Thunder Across the Land

Author: Andrew H. Malcolm

Sept11memorial Photo by Barbara Johnston

Editor’s Note: The life-altering impact of the coronavirus pandemic brings to mind for many the upheaval in the wake of the terrorist attacks on September 11, 2001. In this Magazine Classic, written in the weeks after that sudden convulsion of American life, Andrew H. Malcolm raises questions that reverberate today: “What’s really changed now for each of us and for America? What will be temporarily different for us now? And what will be permanently changed? So many things in so many big and little ways, some quite personal, some institutional, some communal, some significant, some superficial.” 

We were sitting around the dinner table one evening years ago in Tokyo when suddenly, across the room, a large framed painting fell from the wall and crashed to the floor. The few seconds of silent, stunned familial disbelief were interrupted by my shocked 3-year-old son. Eyes fixed on the fallen artwork, he asked, “Why dat do dat?”

That, I must confess, was the initial pedestrian thought flashing through my head a quarter-century later — Why dat do dat? — as I tried to grasp what we were seeing live on television the morning of September 11. The World Trade Center’s twin towers, one after the other, were collapsing incongruously into themselves in slow-motion at breakfast cereal time on the West Coast. The eyes of another son, this one 13, were fixed on the screen. “What just happened?” he said.

“Something very bad,” I replied.

We all have — and will carry with us forever — a very specific memory of where we were at that time of history’s most widely viewed mass murder and what we thought and what we did. And someday, the good Lord willing and American resolve enabling, we’ll look back on September 11, 2001, and attempt a description for uncomprehending grandchildren, who may listen respectfully but won’t really get it because they’ll be enjoying a whole new set of comfortable assumptions in their fresh freedom-filled lives.

But what’s really changed now for each of us and for America? What will be temporarily different for us now? And what will be permanently changed? So many things in so many big and little ways, some quite personal, some institutional, some communal, some significant, some superficial. As former Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak confided weeks later, “I don’t think any of us yet realize the full magnitude of the moment.”

First, what has dramatically changed is a whole set of mutually shared social assumptions — what we each knew individually and collectively was certain in our lives, what we knew was possible, given more inevitable progress, and what we for sure knew was impossible. We knew there was evil in the world; we’d seen it on an organized basis overseas on the History Channel and on the scant gory tales of suicide bombers abroad that seeped through the celebrity clutter and barrages of bizarre features in broadcast news. We’d seen evil, too, at home in serial killers or parents who kill their children. Some of us — actually, many of us — even paid money in recent years to watch evil play out in certain movies safely occurring up there on the screen. It was called entertainment.

Some could do that. Others dismissed it as the meaningless visual roller coaster thrills of a pop culture that had, over a quarter-century, grown extremely comfortable, even bored at times, with itself, with trying to top itself in a desperate quest for attention and, of course, money. How else to explain the almost frantic search by some for thrills — on rides, in activities, in substance abuse. The kinds of things, you may recall reading, that marked the 1920s. At times now it seemed that everything, even real-life unscripted events, had become entertainment. There was the O.J. trial and the Monica scandal and the Elian Gonzalez extradition and the Chandra Levy-Gary Condit puzzle and any number of other episodes in our national soap opera. We even watched “reality TV,” petty, banal entertainment viewed voyeuristically, not realizing the real reality that awaited us as involuntary voyeurs on that sunny September day.

For over a generation now, Americans have assumed that next year would be better. Always. Our children would be smarter than we were. And healthier. We’d provide more for them. We’d live longer than our parents. Our kids would live longer and better than we would. There’d be new inventions to marvel at, new gadgets to get. Every workday would end with a safe homecoming.

Oh, we knew there were troubles somewhere, often several somewheres far away. But that was, well, far away. TV news drastically reduced its coverage overseas because it was, well, far away, expensive and not directly relevant to the good life and the obviously more important stories right here at home. A study by the Center for Media and Public Affairs found that by September 11 network evening newscasts had invested nearly three hours of coverage on Chandra Levy, three times the coverage of some foreigner named Osama bin Laden.

