There was no surprise, and I found myself unmoved. I had a strange sense that it had already occurred––that a long-awaited inevitability expected to arrive from a distant past was finally here and already had disappeared into tomorrow’s news. And it was such a video game moment that it failed to detour me from seeing the kids off to school. It had already occurred and I found myself unable to respond. Only as the scenes are replayed in my imagination does my mind see and my heart begin to feel.
United Airlines Flight 175, the one captured on video from below by a freelancer, had the greatest allure. As the airliner glided toward its mark I saw none of the terror within, its streamlined power and purpose standing still, it seems, in its last buoyant moment. The impact did not shake me. There was a silent seamlessness about the way the airliner entered the building, melted into it as if by way of cinematic dissolve, and disappeared. My horror—and my effort to understand—continue to stand still as that moment plays itself over and over in my mind. Suddenly present is a past horror also captured quite by chance on video—the summary execution of a Viet Cong suspect by the Saigon police chief, the shot seen around the world that froze in memory the face of a young man at the moment a bullet, also powered by streamlined purpose, blew blood and brains out of his skull. The young man’s legs caved in as suddenly as our tallest twin towers did before we could begin to imagine what hit us.
I remember my daughter asking some years ago. “Dad, you’re a doctor, aren’t you? I have a cold. Can you do something for my cold?”
No, not even with a Ph.D. “I’m not that kind of doctor, dear.”
“But you write. Can you write a prescription for me?”
“Yes, I write, but no, I can’t do that either.”
“What kind of doctor are you anyway?”
Words fail. Doctor of Philosophy. The title smirks at me as once more I see United Airlines Flight 175 melt into the south tower of the World Trade Center. What do those degreed to be knowledge-lovers do with the years devoted to the study of literature, art, and history? And what makes us, those who dare write, believe that our scrawls on paper will leave any mark? Do we fiddle while Rome burns? Or are we beetles secreting our way through the grass to a hideout where shadows and sun divide, where earth is still seasoned enough for us to enter a sleephole secure for a time that is all time, beyond belief and too small to interest any high heroes or gods?
As I step back to re-view the more than three decades I’ve spent professing literature and the writing life, I ask myself again what I’ve really tried to do. I tell myself it comes down to this: Teach others, and myself along the way, how to read the only life we have. La vita, the Italians say. Definite article. Texts, some better than others, provide models of experience. From these models we keep arriving at our sense of the nonsense of the world.
So yes, I write prescriptions too.
Postmoderns have good reason to smirk at such a narrow-minded purpose. Books, they say, only read us. Texts may be models of experience, but experience and the models themselves are in motion, moving as we the readers also are moved. Airliners smashing into buildings do not really stand still for us to make sense of them; they appear suddenly out of distant pasts, their destinations indecipherable until it’s too late. Life itself is a vast text in motion, riddled by stories heaped high in cloudy minds. The significance of all these stories sways as the earth turns, and keeps caving in on us.
We look for a way to ground ourselves, only to find beliefs pulled out from under us. The “lessons of Vietnam” especially haunt us, particularly the one the Pentagon learned so well: Control the Information. Restrict troubling eyewitness accounts. More haunting is the new homework the Pentagon imposes on us: Sort out what’s factual from the disinformation it now actively concocts for public consumption.
We’re left alone, especially when the TV is on, to rely on our inner resources. As writers we doubt the stories we heard told and then the ones we tell ourselves. A story is a fiction and a fiction is a falsehood and a falsehood is a lie. What in the world are we doing with our time?
We’re consoled by one of our best authorities. In his Culture of Education, Jerome Bruner, respected for his lifelong devotion to the psychologies of learning, arrives at this bottom-line conclusion at the end of his career. Telling stories
…is the most natural and earliest way in which we organize our
experience and our knowledge…. It is not surprising that
psychoanalysts now recognize that personhood implicates
narrative, ‘neurosis’ being a reflection of either an insufficient,
incomplete, or inappropriate story about oneself. Recall that
when Peter Pan asks Wendy to return to Never Never Land
with him, he gives as his reason that she could teach the Lost
Boys there how to tell stories. If they knew how to tell
the Lost Boys might be able to grow up.
