Mourning In America

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In a week when everything seemed to happen for the first time ever, the candle became a weapon of war. Our enemies had turned the most familiar objects against us, turned shaving kits into holsters and airplanes into missiles and soccer coaches and newlyweds into involuntary suicide bombers. So while it was up to the President and his generals to plot the response, for the rest of us who are not soldiers and have no cruise missiles, we had candles, and we lit them on Friday night in an act of mourning, and an act of war.

That is because we are fighting not one enemy but two: one unseen, the other inside. Terror on this scale is meant to wreck the way we live our lives--make us flinch when a siren sounds, jump when a door slams and think twice before deciding whether we really have to take a plane. If we falter, they win, even if they never plant another bomb. So after the early helplessness--What can I do? I've already given blood--people started to realize that what they could do was exactly, as precisely as possible, whatever they would have done if all this hadn't happened.

That was the spirit building in New York and Washington and all across the country, faith and fear and resolve in a tight braid. Because the killers who hate us did the unthinkable, nothing is unthinkable now. A plume of grill smoke venting from a Manhattan steak house leads to the evacuation of midtown office towers. Does every unclaimed package tick? After the Pentagon was hit, generals called their families and told them not to drink the water, it could be poisoned. Sales of guns and gas masks spiked. The NFL canceled its games for the first time ever; bomb scares emptied 90 sites on Thursday in New York City alone. People wore sneakers with their suits in case they had to fly fast down the stairs. Even after a SWAT team stormed a plane on the tarmac at Kennedy Airport to detain what it feared was the next wave of killers, no one had imagined this was over. It isn't. It may never be. We are on our way to a different place, and we will never hear the words of the songs the same way.

Oh Beautiful, for Patriots' dream, that sees beyond the years Thine Alabaster cities gleam undimmed by human tears.

The rescue effort had not stopped, even as it grew more dangerous. Lower Manhattan was a sharp steel forest where volunteers and fire fighters dug around the clock without rest. Doctors at St. Vincent's Hospital told of the fire fighter who had to carry out the decapitated body of his captain. The search dogs were overwhelmed; there was just too much flesh to smell. One emerged with a torn, blackened teddy bear in its mouth. Rescuers found the bodies of airline passengers strapped in their seats, a flight attendant with her hands bound. Doctors at the triage stations grieved that there were not more survivors to treat. All they could do was wash the grit out of the rescuers' eyes. Every so often the Klaxon sounded, another fractured building about to faint. Medics had to keep moving the morgue. Even the rescuers had to be rescued from the hidden caves, the shifting rubble, the filthy air. When the rains came Thursday night the peril merely increased, as the ash turned to porridge and the fires hissed and spat.

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