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September 12, 2001


An Unfathomable Attack

Remember the ordinary, if you can. Remember how normal New York City seemed at sunrise yesterday, as beautiful a morning as ever dawns in early September. The polls had opened for a primary election, and if the day seemed unusual in any way, that was the reason — the collective awareness that the night would be full of numbers. All the innumerable habits and routines that define a city were unbroken. Everyone was preoccupied, in just the way we usually call innocence.

And by 10:30 a.m. all that had gone. Lower Manhattan had become an ashen shell of itself, all but a Pompeii under the impact of a terrorist attack involving two airliners that crashed into the World Trade Center and then brought its twin towers down. In Washington, a third plane had plunged into the Pentagon. The president was for a long while out of sight, his plane seeming to hop around the middle of the country in search of security. For all Americans, the unimaginable became real.

In his evening speech, George W. Bush said yesterday was a day we would never forget. It was, in fact, one of those moments in which history splits, and we define the world as "before" and "after." As the scenes of the explosions replayed themselves on television throughout the day, the shock only deepened as we began to perceive the suffering those pictures from New York and Washington concealed — office workers at the World Trade Center, caught in the collapsing lattices of glass and steel, and the unbelieving passengers aboard the second airliner as it swooped below the smoke in the north tower, already burning, and plunged into the southern one.

Last night was full of numbers, but they were the numbers of the dead and wounded, a list still stunningly incomplete and likely to remain so for days to come. Every routine, every habit this city knew was fractured yesterday. If a flight full of commuters can be turned into a missile of war, everything is dangerous. If four planes can be taken over simultaneously by suicidal hijackers, then we can never be quite sure again that any bad intention can be thwarted, no matter how irrational or loathsome. We have nearly all had occasion to wonder how civilians who suddenly found their country at war and themselves under attack managed to frame some memory of life as it once was. Now we know. We look back at sunrise yesterday through pillars of smoke and dust, down streets snowed under with the atomized debris of the skyline, and we understand that everything has changed.

As distinctive as the World Trade Center was in its dominance over the city, it was also a profoundly ordinary place. This we learned for the first time when it was bombed in 1993 and out of its stairwells and exits came our friends and neighbors, smudged and grimacing. It was also, as now appears too plainly, shockingly naked against the sky, its only real defense the happy confidence that there were some things that no human being would want to do, and others that none could possibly carry off.

Commentators throughout the day yesterday dwelled on the scale of the planning this terrorist mission must have required. But it is just as important to consider the intensity of the hatred it took to bring it off. It is a hatred that exceeds the conventions of warfare, that knows no limits, abides by no agreements. We had presumed that the very excess of such emotions made them erratic, that instability and inefficiency were securely coupled. But that was when we lived on the other side of history's rift.

What we live with now, beyond shock and beyond the courage witnessed on the streets in New York and Washington yesterday, is an urge for reprisal. But this is an age when even revenge is complicated, when it is hard to match the desire for retribution with the need for certainty. We suffer from an act of war without any enemy nation with which to do battle. The same media that brought us the pictures of a collapsing World Trade Center shows us the civilians who live in the same places that terrorists may dwell, whose lives are just as ordinary and just as precious as the ones that we have lost. That leaves us all, for now, with fully burdened emotions, undiminished by anything but the passage of the few hours that have elapsed since midmorning yesterday. There is a world of consoling to be done.

(c) Copy right New York Times

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