So where do we, lost boys and girls too, find ourselves in the story we suddenly find ourselves in when the hijacked planes crash into the World Trade Center towers? As historical drama how do we, citizens and authors, best write this narrative, conceive its setting, action, plot, characters and theme? As citizens we’re all minor characters, mere extras, but as authors we all presume to be authorities, and the privilege of authority, we still believe, requires us to generate responsible—that is, moral and life-giving—response to what we scribble. Our dilemma, charged with confusion and self-doubt, is to frame narratives that will best help compose us and these deeply troubled times. How do we write about what is happening to us all on September 11? We’re lost somewhere in the middle, and playing the omniscient narrator seems especially wrong. Where do we start our digging into the grounds on which the World Trade Center towers collapsed?
We close our eyes and try to see. There appears, dimly as if in a dream, a nine hundred year-old desert scene somewhere in the Middle East, and we picture there the amazement of a few goatherds as their blue skies to the northwest are dirtied by dust rising from the movement of thousands of men and animals coming their way, a crisscross of gleams piercing the dust as sunlight strikes swords and shields. The year is 1099 A.D., the year of the First Crusade. An army is marching under Christian banners toward Jerusalem. The goatherds, suddenly fearful, gather their goats and flee.
The Christian army has walked a long way to get to this place, having set out on this journey unaware of themselves as Norsemen, then Normans and Gauls carrying the flags of their pagan gods further and further into warmer lands until all the banners bear a cross. We try to read Christian minds. How did they end up here? When they conquer the Holy City of Jerusalem will they enter heaven too? So many of the horses have died along the way. Where is home, and would it have been better to stay there?
We try to see the important details.
The Arab goatherds are terrified, and the children cry. A goatherd’s son, only ten, tries to hush the children, but he too is scared and wants his mother to hold him tight. Everyone runs to a nearby cave, but there is no way to keep the children quiet.
The Christian soldiers march onward to Jerusalem and enter the city on July 15, 1099. The author of the Gesta boasts of their accomplishments: “They killed all the Saracens and the Turks they found. They killed everyone, whether male or female.” About 40,000 Muslims in two days. Jerusalem, not particularly holy to Muslims at the time, becomes holier as the dead are numbered one by one. Everyone prays.
In the palm grove
Where hippo and gazelle
Drink from the same pond,
There is no holy war.
When serpent and dove
Eye each other in the same tree,
There is no love or hate.
There is no belief.
From the grass where lion
And jackal lie low,
Hunger springs of necessity.
There is no God.
In churches where Christian
Soldiers bring in the sheaves,
There is belief and holy war.
And there, of necessity, is God.
For the next two hundred years Christians, after pausing to cleanse their Europe of Jews, answer eight official calls to Holy War. Each bloody march on Jerusalem makes the city more holy. The Christians, most not able to read their Book, are pushed out of Jerusalem by Muslims praying to the God of the People of the Book. Horses die of thirst, are eaten by soldiers, then soldiers die of thirst. In the caves the goatherds in the mountainsides shiver through nights, and their children’s children have nightmares even after the Christians have turned their attentions westward toward the vast continents on the other side of the Atlantic. For the next 800 years Christians retreat from and reinvade Jerusalem while wandering confusedly through the Renaissance and Reformation and Counter-Reformation and Enlightenment and Revolutionary Age toward Charles Darwin, Karl Marx, Sigmund Freud, Henry Ford, Albert Einstein, Marilyn Monroe, Billy Graham, the Beatles and Bill Gates who lead us all into the Space Age and World Trade Center towers that dwarf the ziggurats, pyramids, cathedrals and minarets that caused awed pilgrims to bow down to the earth.
Meanwhile, during that same 800 years the goatherds keep praying to their God for rain so the grass may grow and their children may have milk and cheese enough to silence the crying that wakes everyone in the middle of terrible dreams. One goatherd’s son, not yet sixteen, is almost left behind by the wandering herd as he stands on desert sand meditating on the poetry, philosophy and mathematics he learned from his father’s ancient friend. Such deep learning, and so old. Before he understands all this learning well enough, the Arab youth sees a jetliner pass overhead. His father sees him watching the jet rather than the goats, goes back for him, and shakes him from a wonder too shiny and streamlined to be the same as awe. Later that son will be the one to abandon his father and herd of goats. He will go to Cairo to find work so every month or two he can bring money to the mother who begged him never to leave her alone. His father and his father’s learned friend feel betrayed, but silently they agree to let the young man go. The father has a limp now, so when the goats wander off he is too weary to shout or shake his cane at them.
