Everyone needs a well of hope. Did you hear that there was a 70-year-old man on a top floor of one of the towers who managed to surf the crumbling building all the way down to the street, surviving with nothing more than two broken legs? We would love to believe what we cannot imagine is true. We keep giving blood, out of faith that the rescue workers will yet find someone whose life it will save. The search dogs digging through the World Trade Center crypt have become so discouraged by their failure, day after day, to find anyone alive that rescue workers have taken to burying themselves under blankets and allowing the dogs to sniff them out and "save" them, while others watch and cheer and pat the dogs on the back.
If only they could do the same for the rest of us. We are all in the Third Tower now, the one built instantly from the rubble of the other two. We have been "awakened to danger," the President said, have heard the planes and seen the flames and are uncertain about what to do next. We're told to go about our business; we want to head for the stairs. When millions of us all imagine in the same week what we would say in our last cell-phone call to our family and friends, something in our lives, and our nation's, has changed forever.
People diagnosed with a serious disease talk about how it rewires them, lifts them to a different place where every day is a gift - and you don't know how many more you'll get. So you are overwhelmed by your children's skin and the taste of the garlic and the way the dirt smells on a rainy day, and you marvel at all the things you stopped noticing a long time ago. That is usually a private journey, shared with closest friends. We are now taking that trip together.
It has become a time of homecoming and housecleaning, of fathers calling their estranged sons and making confessions, trying to put things right; of old friends getting past small grudges that don't matter anymore and probably never did; of couples renewing their vows and deciding it's O.K. to go in late for work. Single twentysomethings in Manhattan whose families live far away have started having sleepovers, like in junior high. Eighty-year-old parents, the generation that thought it had won the Last Battle, call their grown children every night and cry.
And so President Bush faced a transcendent challenge Thursday night, to address a nation in all its grief and anger and confusion over what comes next. It's hard to plan D-day against an enemy with no beaches and no borders, and when wise heads counsel that the most effective counterattack may be the least publicly satisfying kind - the quiet intelligence and financial and psychological warfare that can best "drain the swamp" where the terrorists hide. Would a large-scale attack demonstrate American resolve or play into the hands of those hoping to create a martyr? "Not only do you need the courage of your convictions," Adlai Stevenson once said. "Sometimes you need the courage of your doubts."
But when the President spoke, those doubts seemed resolved, and the country was ready to commence the largest town hall meeting in our history. At the hockey rink in the First Union Center in Philadelphia, the Rangers and Flyers were between periods when the image of Bush before the Congress appeared on the Jumbotron. After a few minutes, the players returned to the ice, the image disappeared - and the fans booed mightily. "Leave it on!" they chanted. So the skaters went back to their benches, and the arena fell silent. When the address was over, the teams skated back onto the ice, shook hands, declared the game over and called it a tie.
The way Bush let us know what he expected of us was to go first - rise to this test, grow into the job. He told the Taliban the terms on which their survival depended: Hand over Osama bin Laden, or share his fate. He told Muslims at home and abroad that we are not at war with Islam but with those who desecrate their peaceful faith. "We are not deceived by their pretenses to piety. We have seen their kind before. They are the heirs of all the murderous ideologies of the 20th century ... They follow in the path of fascism, Nazism and totalitarianism. And they will follow that path all the way to where it ends - in history's unmarked grave of discarded lies."
It wasn't just that his words were stirring; he was showing us what a wartime President looks like, what most of us have seen only in newsreels until now. He told "every nation in every region" that they now have a decision to make: "Either you are with us, or you are with the terrorists." He told our soldiers, "Be ready. The hour is coming when America will act." He told Americans that this is going to be a long campaign that will test both our resources and our will. "Freedom and fear are at war," he declared. "We will not tire. We will not falter, and we will not fail." And even as he spoke, the U.S.S. Theodore Roosevelt steamed toward the Mediterranean and points east, and more than 100 warplanes moved into position.
There are already casualties at home. "We are in a fight for our principles," the President said, "and our first responsibility is to live by them." America is most proud of qualities that proved most vulnerable: our embrace of people of every faith and color, our appreciation for dissent as essential to democratic wisdom. Barbara Lee, Democrat of California, was the only lawmaker to vote against the bill authorizing the use of force; her office began receiving death threats. When dissent is made to seem unpatriotic, a little sliver of democracy is dying.
The ugly side of fear never sleeps for long, and so Arab Americans and Muslims were attacked at their stores and homes. In Salt Lake City a small Pakistani restaurant, Curry in a Hurry, was damaged by arson. Word of the hate attack spread quickly, and the next day the place had its busiest day ever from patrons who wanted to support this Pakistani family and its business. People came with signs saying peace not hate.
The response elsewhere was not so gentle. A gunman murdered the Sikh owner of a Chevron station in Mesa, Ariz. "I am an American," the suspect, Frank Roque, declared upon arrest. A woman went through the phone book and made hateful calls to anyone named Abdul. A Muslim cabdriver in Manhattan kept his license out of view and didn't tell customers his first name - Mohammed - because of the fear he sensed. People asked where he is from when they got into the cab: If they are not familiar with Bangladesh, "I tell them it's in South America. And then they sort of relax," he said.
