Wednesday, September 19, 2001


In an instant, everything changed.

On Tuesday morning, you and your kids got up, had some breakfast, kissed each other good-bye and went your respective ways. They headed to school, you to jobs and activities, maybe a little shopping, a few errands. And the expectation was that come the end of the day, you would all get together for dinner, homework, a little television and then bed.

But nothing again will ever be the same. Never again will you get on a train without wondering. Never again will you walk through a museum without thinking. Never again will send you kids off to the mall without hoping. Never again will you go up in a tall building, or get on an airplane, or sit at a ball game without wondering... wondering if this is the time when something happens, something horrific, something that will change your view of the world forever.

For if something the size of the Pentagon can be attacked, something as massive as the World Trade Center can be targeted... and not just targeted but targeted successfully... what of everything else? After all, these are locations that have security services and alarm systems and backup fail safe designs specially constructed to foil any mischief. And yet in a matter of less time than it takes to watch the news on TV, they were decimated. With that point of reference, how easy would it be to destroy a local school, or a shopping mall, or a hospital? You know the answer, even if you don't want to admit it: it would be a piece of cake.

But that's by design. It's the bad news and the good news. We pride ourselves on having an open country that's based not on fear, but rather on respect. Sure, we exercise reasonable precautions, looking for obvious threats and perils, while assuming that the real boogie men are being kept at bay. After all, we all have things that we don't like or with which we disagree. But we fight the good fight with words, not with bombs and guns and planes loaded with innocent people flown into the sides of buildings.

No, we expect that the rules will be observed, and that the really ugly fighting will stay safely contained in another time zone. But that's obviously an extravagance we can't afford any more. We've always looked at places like Somalia and Bosnia and the West Bank as places "over there." The battles in those locales were nasty, brutish affairs, ones that brought out the worst of humanity. We saw them as intramural conflicts, contained in the arena of the third world. We might have our views, our favorites, even back the horse of our choosing, but it was all done from afar. Today that changed: "over there" suddenly became "over here."

It offers a taste of the real world that we don't often get and don't really want. We used to be able to sit here with our café lattes and our cable modems and visit the world by holding it at arm's reach. We used to be able to take our package tours to the great wonders of the world, prepay the local taxes and transfers, and have the bus driver zip us past the uglier sections of town. We used to be able to frame the debate over the future of society not over big, confusing topics like human rights and freedom and repression, but over issues such as how big a 14-year-old's spaghetti straps are or how violent a Mel Gibson movie rated PG-13 really is. But the luxury of that vantage point has just vanished.

Calling what comes out of this "good news" is to insult the lives of those people caught in the tragedy. However, it will change our view of the world as no debate or presidential address or op-ed piece ever could. For all the talk about the new millennium, a world economy and a new world order, nothing could have united the country and created a sense of purpose as much as this disaster. It's simplistic and naive to think that all the differences that existed among Democrats and Republicans, conservative and liberals will evaporate, that we'll all get together and sing "God Bless America" all the time. But perhaps the blinders will come off; certainly the gloves will as well.

As I write this, there is no shortage of speculation as to where to lay the blame for this tragedy. The first question is "who." Was it Islamic terrorists? Was it a splinter group of Bosnian separatists or a radical arm of a Palestinian freedom movement? Or, harder to imagine and worse to contemplate, did it come from within? As Timothy McVeigh proved, there is no shortage of extremists carrying American passports.

And then we'll want to know the "why." Was there any significance to the date, which some have noted was the anniversary of the Camp David accords? Or to our policies in Eastern Europe or Southeast Asia? In time, we should know the bottom line. Forensic science is very advanced; if there's a shred of evidence, there will be a definitive answer soon enough.

That's what we do when there's a catastrophe. We look for answers in the hope of preventing a recurrence. But then again, you can argue that's all Monday morning quarterbacking. Perhaps the only thing worth taking away from this horror is the date. September eleventh. Or written another way, 911... very fitting. For if ever we had an emergency that requires us to take action in the way we live, this is it.


Marc Wollin of Bedford writes Glancing Askance every week. It appears regularly in The Record Review and The Scarsdale Inquirer.

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