The young son never mentions the time spent in video arcades, the American movies he has seen, or how the goats embarrass him whenever he stops to think of a certain blond girl whose face is hauntingly beautiful. Someday he wants to own a car.
The daily news makes no mention of the goat herder, nor do we hear the stories he tells by the open fire at night. Plots happen when people breathing the same air form a conspiracy, whisper about purpose and power, and share a narrative. Eighteen young men, fully aware that they intend to sacrifice thousands of lives, quietly meet and agree to sacrifice their lives. What part of everyone’s air do we breathe?
And what about the high God to which all the actors pray? Is He the grand conspirator, author of all the woes? How can we not conclude that this God, rewarding the prayers of those who steer planes at skyscrapers and those who drop bombs on the neighbors of the ones who flew the planes, needs a revision of his moral character? Do we dare forgive this God?
The goatherd prays five times daily to his unimaginable God, alive in the untranslatable innuendoes that flow from the Arabic of The Koran. But his prayers disappear into the maze of stars in the desert night sky. The goatherd’s son is gone—perhaps to America now—and his daughters, grown and of marriageable age, are so beautiful strangers are permitted only glimpses of their veiled eyes. One other thing is clear to the old goatherd: Both his knees ache so terribly he can barely walk, and his wife is too frail to take care of him.
“Let him be,” the goatherd’s wife says of her son. “He will never marry one of those modern city girls. He will return here and care for us. He loves God as much as he loves me. He has purity of heart.”
Each day as the employees enter the World Trade Center they pause to gaze up as pilgrims once did at the spires of the great cathedrals. They are momentarily dizzied by the streamlined purpose and power of towers so tall that they feel humbly insignificant. Then their pride soars to take ownership of the space the building occupies. Once inside they go about their business, talking of some Madonna or Michaelangelo. In these towers women show their faces off, and so many are so very beautiful. And though the air is not pure, they breathe the same air as the men.
Meanwhile, mothers in Guatemala, the Sudan, Chile, the Congo, Israel, Palestine, East Timor and El Salvador try to remember and forget what they cannot fathom and only reluctantly survived. But let’s not go there. Someone might object that our story is out of our control.
They are so many and so unnamed, all those who suffer violent anonymous deaths we dare not try to remember or feel one by one lest we destroy our own desire to know and go on.
But courage perpetually revives, like the nagging of any healthy imagination driven to distraction by the normal need to look the other way. We want to do the right thing, responsible art. Reluctantly we pick up the pen, face the blank page, bite our lip, and make our scrawl.
The scrawl is bold and hard. The goatherd’s son is a Coward. All of them, the whole hoard of the undifferentiated non-familiar, are Terrorists, and all those sacrificed in the Twin Towers are Innocent Victims. The story must be big—epic tall as the towers––and its theme must be justice as revenge.
We loosen our hold on the pen, relax the muscles that curl into a fist intent on drawing bold black lines on a white unforgiving page. The pen wanders to the arid land where the goats scratch the ground for a bit to eat. It is hard to describe the taste of goat cheese, or, when there is no cheese or milk or rice, what it is like to go entirely without. What does a hungry tongue taste? And what do the hearts of eighteen young men hungry for justice and dignity require? Perhaps their sisters and younger brothers know. The ancient goatherd shakes his head and turns away. Everything is too sad for words. He leaves his ailing wife and weeps alone behind closed doors, and the mother learns that her son attended the wedding of a cousin in America, but would not shake the hand of any woman or sit next to a pregnant woman guest. He saw so many beautiful women on the sidewalks of America, their faces all unveiled, but he was always lost for words when he had a chance to talk to one of them. He didn’t know why he could have loved so many yet steered so clear of them all, his mother too, who thought he was such a beautiful boy.
And a good one too, bravely trying to be pure. Innocently pure, still. Desperately trying to live up the requirements of a religious melodrama easiest for him to understand when it makes a hero of him. So where is the evil in this young man? Everyone who knew him spoke so highly of him, especially the bride at the wedding who slyly kept looking his way, and the pregnant woman who smiled as he turned away from her. How do we script the evil in this tragedy, an evil that is real, still visible as I write this as the actual fumes rising from the heap of wrecked dreams, desires, beliefs, and bodies at the Twin Towers site? Do we pin the evil on the hijackers, crucify them on our latest crosses, and thereby confirm their heroic martyrdom to half the people in the world? Or is the evil a complex fabric that has something to do with women and sex and technology and religion and hubris and oil, all these forces less visible than the fumes rising from the wreckage but as real as everyone, dead and alive, affected by the chaos this systemic evil unleashed? In tragedy everyone is caught in a web. Let’s not imagine the webs spun into the horrors of Cambodia, South Africa, Columbia, Detroit, and so on. Let’s not go there too. Someone might object. And our hearts are too small; they would break. Let’s not imagine how many cousins, brothers, peasants, sisters, grocers, uncles, rug-makers and mothers in Latin America alone lie in bed at night scheming their terrible revenges at us. Let us be grateful that most live too far from our borders, and that some lose their schemes for revenge in their wisdom, humility and humanity, in their weariness and in the graciousness of sleep.
