September 11: The View from the West By Jonathan Raban

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    ‏2004-11-01
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    1.
    On September 11, 2001, the United States reflexively contracted around the wound inflicted on its eastern seaboard, and for a short spell the country felt as small as Switzerland. Two thousand eight hundred miles west of the World Trade Center, roused by the phone ringing at 5:55 AM, I switched on the TV in time to see the second jetliner, flying at a tilt, aimed at the south tower like a barbed harpoon arrowing through the blue. It seemed at that moment as if the entire city around me were holding its breath. The bedroom window was open, but the usual white noise of a weekday waking morning was eerily absent. Somehow, in the eighteen minutes since the first strike on the north tower, everybody knew, and everybody was watching CNN. Unlike any news I can remember, news of September 11 was almost exactly simultaneous with the events themselves.

    The blatant symbolism of the attacks —transcontinental American passenger jets destroying American skyscrapers—left no room to doubt their intended target. If you happened to live in Seattle, or Portland, or San Francisco, you were not excluded: the plane-bombs were squarely directed at the great abstraction of "America," its daily economic life, its government, its military power; and every resident of the United States had reason to feel that he or she was under assault by the terrorists. September 11 was unique in this: other shocking and violent events in the American past were relatively specialized and local—the assassinations of presidents, the destruction of a naval fleet, the mass murder of children at a school, the fiery annihilation of an eccentric cult, the blowing-up of a federal building. Except when they occurred in your neighborhood or line of work, they were about other people. September 11 was different because it was so clearly and insistently about ourselves. Although only some three thousand people actually died out of a population of nearly three hundred million, everyone living in America that morning could feel that we were, in some more-than-merely- metaphoric sense, survivors.

    An unnatural quiet pervaded Seattle. Emptied of civilian aircraft, the sky was silent except for the rare snarl of a low-flying fighter jet. On Interstate 5, which bisects the city, the thin traffic moved at the solemn pace of a cortege, everyone keeping their distance, no one leaning on the horn, no one breaking ranks to get ahead. The sense of awful occasion was reinforced by the withdrawal of commercials from the networks: the sudden banishment of shrilling upbeat salesmen lent to the day the air of a Presbyterian sabbath. In the neighborhoods, strangers were talking to strangers on the street. It was much as older Londoners fondly describe the Blitz—a time when people discovered in themselves an unexpected capacity to behave as members of a warm and supportive community, huddling together in the face of a common enemy. This was the gift momentarily bestowed on us by the attacks, though it would not be long before the gift revealed itself to be a Trojan horse.

    But in the days immediately following the 11th of September America, from the perspective of Seattle, felt strangely snug and comradely, protected by its military aircraft and the red-and-white-liveried Coast Guard gunboats on Puget Sound. The President then was a relatively minor character, overshadowed by the ubiquitous figure of Rudolph Giuliani, who displayed at Ground Zero qualities that were previously kept well hidden—candor, a seeming modesty, and, most striking of all, a bleak wit as when, skin stretched taut over a face drained of color, he pushed back his Yankees cap to say, with a twisted grin, to prospective visitors to New York City, "You might actually have a better chance of getting tickets to The Producers now." Giuliani's rasping, barely inflected plainspeaking suited the country far more than George W. Bush's poorly rehearsed ghostwritten eloquence.

    That week, my compatriot Christopher Hitchens, stranded in Seattle after giving a lecture on September 10 in Walla Walla, Washing- ton, said over dinner that "at times like this, America turns into a one-party state," and reminded me of the prophecy made by Robert Lowell back in 1966, when he answered a questionnaire sent to him by the editors of Partisan Review:

    I have a gloomy premonition... that we will soon look back on this troubled moment as a golden time of freedom and license to act and speculate. One feels the sinews of the tiger, an ascetic, "moral" and authoritarian reign of piety and iron.
    The mood of our fellow diners in the restaurant was one of forced joviality —a few jokes and laughs too many were coming from the tables around us. "I think we've just entered the reign of piety and iron," Hitchens said.

    The remark rang in my head the next day, Saturday, when I drove out of Seattle with my eight-year-old daughter, on the flimsy excuse that we needed to buy eggs from a small farm in the Snoqualmie Valley, some twenty-five miles to the east. I wanted to see how rural dwellers were responding to the attacks, and we were barely out of the city when the improvised roadside shrines began, with their prayer cards, two-stick crucifixes, wilting balloons, and pendulous stalactites of colored candle wax. In the valley, it seemed every house was flying the Stars and Stripes. Flags fluttered from windows, fenceposts, clotheslines (Wal-Mart reported the sales of 500,000 American flags in the days immediately following September 11). One householder in the town of Carnation had stapled together three bedsheets to accommodate the message, painted in massive irregular black letters, GOd HElP BLeSS AMERiCA.

