At three a.m., the night after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, I woke up with a sensation of falling from a great height, suffocated in a cloud of dust. I couldn’t sleep. So I took out my pen and notebook. This is what I wrote (unedited):
On Tuesday, Sept. 11, 2001, our landscape changed irrevocably. Not a single shot was fired. No protests were uttered. No cause was identified.
Yet we understand that we are now forced to acknowledge an ideology foreign to us: the power of the unknown.
The lack of overt purpose in the attacks leaves us cold. What is to be gained, we cry. We cannot help it: it is the capitalist in us. Surely, we cannot be appalled at a random act of violence when we live daily with violent crimes that are committed for less reason than pleasure or perversion. We understand and tacitly approve of criminal actions, however despicable and self-serving, if there is gain. Now we are confounded by criminals who, having perpetrated so spectacular a rampage, refuse to claim the spotlight.
What do we do with an unacknowledged enemy that acts on its own terms for no other reason than to satisfy its own set of privately held dogma, whether or not anyone else holds meaning in it? Unlike great revolutionaries of the past— Luther, Lenin, Marx–we are not clear about what action or stance, if any, these terrorists want us to take. Overthrow the government? Protest the war in the Middle East? Eliminate capitalism? Worship Allah? We ourselves are unsure who to hunt; there are no Huns, no Japs, no Blues, Greys, or Reds.
This is a new world order: nomadic ideology, not connected with a state power, a revolution, a civil war. Warriors take their show on the road, like a circus act, playing before a new audience every night. It is battle of happenstance, not fixed, but evolving around a morphing and murky set of conditions. Like foul weather, it appears in various guises, at various times, depending on a fickle mix of elements, such as geography and political climate.
The only sure thing we can hold with certainty after this disaster is terror at the capriciousness of life. On some level, this act of terrorism must force us to acknowledge how out of control modern life is. We feel how fragile our complex infrastructures, how naïve our sophisticated lifestyles, how vulnerable the heart of our civilization is to arrest.
We are living as in a house of cards that can collapse as suddenly and surely as the proud World Trade Center towers.
It is a little like Alice in Wonderland, every time we look to outside forces to blame we end up staring at ourselves in the mirror. If there is any meaning to glean from disaster, it is how we ourselves our complicit in its happening and how we can change ourselves to prevent a recurrence. We cannot control our destinies but we can direct them.
The landscape is scarred; people are dead. These are the tangible indications of change. The soul is shaken; the enemy unseen. These are the elements of a future unforeseen.
Wake up, America. The world is edging in on us, from its many corners.