Fear and loathing
It was the advent of the second plane, sharking in low over the Statue of Liberty: that was the defining moment. Until then, America thought she was witnessing nothing more serious than the worst aviation disaster in history; now she had a sense of the fantastic vehemence ranged against her.
I have never seen a generically familiar object so transformed by effect. That second plane looked eagerly alive, and galvanised with malice, and wholly alien. For those thousands in the south tower, the second plane meant the end of everything. For us, its glint was the worldflash of a coming future.
Terrorism is political communication by other means. The message of September 11 ran as follows: America, it is time you learned how implacably you are hated. United Airlines Flight 175 was an Intercontinental Ballistic Missile aimed at her innocence. That innocence, it was here being claimed, was a luxurious and anachronistic delusion.
A week after the attack, one is free to taste the bile of its atrocious ingenuity. It is already trite - but stringently necessary - to emphasise that such a mise en scène would have embarrassed a studio executive's storyboard or a thriller-writer's notebook ("What happened today was not credible," were the wooden words of Tom Clancy, the author of The Sum of All Fears). And yet in broad daylight and full consciousness that outline became established reality: a score or so of Stanley knives produced two million tons of rubble.
Several lines of US policy were bankrupted by the events of last Tuesday, among them national missile defence. Someone realised that the skies of America were already teeming with missiles, each of them primed and cocked.
The plan was to capture four airliners - in the space of half an hour. All four would be bound for the west coast, to ensure maximum fuel- load. The first would crash into the north tower just as the working day hit full stride. Then a pause of 15 minutes, to give the world time to gather round its TV sets. With that attention secured, the second plane would crash into the south tower, and in that instant America's youth would turn into age.
If the architect of this destruction was Osama bin Laden, who is a qualified engineer, then he would certainly know something about the stress equations of the World Trade Centre. He would also know something about the effects of ignited fuel: at 500C (a third of the temperature actually attained), steel loses 90% of its strength. He must have anticipated that one or both of the towers would collapse. But no visionary cinematic genius could hope to recreate the majestic abjection of that double surrender, with the scale of the buildings conferring its own slow motion. It was well understood that an edifice so demonstrably comprised of concrete and steel would also become an unforgettable metaphor. This moment was the apotheosis of the postmodern era - the era of images and perceptions. Wind conditions were also favourable; within hours, Manhattan looked as though it had taken 10 megatons.
Meanwhile, a third plane would crash into the Pentagon, and a fourth would crash into Camp David (the site of the first Arab-Israeli accord) or possibly into the White House (though definitely not into Air Force One: this rumour was designed to excuse Bush's meanderings on the day). The fourth plane crashed, upside down, not into a landmark but into the Pennsylvanian countryside, after what seems to have been heroic resistance from the passengers. The fate of the fourth plane would normally have been one of the stories of the year. But not this year. The fact that for the first few days one struggled to find more than a mention of it gives some idea of the size of the American defeat.
My wife's sister had just taken her children to school and was standing on the corner of Fifth Avenue and Eleventh Street at 8.58 am, on the eleventh day of the ninth month of 2001 (the duo-millennial anniversary of Christianity). For a moment she imagined herself to be on a runway at Kennedy Airport. She looked up to see the glistening underbelly of the 767, a matter of yards above her head. (Another witness described plane number one as "driving" down Fifth Avenue - at 400mph.) There is a modest arch that fronts Washington Square Park; American Airlines Flight 11 from Boston to Los Angeles was flying so low that it had to climb to clear it.
We have all watched aeroplanes approach, or seem to approach, a large building. We tense ourselves as the supposed impact nears, even though we are sure that this is a parallax illusion, and that the plane will cruise grandly on. My sister-in-law was right behind Flight 11. She urged it to swerve, to turn into the plentiful blue sky. But the plane did not turn. That afternoon her children would be bringing refreshments to the block-long queue waiting to give blood at St Vincent's.
Now the second aircraft, and the terror revealed - the terror doubled, or squared. We speak of "plane rage" - but it was the plane itself that was in frenzy, one felt, as it gunned and steadied and then smeared itself into the south tower. Even the flames and smoke were opulently evil, with their vampiric reds and blacks. Murder-suicide from without was now duplicated within to provide what was perhaps the day's most desolating spectacle. They flailed and kicked as they came down. As if you could fend off that abysmal drop. You too would flail and kick. You could no more help yourself than you could stop your teeth from chattering at a certain intensity of cold. It is a reflex. It is what human beings do when they fall.
