One good thing could come from this horror: it could spell the end of the age of irony. For some 30 years--roughly as long as the Twin Towers were upright--the good folks in charge of America's intellectual life have insisted that nothing was to be believed in or taken seriously. Nothing was real. With a giggle and a smirk, our chattering classes--our columnists and pop culture makers--declared that detachment and personal whimsy were the necessary tools for an oh-so-cool life. Who but a slobbering bumpkin would think, "I feel your pain"? The ironists, seeing through everything, made it difficult for anyone to see anything. The consequence of thinking that nothing is real--apart from prancing around in an air of vain stupidity--is that one will not know the difference between a joke and a menace.
No more. The planes that plowed into the World Trade Center and the Pentagon were real. The flames, smoke, sirens--real. The chalky landscape, the silence of the streets--all real. I feel your pain--really.
History occurs twice, crack the wise guys quoting Marx: first as tragedy, then as farce. Who would believe such a thing except someone who has never experienced tragedy? Are you looking for something to take seriously? Begin with evil. The fact before our eyes is that a group of savage zealots took the sweet and various lives of those ordinarily traveling from place to place, ordinarily starting a day of work or--extraordinarily--coming to help and rescue others. Freedom? That real enough for you? Everything we cling to in our free and sauntering country was imperiled by the terrorists. Destruction was real; no hedging about that. Hans Christian Andersen wrote that famous fairy tale about The Most Incredible Thing, a beautiful, intricate clock that was smashed to bits by an ax, which act was then judged to be the most incredible thing. No fairy tales required this week. Where the Twin Towers were, there is now only empty air.
In the age of irony, even the most serious things were not to be taken seriously. Movies featuring characters who "see dead people" or TV hosts who talk to the "other side" suggested that death was not to be seen as real. If one doubted its reality before last week, that is unlikely to happen again. Which brings us to the more amorphous zones of reality, such as grief and common sorrow. When the white dust settles, and the bereaved are alone in their houses, there will be nothing but grief around them, and nothing is more real than that. In short, people may at last be ready to say what they wholeheartedly believe. The kindness of people toward others in distress is real. There is nothing to see through in that. Honor and fair play? Real. And the preciousness of ordinary living is real as well--all to be taken seriously, perhaps, in a new and chastened time. The greatness of the country: real. The anger: real. The pain: too real.