    We were out of luck on the eggs front: earlier in the week, a wandering gang of coyotes had slaughtered all the hens. In the light of this murderous attack, the farmer and his wife were understandably the only people I met that day for whom the events of Tuesday morning appeared to be remote, though their sadness and anger amply rivaled those of their neighbors, and the farmer's phrase "mindless killing!" was perfectly in tune with the national feeling.


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    That trip to the Snoqualmie Valley was on my mind when, on July 7, 2005, the day of the Tube bombings that killed fifty-two people, I drove out of London, again with my daughter in tow. We left the city at 3 PM (the bombs had gone off at 8:50 AM) and fed ourselves into the agonizingly slow-moving swarm of traffic on the South Circular Road. Five hours later, after a couple of brief stops, we reached the village of Aynho in Northamptonshire, less than seventy miles from London. At the pub-hotel where we found a room for the night, I took my notebook into the bar, expecting that the bombings would dominate the conversation there. Oddly, the air rang with the names of racing drivers—Schumacher, Montoya, Villeneuve, Coulthard. It took a few moments for me to realize we were just fifteen miles from Silverstone, Britain's main Formula One racetrack, on the eve of the qualifying races for Sunday's grand prix. There was no communal sense of shock, or grief, or great occasion; only a steady rumble of complaint that the enormous traffic jams following the bombings had delayed the arrival at the pub of numerous friends and family members (and providentially freed our room as the result of a last-minute cancellation).

    For the next ten days, our travels took us all over England, north and south, and it was astonishing to find how little the coordinated attacks appeared to have impinged on people's thoughts and lives. I was the bomb bore, nearly always the first to raise the subject, which elicited mostly only weary recognition and memories of the IRA bombs and bomb scares in the 1970s and early 1980s. Although the press and television were labeling the events "7/7" and giving them vast and dramatic space, the pub-crawling visitor would have found it hard to detect from the buzz of talk that anything of special significance had recently happened in England.

    It was only on July 21, when the second, failed attack took place, and we were back in London, that the mood changed and the country appeared to be genuinely rattled. But even then there was no American-style talk of "war": these were unambiguously criminal acts, to be handled by the police; and when a Brazilian electrician with no connection to the bombings, Jean Charles de Menezes, who was living in England on an expired visa, was shot to death by police officers at Stockwell Tube station in south London on July 22, the event caused outrage comparable to that aroused by the two sets of bombings themselves.

    Initially, the Blair government responded to the attacks with exemplary coolness, determinedly refusing to go along with the Bush administration's extravagant and bellicose rhetoric on the danger posed by radical Islamism. But tabloid papers like the Sun and the Daily Mail, known in the UK as the "red-tops," mounted an onslaught against Blair, accusing him of being soft on terrorism, failing to prevent terrorists settling in Britain under the guise of "asylum-seekers," and allowing the capital city to turn into "Londonistan." In August, just before he left on a family holiday at a secret location, Blair announced a large number of ill-thought-out "anti-terror" measures, which precipitated a fierce exchange between the government and the judiciary. Having shown commendable bravery and restraint in the face of the bombers, Blair, or so it seemed at the time, had quailed before the force majeure of the tabloid press.

    2.
    In 2001, piety and iron came hand in hand, but piety led the way. The roadside shrines and public prayers were part of a great outpouring of uninhibited religiosity that would have been unthinkable in a European country. On September 11 George W. Bush quoted the 23rd Psalm and spoke of the conflict (though not yet the war) between "good and evil." A Harlem gospel choir sang hymns in the ruins of the World Trade Center. Members of the US Congress sang "God Bless America" on the steps of the Capitol, and a month later passed a resolution to encourage both the use of the slogan and the singing of Irving Berlin's song in public schools. On September 16, Bush announced that America was now embarked on a "crusade":

    This is a new kind of evil, and we understand, and the American people are now beginning to understand, this crusade, this war on terrorism, is going to take a while....
    At the time, I heard it said that Bush used the word "crusade" by accident and was probably ignorant of its significance, particularly for Muslims. This seems unlikely, given the amount of writing and rewriting that goes into presidential speeches. Perhaps Bush himself was not entirely aware of what he was saying, but some White House scribe surely intended to put us at least loosely in mind of Richard Coeur de Lion:

    Richard, that robbed the lion of his heart
    And fought the holy wars in Palestine.
    —King John

    Certainly the authors of the phrase "Operation Infinite Justice" (later amended to "Operation Enduring Freedom"), used to describe the mobilization of the American military for the invasion of Afghanistan, must have known that infinite justice is an attribute of the Almighty in both fundamentalist Christian and Muslim theology. After September 11, America meant to play God in the world—not gentle Jesus, but wrathful, thunderous Jehovah.