Once we lived with the threat of sudden annihilating nuclear war every single day. But lately all we had to fuss about were titillating trivia and mundane everyday concerns that could, in the absence of things that really mattered, seem like actual crises. Of course, there were negative blips — inflation, transitory stock market tumbles, brief violent chapters in places like Grenada and Panama, frightening flurries about Three Mile Island, Chernobyl, weird African viruses, energy shortages real or imagined. Progress could be irregular but it was certainly immutable in technology, science, medicine, prosperity. Even the Berlin wall and communism crumbled, as predicted.

With peace and freedom surefire givens, nothing couldn’t be conquered if enough resources and research was applied. Problems like cancer and AIDS could be stubborn, but they would be solved. The real question was one of priorities — which problems to solve in which order.

And then in an instant before our disbelieving eyes up in those same sudden pillars of dirty smoke went an invisible panoply of shared certainties and assumptions. Suddenly, a toxic combination of events shattered our territorial invulnerability, probably forever. Real people, who’d been living among us, hijacked jetliners not to extort and escape but to intentionally fly into large buildings. And then these symbols of steely might fell down. Hundreds more people, who’d been living remarkably normal lives also among us, died in those fleeting moments than perished in our nation’s previously deadliest day, the Battle of Antietam during the Civil War.

What mental cancer could metastasize into such mass murder in the name of any God? Humans are most frightened by invisible things — in the dark, under the water, in the air and, we now know, deep within our own minds. How could such high-octane evil exist among us so invisibly? And use our open society against us? What else were we missing? What more might the incinerated hijackers’ hidden colleagues do? And who are they anyway?

Americans have a predictable reaction to such shocks. The first is to help stricken neighbors in generous, creative and happily anonymous ways, and we saw this massive financial and emotional outpouring such that the New York mayor or Red Cross could once only dream of. In olden days — that is, before September 11 — most Americans hated New York City and the Yankees. In happy times, most comfortable Americans wouldn’t walk downstairs at work to donate blood; suddenly, united in shock, most Americans were praising Gotham’s controversial mayor with tear-filled eyes and were themselves standing for hours outdoors in hot sun to bleed into sterile bags for people they would never know.

The second standard American reaction, starting with the Revolution and that crazy King George III, is to try and demonize our enemy, usually in the form of one quite probably unbalanced individual. Americans don’t fight well against amorphous enemies or movements like infidels or rebels. So we construct conspiracies to combat — evil Nazis, atheistic Communists, immoral drug lords or medieval fundamentalists united by religious fervor — and then we must put a face on top to shoot at — Hitler, Tojo, Stalin, Khrushchev, Noriega, bin Laden. It’s easier to fight against an identifiable person, especially in the age of television that must have faces to film because manifestos make poor moving pictures.

Historically, Americans have not been good haters. It takes something very bad — a sneak attack works quite well — to rile them sufficiently to earn a truly overwhelming victory. In fact, Admiral Isoroku Yamamoto wrote ruefully of this as his fleet sailed away from Hawaii in 1941. Typically, however, Americans choose to help the vanquished while getting back to the popular, lucrative entertainment at hand — the movies and the TV — and exporting it to a less-crass world that surely will be impressed. Americans even provide aid to peoples who defeat America, as in Vietnam. Some see all this as weakness.

Little of this is likely to change in the post-9/11 world. We revolted against Britain, now our closest ally. Americans invaded their two geographic neighbors, Canada and Mexico; now, they’re America’s No.1 and 2 trading partners. No. 3 is the island the United. States dropped two atom bombs on.

In the early weeks after the four terrorist plane crashes, a new emotional correctness washed over the land and its conversations. Humor was muted. Any joy almost required an apology. The Emmy Awards, that orgy of self-congratulation about TV on TV, was postponed repeatedly as inappropriate, as if the parade of cleavage, naked navels, blatant causes and open self-importance ever were appropriate. Americans opted for the familiar — on TV, in movie rentals, for social company. Leisure travel plummeted, especially by air. The wince factor caused violent or terrorist movies to be postponed or canceled, at least for now. Shaken Hollywood professionals were uncharacteristically decorous and patriotic. Privately, they thought popular entertainment would return over time to its violent norms. “America,” one well-known producer whispered, “wasn’t settled by dandies saying please.”

