America Will Never Be the Same

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For Americans, September 11, 2001, will go down in history as a day the world changed. Like December 7, 1941 — the day that will live in infamy — the attacks on targets in New York and Washington will resonate throughout the nation. If anything, today’s events may prove to be even more shocking than that on Pearl Harbor. In 1941, the Japanese air force launched itself against military targets on an island — not yet a state — in the middle of the Pacific. This morning’s terrorism was directed at civilians, in perhaps the most densely inhabited chunk of real state in the nation’s largest city.

By 11:00 the scene in mid-town Manhattan was other-worldly: "Like living through a disaster movie," said one New Yorker. To look south down 6th Avenue, one of those great Manhattan canyons, was to enter the realm of unreality. Great clouds of smoke, in a palette running from white, through gray, to black, billowed where the twin towers of the World Trade Center had stood. New Yorkers stood around, some weeping, others holding a hand over their mouth in the universal signal of shock. People pressed mobile phones to their ears, calling loved ones (though many of the mobile networks were overloaded.) For a while, all bridges and tunnels off the island were closed, turning Manhattan into the world’s richest prison. And everyone went through a awful mental checklist; which friend, neighbor, or relative, worked in the Trade Center?

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At around 12:30, I did a radio interview with the BBC, whose anchor suggested that Americans had traditionally had a sense of "invulnerability." Not so; in the last decade, whether because of the first attack on the World Trade Center in 1993, the threat to blow up trans-Pacific flights, the bombings of the American embassies in Nairobi and Dar es Salaam in 1998, or the attack on the Cole in Aden harbor this year, Americans have understood that they could be a target. The degree of security in government offices and at airports is of a degree unimaginable only 20 years ago, when you could wander around federal government buildings almost at will. But no amount of understanding could suffice to prepare Americans for the horror they have had to cope with today.

I heard the first demand for retaliation before I had even got into New York — on the train into work, when the first reports of the initial attack on the Trade Center were coming through on passengers’ mobile phones. Such demand will doubtless increase in volume and intensity. Yet the war against terrorism, Americans will learn, is not like World War II, the "good war," the war of "greatest generation." Ending terrorism is necessarily a messy, uncertain, forensic business, and one where the desire for clean military conclusions is mixed up with the contingencies of international politics. It is a war with villains, but one where the space for heroes is limited.

Heroes, that is, of the military kind. Yet as Manhattan stood still this morning, the everyday heroes where already about the work — sirens wailing, the police, fire services and ambulances headed downtown, and the hospitals readied themselves for putting into real-life practice the emergency drills for which they had long prepared. For the doctors and nurses, the fire crews and the police, this is a day that will lodge in the memory for ever. So it will for all of us in New York with less demanding and vital responsibilities, as we think of and pray for those charged with recovering the dead, rescuing the injured, and comforting a city in shock.