    It took a few days before the iron of war came clearly into view. To begin with, it appeared to be a toss-up whether the attacks were an act of warfare against the US or a "crime against humanity," whose organizers should be apprehended and then tried and sentenced in the courts. Bush's first uses of the word "war" sounded more figurative than actual, as if he were talking about a war on poverty or drugs, and it wasn't until September 20, when he addressed a joint session of Congress, that he unveiled the ambitious dimensions of a new hot war, to be fought on a global scale against an enemy that "by abandoning every value except the will to power" was the true descendant of "fascism, and Nazism, and totalitarianism." For the home front, he announced the appointment of Tom Ridge as the head of the newly created Department of Homeland Security; to the troops, he said, "The hour is coming when America will act, and you will make us proud." Once again he stressed the religious component of the conflict, in a form of words that suggested a good deal of to-ing and fro-ing on the part of officials and speechwriters made nervous by the earlier use of the word "crusade": "Freedom and fear, justice and cruelty, have always been at war, and we know that God is not neutral between them."


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    Even as Bush was speaking in Washington, D.C., the rest of the country was just beginning to unclench from the extraordinary sense of bipartisan solidarity and closeness of the week and a half before. The physical distance between the two urban coasts had started to reassert itself, and by sometime in October it seemed that Seattle had actually grown further away from the East Coast than it had been before September 11. No amount of TV and newspaper coverage could keep the affront of the attacks alive for us in the way they were alive for residents of New York, Washington, D.C., and Pennsylvania: we couldn't taste the dust from Ground Zero in our throats, or be daily reminded of the gross mutilation of our skyline. In coast-to-coast phone conversations, we'd hear that our interlocutor's neighbor, cousin, or friend of a friend had died on September 11, but such reports tended only to further underline our remoteness from the events, the strong muffling effect of America's enormous geography.

    Another kind of distance was also in play. Other Democrat-voting cities were still coming gingerly to terms with the new presidential administration, but in Seattle, minds had been made up long before September 11: for reasons peculiar to the region, they detested the Bush White House. Politics in the Pacific Northwest turn less on social than on environmental issues: land use, forests, salmon, wilderness preservation. Seattle liberals are creatures of a different stripe from their counterparts in other cities—markedly illiberal in their zeal, their steely, take-no-prisoners fervor on matters like climate change, the Kyoto accords, nuclear power, logging in national forests, the Endangered Species Act, oil drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (it's an old Seattle conceit that all of Alaska is in the city's personal backyard). The Bush administration, packed with executives from the energy industry, was, from the moment of its election in 2000, the declared enemy of everything dear to Seattle's liberal heart.

    So the impulse to rally around the presidency in the wake of September 11 was weaker here than elsewhere, even on the urban West Coast. Blanket mistrust of the Bush administration's motives and intentions extended automatically from its energy policies to its "war on terror" and its invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq. Provincial isolation from the attacks played some part, but the deep and angry ideological rift between the city and the administration was at least equally important in shaping Seattle's reluctance to sign up for Bush's war.


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    It's tempting to remember the last days of September and the first days of October 2001, when Operation Enduring Freedom was taking rapid shape, as a time of broad national consensus, but it did not feel like that in Seattle, where people still clung to the notion that the proper way of dealing with Osama bin Laden was for the world's police forces to combine, winkle him out of his hiding place, and put him on trial at the International Court of Justice in The Hague. The brutal igneous geography of Afghanistan, which had defeated the Soviets in the 1980s and the British a hundred years before, it was thought, would lead American forces into a "quagmire," code word for Vietnam though curiously inappropriate for Afghanistan's rocky and generally unboggy terrain. Pacifist voices—louder and more numerous here than on the East Coast— argued that the answer to violence was not escalation of violence.

    One aspect of the coming invasion that did gain wide support on this coast was the feminist case for liberating women from their iniquitous repression by Mullah Omar and the Taliban. But a review of editorials and readers' letters published in Seattle's two daily papers, the Times and Post-Intelligencer, between September 25 and October 8 (the day after the bombing began) shows a city deeply skeptical of the need for military as opposed to legal action, and consistently suspicious of the true intent of the administration as it led the country to war against the Taliban.