They are so extraordinary, the thousands who innocently entered the Twin Towers that fateful morning of September 11. And everything was so inevitable, fated. It was a lovely day, 81 warm degrees. Several people lovely in ordinary ways stopped for a bagel and coffee on the way, and more than one glanced at the headlines of USA Today. The paycheck was good even if not good enough. One month’s apartment rent in Manhatten is equal to a half-ton of bread, though no one has ever seen a half-ton of bread stacked high. Business was, as usual, busy-ness, and those who woke early could feel the pulse of the great city quicken into the noisy grind of a massive heart. New York City is terrible; it is wonderful. The World Trade Center, swaying among the skyscrapers, is higher than the Empire State Building, graying monolith also still rising to the occasion of American dominance of the twentieth century as it expresses the pride of thousands cheering another home run in a Yankee Stadium hundreds of years distant from pilgrims standing in awe in Mecca, beneath the twin spires of Chartres, or at Plymouth Rock.
The employees enter the World Trade Center and begin doing their bit. Some scrub the toilets and floors. Others sell stocks and commodities without mining an ounce of silver or gold or picking one coffee bean. Many process orders for companies everywhere in the world—companies whose workers manufacture rivets, videotape, memory boards, plastic molds, chemicals, pesticides, nuts and bolts, new exotic seeds, and airplane parts. Somewhere in the world all these things come together for profit and use. The U.S. is the world’s largest armaments dealer. Men and women wash windows so others may look out, but it is so hard to see inside this place. Everyone is an extra in this scene. This is the house that Jack built. And it is so hard to keep clean.
Far away from this scene the old goatherd eyes his goats. It is time to pick one out. He zeroes in on one particular goat, a sturdy fellow given to waywardness, and wonders when his son will return home. He lets the sturdy one go, and seizes another standing in a group nearby. Everyone hears the shrill scream as the knife slices across the throat, and for the goatherd time quickens as spasms of the goat’s legs diminish to quivers before going limp. There will be a feast by the fire tonight, and everyone will praise God. He does not know why, of all the goats, he chose this particular one.
There are forces at work which the goatherd understands in silence––what the Greeks called Fate and anagke, Necessity. He also understands the basic need to eat better than most people understand sex and women and technology and religion and hubris and oil. How do we write all this so we do not compound the wrongs?
The goatherd died years ago, but his son remembers the blue skies, the fragrance of the grass, the way the rice melted in his mouth with the meat. All that seems gone now as he sips a Coke while gazing at the traffic on an American street. He is not part of this, so out of it. A vague indignity churns an acid in his gut.
It is impossible to get even with any of them—the old goatherd now dead, the mother who cries herself to sleep, the daughters, cousins, grocers, carpenters, brickmakers and all their children yet unborn. As I write this our deus ex machina forms. Propelled by prayers to a God whose alias is Air Power, its mission is to find someone down below on whom to dump our revenge. I stand on the ground looking up as I go about my business as usual buying and using and selling things, and doing my bit to supply parts for landmines, beauty aids, computers, and jetliners too.
So we are all writers as American Airlines Flight 175 approaches the World Trade Center tower, our hearts full of pity and terror as we gaze through the window of that moment where past and future explode into an unimaginable now suddenly present only as an imagined past. What do we see in this now: A young handsome man from a faraway land at the controls of a machine out of control. The airplane is loaded with fuel, and the young man is wide-eyed with pity and terror as he catches a glimpse of the interior of an executive suite, plush swivel chair behind a desk in a room with a view, lovely secretary wide-eyed and helpless before him too. Why me, he asks himself again, and why me the people in the World Trade Center ask big-eyed as the plane nears. Of all the millions in this vast city and world, why me? And suddenly all are equal as they close their eyes too late to see how they could have prevented this.