Lament for our species

Ian on Sunday
Stabroek News
September 30, 2001

I thought I might be able to write one column about that evil thing on 11th September and leave it at that. But I find I cannot just smoothly pass on to other subjects as if that historic and infernal moment had been quickly swallowed up in normality as all but a very, very few moments are.

Such a transforming event compels more attention. And not only that - I find, more than two weeks later, that my dreams continually contain images of the horror visited on the world, no doubt because the TV coverage is so wall-to-wall, traumatic and transfixing. And yet what we see on TV does not begin to reveal the terror and the chaos and the up-close horror. It is 'astonishing to think that bad dreams come so 'strongly even though what I am seeing gives only a distanced, cinematic and extremely sanitized account of the agony and the horrors at the time and on the ground.

By far the best written and most disturbing article I have read on the subject of what happened on 11th September at the twin towers is the article written by Martin Amis for the Guardian newspaper in England on 18th September. This column will quote extensively from that article.

Amis's article starts abruptly with a superb and frightening paragraph: "It was the advent of the second plane, sharking in low over the Statue of Liberty: that was the defining moment. Until then, America thought she was witnessing nothing more serious than the worst aviation disaster in history; now she had a sense of the fantastic vehemence ranged against her. I have never seen a generically familiar object so transformed by effect. That second plane looked eagerly alive, and galvanized with malice, and wholly alien. For those thousands in the south tower, the second plane meant the end of everything. For us, its glint was the worldflash of a coming future."

The images printed on the mind were scarcely believable and utterly horrifying. Amis captures the evil and the horror in his prose in a way that somehow TV cannot do:

"The plane gunned and steadied and then smeared itself into the south tower. Even the flames and smoke were opulently evil, with their vampiric reds and blacks. Murder-suicide from without was now duplicated within to provide what was perhaps the day's most desolating spectacle. They flailed and kicked as they came down. As if you could fend off that abysmal drop. You too would flail and kick. You could no more help yourself than you could stop your teeth from chattering at a certain intensity of cold. It is a reflex. It is what human beings do when they fall."

Who has not thought of the awful death toll? 50,000 were said to work in the twin towers with an additional 25,000 visiting at any one time. On that basis the miracle seems to be that nearly 70,000 escaped. Can that really be so? But, whatever the final total, the toll was bigger than any one day's loss of lives in American history except for one or two days of armed conflict in the Civil War. At Pearl Harbour only 2,500 were lost. And the dead would have been more had it not been for the extraordinary heroism of the firefighters who lost more than 300 of their brave company climbing up the towers to save others when the only way to safety was down.

The effect was immense and will reverberate in the world and history. The physical impact was precisely calculated, as Martin Amis points out:

"The first plane would crash into the north tower just as the working day hit full stride. Then a pause of 20 minutes, to give the world time to gather round its TV sets. With that attention secured, the second plane would crash into the south tower, and in that instant America's youth would turn into age. If the architect of this destruction was Osama Bin Laden, who is a qualified engineer, then he would certainly know something about the stress equations of the World Trade Centre. He would also know something about the effects of ignited fuel: at 500C (a third of the temperature actually attained), steel loses 90% of its strength. He must have anticipated that one or both of the towers would collapse. But no visionary cinematic genius could hope to recreate the majestic abjection of that double surrender, with the scale of the buildings conferring its own slow motion. It was well understood that an edifice so demonstrably comprised of concrete and steel would also become an unforgettable metaphor. This moment was the apotheosis of the postmodern era - the era of images and perceptions. Wind conditions were also favourable; within hours, Manhattan looked as though it had taken 10 megatons."

What Amis does not write about but is likely to have been just as precisely calculated is the effect on the American, and therefore the world, economy. America was at the very brink of recession, but might just have avoided it, when the attack came. An American, and therefore world, recession cannot now be avoided. The impact, as usual, will be felt worst of all in poor and vulnerable countries like our own. With so much depending, for instance, on receipts from tourism and remittances, the Caribbean is going to suffer terribly.

The unprecedented loss of civilian lives from 80 countries, the economic earthquake set off, are large enough effects. But the psychological impact is likely to be much greater and more important historically. Martin Amis, in his brilliant article, expresses it perfectly. "Their aim was to torture tens of thousands, and to terrify hundreds of millions. In this, they have succeeded. The temperature of planetary fear has been lifted towards the feverish; "the world hum", in Don DeLillo's phrase, is now as audible as tinnitus. And yet the most durable legacy has to do with the more distant future, and the disappearance of an illusion about our loved ones, particularly our children. American parents will feel this most acutely, but we will also feel it. The illusion is this. Mothers and fathers need to feel that they can protect their children. They can't, of course, and never could, but they need to feel that they can. What once seemed more or less possible - their protection - now seems obviously and palpably inconceivable. So from now on we will have to get by without that need to feel."

So what is going to happen? Martin Amis ends his article bleakly but, very probably, realistically: "What are we going to do? Violence must come; America must have catharsis. We hope that the response will be, above all, non-escalatory. It should also mirror the original attack in that it should have the capacity to astonish. A utopian example: the crippled and benighted people of Afghanistan, hunkering down for a winter of famine, should not be bombarded with cruise missiles; they should be bombarded with consignments of food, firmly marked LENDLEASE- USA. More realistically, unless Pakistan can actually deliver Bin Laden, the American retaliation is almost sure to become elephantine. Then terror from above will replenish the source of all terror from below: unhealed wounds. This is the familiar cycle so well caught by the matter, and the rifle, of V.S. Naipaul's story, Tell Me Who To Kill.

Our best destiny, as planetary cohabitants, is the development of what has been called "species consciousness" - something over and above nationalisms, blocs, religions, ethnicities. During this week of incredulous misery, I have been trying to apply such a consciousness, and such a sensibility. Thinking of the victims, the perpetrators, and the near future, I felt species grief, then species shame, then species fear."