    Within hours of the first rain of cruise missiles on Taliban positions, the Post-Intelligencer ran an editorial called "This Will Be a Very Long War," in which it acknowledged that a military response to the "vile crime committed on American soil" was "justifiable." The assault on Afghanistan was "one salvo in a war that may take years to win, if it can be won at all," and the uncertainty raised in that phrase suffused the piece. "But we lose the moral high ground if our pursuit of justice is conducted unjustly," the writers said, raising the powerful suspicion that such unjust conduct might be more likely than otherwise: "The failure to be true to our own moral values will give the lie to our vision of justice"—a sentence that now reads like simple clairvoyance, in the light of Bagram, Abu Ghraib, and Guantánamo Bay.

    We trust that the order to begin was preceded by elaborate caution and extensive intelligence. And when it's over we expect a full explanation of the mission's justification and intent and an accurate accounting of its results.
    The words "trust" and "expect" carry with them such a strong whiff of "mistrust" and "doubt" that this queasy endorsement of the President ranks alongside Mark Antony's endorsement of Brutus.


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    If the city was dubious and unhappy about the invasion of Afghanistan, it found no merit whatever in the invasion of Iraq. The local press and local politicians, such as Congressman Jim McDermott and Senator Patty Murray, were among the first in the country to label the supposed connection between the Saddam regime and al-Qaeda as an opportunist fiction. On weapons of mass destruction, Seattle was more inclined to listen sympathetically to Hans Blix than to the President. As for the rhetorically high-minded part of the enterprise—the liberation of the oppressed people of Iraq—it may be that Seattle, a city crammed with philanthropic non-profits, many of them devoted to supplying food and medical aid to the developing world, found it harder than most to accept the idea that tanks, bombs, and missiles were likely to improve the lot of the unfortunates for whom rich Seattle, with its continuous round of lakeside social fund-raisers, had a corporate tender heart. At any rate, from summer's end in 2002, the No Iraq War signs began to sprout so thickly that in my own neighborhood the absence of a sign looked like a gesture of political dissent.

    Always the vantage point critically alters the character of the view. Seattle habitually looks westward to Asia and has its back turned to Washington, D.C., "the other Washington," as people like to call it here—a distant, generally tiresome city, given to much unnecessary interference in Seattle's international trading activities. When Seattle looks at the war on terror, the Patriot Act, the Bush administration's foreign policy, it's more likely to hold up a mirror to its own face than to focus a telescope on the eastern horizon.

    The threat of terrorism is a matter of anxious concern here: Seattle's docks, crowded with ships from China, Japan, South Korea, the Philippines, are separated from its business district only by a somewhat rickety highway viaduct, erected in 1953 and weakened by intermittent earthquake damage. Seattle also fears what might come from the sky, for it is uneasily conscious that it's the nearest metropolitan city in the US to Pyongyang, and thoughts of North Korea's nuclear capacities are more likely to disturb Seattle's sleep than that of cities on the Atlantic coast.

    When John Ashcroft's Justice Department targeted Arab visitors and immigrants for "registration," the move awakened in Seattle a guilty memory of its participation in the 1942 internment of several thousands of its own Japanese-American citizens (they were first transported to a kind of temporary Guantánamo Bay in the southern suburbs of the city, named Camp Harmony by the US Army). More than most cities, Seattle has reason to quail at the prospect of America going on a witch hunt for strangers in its midst, and its deep aversion to the Patriot Act ("It's become a patriotic act to oppose the Patriot Act," wrote the editorial board of the Seattle Post-Intelligencer in the summer of 2003) has complex roots, of which reflexive liberal principle is only one. There is an almost fanatical regard for privacy in this sprawling, low-rise city where, seen from the air, every house appears to shun its neighbor from behind a dense shelter-belt of inky shrubs and evergreens. Ashcroft's enthusiastic (and notably Calvinistic) vision of a surveillance society, with mailmen and meter-readers reporting back on the lives of private citizens, no sin-concealing curtains in windows, every soul open to the gaze of government as if to God, was much like Cotton Mather's dream of a reformed New England, but it went down very badly indeed in Seattle.

    Through 2002 and 2003, Seattle fell further and further out of step with the Bush administration and its responses, foreign and domestic, to September 11. At the same time it was also increasingly alienating itself from its own relatively conservative rural and suburban hinterland. I sometimes felt as if I were living on an offshore island, looking across a mysteriously widening strait to a mainland coast that was fast turning mauve in the distance.