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In the middle of the night, when no one feels very brave, who has not thought about escape? Uncertainty can be even harder to live with than bad news. Our therapeutic culture instructs us to seek closure, but how exactly do you do that when you know that this awful journey may be just beginning? We won't even know when it's over, so closure would just mean denial. So it was easy last week to find people - even rescue workers at Ground Zero - who said they still could not believe this could possibly have happened. We wobble between resolve and despair; the lines between prudence and paranoia blur. A three-year-old boy in Spotsylvania, Va., fatally shot himself with the gun his father had just brought home to protect his family.
There are bankers and bond traders and fire fighters and clerks with 40, 50, 60 funerals to attend; their wedding albums are full of smiling pictures of dead people. St. Mary's in Middletown, N.J., lost more parishioners in one day than the whole town did during all of World War II. At a home in a bucolic suburb of New York City, a mother of three school-age children mourns both her husband and her brother; 2,000 people attended her husband's memorial last week, spilling out onto the streets. The house is draped in a full-size flag, with bouquets at the window. Her daughter in sixth grade has not yet returned to school, but her classmates struggle to process all the bad news. "Mom," asked a classmate as they walked by the house, "do you think they'll make her do all the homework she missed? It would be awful of them if they did that."
We are all having our breakdowns, large and small. A woman accidentally took her dog's allergy medicine and had to call poison control. An Atlanta flight attendant was so afraid to fly, he called in a bomb threat to his own airline. One woman who escaped her World Trade Center office was worried she was not feeling things enough; so she got a tattoo on her wrist, a survivor's code, to help her remember what pain felt like. The tattoo reads,
The date; Tower 2, 54th floor; and her age. She had turned 29 the day before the attack.
We found solace in small adjustments. Cell-phone sales jumped, both among first-time buyers and current customers wanting extras for their spouses and kids.
The FCC told TV stations they didn't need to test their emergency broadcast systems for a while, for fear of spooking people. Candlelight vigils brought people out of their homes to the town square, then a plane rumbled overhead. Inhale, look up, follow the lights till they disappear, exhale and return to the prayers. It's hard to have the perfect autumn wedding when all the out-of-town guests call to cancel. Life insurance policies were selling fast too.
The challenge of putting our private lives in some kind of order played out in public as well. Baseball resumed, with players wearing fire fighters' caps. The markets, reopening on Monday, were all woozy and uncertain, as people came to a new understanding of what it means to trade securities. The week's 1,370-point drop was the worst in history, but it told you something when people said it could have been worse. At least the lights stayed on. In downtown restaurants, there were more people at the bar than at the tables.
The planes were once again aloft, some of them anyway, even as the airlines announced they were canceling 20% of their scheduled flights and laying off workers by the tens of thousands. Consigned to history are the luxuries of curbside check-in, e-tickets and the right to carry a corkscrew onboard. Passenger Peter Hannaford, onboard United Flight 564 from Denver, heard the pilot on the loudspeaker: "I want to thank you brave folks for coming out today," the pilot said. "We don't have any new instructions from the Federal Government, so from now on, we're on our own." He reassured passengers about improved airport security, but then he went on. "If someone were to stand up, brandish something such as a plastic knife and say, 'This is a hijacking' or words to that effect, here is what you should do: every one of you should stand up and immediately throw things at that person - pillows, books, magazines, eyeglasses, shoes, anything that will throw him off balance. Most important: get a blanket over him, then wrestle him to floor and keep him there. We'll land the plane at the nearest airport, and the authorities will take it from there. Remember, there will be one of him and maybe a few confederates, but there are 200 of you. You can overwhelm them.
"Now, since we're a family for the next few hours, I'll ask you to turn to the person next to you, introduce yourself, tell them a little about yourself, and ask them to do the same."
The American landscape was one long Memorial Day parade; flags were so precious they were stolen. Yet it was clear that people ached to live bigger lives, to find some way to be a brave and generous part of what most of us were consigned to watch on television. In Napa Valley a four-year-old boy with only one arm cleaned his family's house and took his dollar in pocket money down to the local fire brigade to send to the fire fighters in New York. A five-year-old girl in Audubon, N.J., renamed all her dolls George Bush. An Air Force major who had survived the Pentagon attack went for a muffin at the Korean-run coffee shop near his office one morning last week. "I'll ring you up," said the owner, "but you don't have to pay." A woman had come by earlier, put a bunch of money in the owner's hand and told her to pay the bill of any soldier who walked through the door that day. "The woman who gave her the money had just lost her husband or a son in the disaster at the Pentagon," the major said. "This poor woman should have been in deep mourning. Instead she's buying coffee and doughnuts for us guys in uniform. I have no answers to how someone cultivates a heart as large as that."
That is the deep mystery of a great tragedy. So much that was precious has died, but as though in a kind of eternal promise, something new has been born. We are seeing it in our nation and sensing it in ourselves, a new faith in our oldest values, a rendezvous with grace. We may all be National Guardsmen in a year, or be having bottled-water drills. We may have lost even more people who are dear to us. But when a free people, who invented the idea of liberty as a form of government, rediscovers its power, there is no telling where it might go. And when each of us gets the chance to decide all over what matters most to us, there is no telling what we may learn.
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