Like most Americans, I learned about the fall of Twin Towers on TV.
My wife called me into the bedroom, and I sat before CNN for the next
five hours watching endless repetitions of video sequences that had
become instant icons: the planes smashing into the towers, the ash and confetti, crowds stampeding across the West-side Highway. The media had done the work of fifty years of forgetting, distilling the
catastrophe into a few simple symbols. Seeing it for the first time
had the quality of distant recall.
I remember thinking, this is like a a set-piece from one of those
disaster movies -- "Independence Day" or "Volcano" -- only this is real. I could hold onto the reality for a few seconds, feel the emotion rise in my throat, and then it looked fake again.
Days later, I remember seeing photographs of a bearded man with kind,
feminine eyes and being told that this was Bin Laden, the mastermind
I remember flags everywhere. My father-in-law, who owns a deli in Los
Angeles, handed out flag decals to customers. My younger son loved
stickers at the time and stuck a decal on the side window of my car. I let it stay. It was nice to feel part of a swell of affection for this country. 9-11 created a party atmosphere, a sense of we're all in this together.
I remember thinking the Afghanistan invasion was just too easy. My kids showed me an Internet flash animation set to the tone of Harry
Belafonte's "Banana Boat Song":
Run Mr. Taliban, we know where you're hiding.
Air Force come and they flatten your home.
I remember not opening junk-mail during the anthrax scare. Bacterial
spores, normally found in the intestines of dead deer, grown in a lab
and placed in envelopes and air-conditioning ducts. This was something you'd expect from the Joker in a Batman movie. Absurd, but
terrifying. I remember commentators wondering who? and what next? The terrorists were playing to the audience, using gigantic spectacle and high-concept tricks to generate tension. Anthrax went nowhere, but we were already following a kind of movie-logic, looking for a rising action in the second act. How would the bad guys top themselves? People talked of dirty bombs, chemical ground attacks, sarin nerve agents.
I remember the first rumblings of war. Iraq has weapons of mass
destruction, or WMDs. The acronym made them seem more definite. You
don't abbreviate something theoretical. At the time, WMDs in Iraq
seemed at least as credible as 9-11, which had already happened. What's more, it made perfect movie sense. Here was a bad guy -- with a Stalin mustache, no less -- who had tortured and poisoned his own people and now wielded horrific chemicals. I listened to Hilary Clinton's speech in support of resolution 1441, and I thought, okay, maybe Bush knows something. And when we rolled into Iraq, I remember feeling - despite myself -- a surge of pride and patriotism.
Then it was over -- sort of.
I felt queasy when Bush landed on the USS Lincoln, with its "Mission
Accomplished" sign. This was a hackneyed image from "Top Gun" -- and
it made me realize I was watching a movie. No, it made me realize I
was not watching a movie. This was when the fog lifted for me.
The rest is history -- or should I say reality?
Bin Laden remains elusive, but he's no Goldfinger. The wars in Iraq
and Afghanistan have grown decidedly unphotogenic. Bush is just who I
always thought he was.
Last night, I watched 30 minutes of unedited video footage taken by friends who lived opposite the World Trade Center. They missed the moments of impact and other iconic moments, but the footage was shown in real time, with spontaneous background reactions, and for the first time tears came to my eyes.