    I have been visiting the US for more than thirty years and have lived here for the last fifteen: during the last four of those years, America, in its public and official face, has become more foreign to me by the day—which wouldn't be worth reporting, except that the sentiment is largely shared by so many Americans. The grammar and vocabulary of the language spoken by the administration and by a large part of the press differ so fundamentally from that spoken by people in my intellectual, political, and, as it happens, geographical neighborhood that debate between the two has become like the Englishman's idea of speaking a foreign language, which is to shout ever more loudly in his own. There's no possible negotiation between a phrase like "freedom and democracy on the march" and its cognate in the other language, "murderous chaos to which there is no foreseeable end." To that extent, Hardball and Crossfire are true mirrors of the present state of public discourse, and writing in this climate is a curious activity, since one knows that what might strike one reader as a mild statement of fact is likely to be read by another as treasonous—or, in my case, deportation-worthy—balderdash.

    3.
    In the last four years the zillion tendrils of the war on terror have so grown to envelop us that they pervade everyday life, subtly and not-so-subtly changing its essential texture. The simple sight of a ship rounding the headland and entering the bay means something different now; so does the drone of an aircraft engine at an unexpected hour, or off a usual flight path. A freight train, hauling at walking speed a string of pressurized tank cars through downtown on the Burlington Northern Line, has a new and sinister significance. People look differently at strangers, especially swarthy strangers with accents, otherwise known as "men of Middle Eastern appearance." Ferries, bridges, office towers rouse thoughts, however passing or dismissed as absurd, that would have been inconceivable four years ago.

    The provisions of the first Patriot Act could extend to such hitherto unregarded actions as the checking-out of a book from the local library. Concrete barriers go up outside public buildings, supposedly meant to deter car bombers. Along the waterfront, loudspeakers, financed by the Department of Homeland Security, are in place, ready to order instant evacuation. Sniffer dogs, surveillance cameras, magnetometers, razor wire, Bio-Watch air-sampling devices, have become as familiar and unremarkable as stoplights and fire hydrants. In its role as theatrical impresario, the DHS has mounted a series of expensively produced mock terror attacks across the United States. None of this probably does much to hinder acts of real terrorism, but it all helps to assure us that we live in unprecedented times, a newly hazardous and frightening world, dependent on the long parental arm of government to shield us from our would-be killers.

    Meanwhile the Bush administration's prosecution of the war on terror at home and abroad has drained attention and resources from other—just as pressing—issues. In January 2004, Sir David King, chief scientific adviser to the British government, wrote in Nature that "climate change is the most severe problem that we are facing today—more serious even than the threat of terrorism." A month later, a study by Peter Schwartz and Doug Randall, "An Abrupt Climate-Change Scenario and Its Implications for National Security," painted an extreme worst-case picture of flood, famine, and nuclear warfare, brought about by a sudden increase in global warming. What was primarily interesting about this paper was that it was financed, and released, by the Pentagon. What was secondarily interesting is that although it gained much notice in Europe, it was barely mentioned in the American press.

    It's in ways like this that the war on terror increasingly distorts our view of the domestic scene. Under Bush's self-styled "wartime presidency," the composition of the American landscape is steadily altering. What was once in the foreground is moving into the background, and vice versa. Our world is being continuously rearranged around us in deceptively small increments. Though we like to pretend that the emerging new order is "normal," that daily life proceeds much as it always did, with a few small novel inconveniences, we keep on bumping uncomfortably into the furniture. It seems important to remember that this strange and disorienting redisposition of things is not the inevitable consequence of the September 11 attacks, but has been engineered by a political administration that could, and should, have responded to the attacks quite differently. For a sense of what alternative responses the Bush administration might have made, see the deeply thoughtful international colloquium, Club de Madrid Series on Democracy and Terrorism, published in June 2005 and available online at safe-democracy.org. It is a model of the kind of informed discussion that should have taken place in the United States before the Patriot Act was rushed through Congress, and in Britain before Tony Blair came up with his hasty threats of anti-terror legislation.

    Lowell's "gloomy premonition" turns out to have been full of uncanny prescience. The greatest military power in history has shackled its deadly hardware to the rhetoric of fundamentalist Christianity, with all its righteously simplistic moralism, in a war of "good against evil" and "freedom against fear." Vietnam, though it was a terrible political and strategic miscalculation, was not like this. Yet American military iron is not an inexhaustible commodity, and even its piety, in the absence of all the promised miracles, looks now as if it just might be on the verge of running out.
     

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