But having witnessed — LIVE — the obscenity of actual deadly violence, who’d choose to watch the staged kind, at least for now? Those were not stuntmen on fire falling from skyscrapers. Having seen squads of firefighters march to their deaths in those urban holocausts, would large numbers of surviving Americans munch popcorn while watching partially clad 20-somethings preen and chatter in the artificial amorous competitions of so-called reality TV? Could — or should — a pretend Survivor still sell once we’ve survived the real thing — and seen so many genuine innocents who did not?
A level of American innocence was also incinerated in those fires. We would not see the firefighters and office workers stride out of the smoke in slo-mo, soiled but safe, in time for the credits, a rash of commercials and the late evening news. “More than 3,000 people feared lost are miraculously rescued at the World Trade Center — film at 11.”

In the long run, would post-9/11 popular culture rise to the creative challenge of describing and interpreting the realities of the less secure, more complex world we suddenly realized we had been inhabiting? It’s not an easy task to interpret a sudden new time. It would require real thought and less formulaic visual eye candy of the physical-beauty and exploding-gunpowder varieties. But would such times produce a new All Quiet on the Western Front or simply more Green Beret movies?

As America’s primary intelligence and law enforcement agencies openly advertise for people with foreign language skills, it seems likely that Americans’ awareness of the outside world will grow, at least for now, if only accidentally from following war news. Uncertainty — economic, political, military, even the possibility of renewed domestic terrorism — takes some real getting used to. But the demand for serious reading on new topics of currency at, for instance, and the restrained call for retaliation hint at a new sophistication more patient than Americans have seemed capable of or comfortable with in the past.

Judging by turnout at churches, prayers in public and private, and the singing of “God Bless America,” religion surged to the forefront of America’s consciousness. And awareness of other faiths grew too. In one old episode of The Simpsons the minister listed Hinduism under “Miscellaneous Religions,” despite its 750 million adherents. Safe to say that as weeks of news coverage and home study stretched into months, mass ignorance of Islam at least has declined. After decades of being quiet and confined to specific holidays, blatant patriotism suddenly has become acceptable, with thousands of cars sporting flags. Even the Rose Bowl Parade altered its theme to produce more red, white and blue.

For decades “Afghanistanism” was a term in U.S. journalism to denote minute, meaningless coverage of minor affairs far away that had no relevance to American life. Suddenly, Afghanistan was still far away but directly relevant to everyone’s minds as a battlefield for our troops and safe harbor for the plotters of September 11. The harsh, hostile country seems, frankly, like some bizarre national haunted house full of chronic combat, constant double-crosses, ethnic killings, crumbled buildings, turbaned men with scraggly beards seeking to avenge wrongs from a generation ago. Few things seem to grow there but hate — and casualties.

Immediately, the terror attacks prompted increased security measures at home, which were generally accepted even by earnest civil libertarians. The House of Representatives, which remained open for business even during the Civil War when enemy troops were just down the road, saw some Senate workers exposed to anthrax and shut down for five days, not the best symbol of courage as other Americans were urged to return to normalcy. The terror attacks also shuffled priorities in U.S. foreign relations, prompting hasty re-examinations of policy differences and animosities that seemed less important after September 11, when we needed more allies to combat international terror.

At home, the mental wounds of terrorism are likely to remain raw for some time. Slowly, we emerge from a social funerealness only to encounter the fear of bioterrorism in the form of anthrax. The perpetrator’s identity matters less than the reality that, suddenly, it isn’t just a careening airliner that ignited fear but something as simple as an envelope, infected with lethal spores.

