventually to see it as my friend did: The event had done so much more damage to us than the loss of a few buildings and 3,000 American neighbors. I came to understand that Osama bin Laden had infected us with the very disease that had driven him to do what he did. It wasn't a dagger into the throat of America I woke up to that morning. It was a germ. And had I been smarter, more sensitive, I would have understood better what those two men were really telling me--that they were adapting the vision of hell we all witnessed that black
Thursday Tuesday into something they could more easily accept. It wasn't surreal foolishness they displayed. It was their immune systems kicking in.
Ten years on, it has become clear that some of the country's most powerful and unscrupulous people understood--dare I say, welcomed--this collective national shock if not from the very beginning, then close to it. It would be convenient to blame Bin Laden as the evil presence behind the slaughter of 100,000 Iraqis and thousands of our own military as they carried our vengeance to the wrong country. It would be glib to say al-Qaida is behind the bullying and intolerance of our own Taliban tendencies. It would be simple to claim that Sharia law or a mosque situated too near to Ground Zero is behind the erosion of our civil rights and the utter disregard for our own established law.
But those things are not Bin Laden's fault, not al-Qaida's, not Islam's, nor the fault of any of the strangers we continue to battle. Those things, which accumulatively have done as much damage to America as Bin Laden could only dream of doing, were done by Americans who recognized the fragility and fear in our post-9/11 psyches and took advantage.
Like black marketeers scalping essentials to a disaster-ravaged village, they rushed in and set up shop. They kicked us when we were down, picked our treasury clean, then convinced us--some of us, at any rate--that they were the only ones who could make things right again. They paralyzed us with paranoia, then offered to push our wheelchair.
We mustn't for a minute believe they aren't still doing it. The echoes of 9/11 reverberate throughout our politics, economics and fevered religious frenzies. It is a pathogen for which there is no cure. And like the germ, there remain those would offer us fake remedies and false salvation--for a price, of course. We can come through the infection, I'm certain of that, if only we can survive the treatment.