The Pentagon is a symbol, and the WTC is, or was, a symbol, and an American passenger jet is also a symbol - of indigenous mobility and zest, and of the galaxy of glittering destinations. The bringers of Tuesday's terror were morally "barbaric", inexpiably so, but they brought a demented sophistication to their work. They took these great American artefacts and pestled them to gether. Nor is it at all helpful to describe the attacks as "cowardly". Terror always has its roots in hysteria and psychotic insecurity; still, we should know our enemy. The firefighters were not afraid to die for an idea. But the suicide killers belong in a different psychic category, and their battle effectiveness has, on our side, no equivalent. Clearly, they have contempt for life. Equally clearly, they have contempt for death.
Their aim was to torture tens of thousands, and to terrify hundreds of millions. In this, they have succeeded. The temperature of planetary fear has been lifted towards the feverish; "the world hum", in Don DeLillo's phrase, is now as audible as tinnitus. And yet the most durable legacy has to do with the more distant future, and the disappearance of an illusion about our loved ones, particularly our children. American parents will feel this most acutely, but we will also feel it. The illusion is this. Mothers and fathers need to feel that they can protect their children. They can't, of course, and never could, but they need to feel that they can. What once seemed more or less impossible - their pro-tection - now seems obviously and palpably inconceivable. So from now on we will have to get by without that need to feel.
Last Tuesday's date may not prove epochal; and it should be the immediate task of the present administration to prevent it from becoming so. Bear in mind: the attack could have been infinitely worse. On September 11 experts from the Centres for Disease Control "rushed" to the scene to test its atmosphere for biological and chemical weapons. They knew that these were a possibility; and they will remain a possibility. There is also the integrally insoluble hazard of America's inactive nuclear power stations (no nuclear power station has ever been dismantled, anywhere). Equivalent assaults on such targets could reduce enormous tracts of the country to plutonium graveyards for tens of thousands of years. Then there is the near-inevitable threat of terrorist nuclear weapons - directed, perhaps, at a nuclear power station. One of the conceptual tasks to which Bush and his advisers will not be equal is that the Tuesday Terror, for all its studious viciousness, was a mere adumbration. We are still in the first circle.
It will also be horribly difficult and painful for Americans to absorb the fact that they are hated, and hated intelligibly. How many of them know, for example, that their government has destroyed at least 5% of the Iraqi population? How many of them then transfer that figure to America (and come up with 14m)? Various national characteristics - self-reliance, a fiercer patriotism than any in western Europe, an assiduous geographical incuriosity - have created a deficit of empathy for thesufferings of people far away. Most crucially, and again most painfully, being right and being good support the American self to an almost tautologous degree: Americans are good and right by virtue of being American. Saul Bellow's word for this habit is "angelisation". On the US-led side, then, we need not only a revolution in consciousness but an adaptation of national character: the work, perhaps, of a generation.
And on the other side? Weirdly, the world suddenly feels bipolar. All over again the west confronts an irrationalist, agonistic, theocratic/ ideocratic system which is essentially and unappeasably opposed to its existence. The old enemy was a superpower; the new enemy isn't even a state. In the end, the USSR was broken by its own contradictions and abnormalities, forced to realise, in Martin Malia's words, that "there is no such thing as socialism, and the Soviet Union built it". Then, too, socialism was a modernist, indeed a futurist, experiment, whereas militant fundamentalism is convulsed in a late-medieval phase of its evolution. We would have to sit through a renaissance and a reformation, and then await an enlightenment. And we're not going to do that.
What are we going to do? Violence must come; America must have catharsis. We would hope that the response will be, above all, non-escalatory. It should also mirror the original attack in that it should have the capacity to astonish. A utopian example: the crippled and benighted people of Afghanistan, hunkering down for a winter of famine, should not be bombarded with cruise missiles; they should be bombarded with consignments of food, firmly marked LENDLEASE - USA. More realistically, unless Pakistan can actually deliver Bin Laden, the American retaliation is almost sure to become elephantine. Then terror from above will replenish the source of all terror from below: unhealed wounds. This is the familiar cycle so well caught by the matter, and the title, of VS Naipaul's story, Tell Me Who to Kill.
Our best destiny, as planetary cohabitants, is the development of what has been called "species consciousness" - something over and above nationalisms, blocs, religions, ethnicities. During this week of incredulous misery, I have been trying to apply such a consciousness, and such a sensibility. Thinking of the victims, the perpetrators, and the near future, I felt species grief, then species shame, then species fear.
© Martin Amis
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