Now add to that list the fear of terror. Forever we lived collectively with a set of unstated understandings, setting the boundaries on what was possible and impossible. Suicidal airplane hijackers flying fuel-filled jetliners into towering skyscrapers, the Pentagon and Pennsylvania mud was way beyond those boundaries. The violent explosions of those airplanes and our assumptions created a frightening boundary-free zone in which, suddenly, anything seemed possible. Maybe even likely. Our nimble, absorbent minds processed that shock and started wondering what other awful things, once inconceivable, now might be conceived by twisted minds elsewhere? Or their co-conspirators nearby? Who should we be suspecting? What should we ban? Who could argue, after experiencing September 11, that anything remained impossible?

Which, of course, is what terrorists count on. Being few and suicidal, they can’t win a conventional war, a struggle of minds or ideas or even tanks. They cannot, in fact, win without our acquiescence in falling victim to the invisible, deadly spores of fear. So we are invisibly invited to become complicit in their conspiracy against ourselves. All the terrorists need to do is confuse and divide. We face a frontless war involving secret soldiers never in uniform. A transparent conspiracy turning our own openness against us, where we train our enemies to fly airplanes so they can kill thousands. Now, how open to remain and how closed to get in order to be safe in our same ideals? Fear and division leads to panic, which leads to the destructive domain of every-man-for-himself.

We likely face a considerable period of unease, punctuated by eruptions of irrationality as this pained society haltingly assembles a rewritten set of boundaries to guide and comfort us. This will take time, determination, patience and a recognition that any victories would be less visible than defeats, not a traditional American formula for successful policymaking. How does an open society raised on acceptance of diversity define “evildoers,” let alone kill and defeat them? This period of unease and disquiet resembles a kind of perpetual national moving day where all our familiar possessions and emotional landmarks are not where they should be; we find strange new things strewn about and others inexplicably broken and no one in sight to blame.

Now, there is some fear of flying or even going far from home or entering tall buildings. Once familiar and enveloping crowds now look to some like inviting targets. And regular envelopes become lethal weapons. Family members check in with each other by phone more often for no particular but very understandable reasons.

Presiding over it all is a new president whose election was historically controversial and whose intellectual credentials were questioned by some. But George W. Bush in days accumulated a favorable rating of 93 percent, highest in the history of polling.

What this President Bush knew from the former President Bush — and what a generation of baby boomers may have forgotten or never learned — was that Americans had had sets of assumptions shattered many times in their history. And lived to build new ones. Unsinkable sunken ships. Pearl Harbor attacks. Assassinations. Global depressions. Global wars. The gray-skied spectre of instant nuclear annihilation. There was a long wartime in America when the simple appearance of a Western Union messenger caused entire neighborhoods to fall into the silent assumption of a distant death of someone close to home.

From those painful episodes and their painstaking recoveries came the comfortable assumptions that were shattered on September 11.

But, even as we feel sad and pained and angry and betrayed, even as we begin the long easily interrupted process of rebuilding local buildings and national assumptions, let us also ponder a moment what has not changed. We did not lose all of our assumptions that day last fall. We saw public servants of the hired, elected, appointed, off-duty and volunteer kind rush to work and perform heroically.

We heard tales of those airborne innocents about to die leaving messages of love on the ground and mutinying against their hijackers. Our government institutions survived and excelled. So, marvelously, did compassion for Americans and, grandly, even for the starving residents of the distant country that harbored the scheming terrorists. Americans donated hundreds of millions of dollars to relief funds and to the children of Afghanistan.

The lasting judgment of history and our sense of self will not be based on the shock and sadness of recent months, as immense as it still may feel. Instead, the judgment will be based on how each of us individually and collectively endure, resist fearing the invisible and contribute simply and personally to the slow reconstruction of our stable society in the coming months and perhaps years.

There will be more trying times certainly. But if we persevere as our forefathers and foremothers did in their eras of trial and tribulations, perhaps the fundamental question of future historians examining history’s longest-surviving democracy will be: How’d they do that?

Andrew H. Malcolm is a member of the Editorial Board of the Los Angeles Times. At The New York Times he was a correspondent, editor and columnist. He was also Executive Assistant and Communications Director for Governor Marc Racicot of Montana and Deputy Communications Manager of the Bush presidential campaign. He has written 10 books and, he says, is slowly surviving his fourth teenager.