09/11/2006 12:03 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

9/11: Rain of Blood, Reign of Fear

Imagine this: A young girl, awakened by night noises, comes downstairs rubbing her eyes. She sees her family murdered and runs to the arms of her uncle, the town's new mayor, for comfort. Now orphaned, she's placed in his home by court order.

Here's how he controls her: If you don't behave, he says, the killers will come back. He knows who the killers are and where they live, but for some reason he didn't send the police to catch them in time. They're not magical, not mythical, they're just people. Bad people. They can be defeated, caught. But she doesn't know that.

Eventually he begins abusing her. Do as I say, he tells her. Don't forget the killers are out there. He offers her to his friends as a maid, a model, maybe more. It's a shame about her parents, they all say. What a tragedy. We could behave differently, they say, but that won't bring her family back.

God only knows why this story came into my head on this, the fifth anniversary of 9/11. We're not children, and the victims of 9/11 were people just like us.

The real children of 9/11's victims are reminded of their loss every day by politicians using it for political gain. No closure for them - not as long as there are elections to win. The killers of 9/11 should have faced justice by now. It's a mystery why they haven't - but of course it isn't really.

My wife was supposed to be in the World Trade Center on that morning. She had a business meeting there, but her colleague got the flu and called her at home the night before to cancel. Would she have died if not for that accident of fate? Or would she have lived through the horror, and been one of those who saw the flames and blood and body parts falling from the sky? I've talked to those survivors. No written account has captured what they saw, and it's a pale truism to say they'll never be the same.

She might have walked up Manhattan Island in stunned silence, wordless like a frightened child. Thousands did, ash-covered, like ghosts commuting back from the underworld one last time. Even in a crowd, you face horror alone. The words of the old song take on a dark meaning:

"You are there, so am I, maybe millions of people pass by, but they all disappear from view ..."

I worked in lower Manhattan for five years, a couple of blocks from the World Trade Center. I did business there regularly. I knew people who died there - really knew them. I also met there twice a week with an informal group of friends that shared a brown bag lunch and talked about how to lead better lives. I didn't know their last names, most of them, so I don't know which ones lived and which ones died.

I remember standing at the window of a conference room on the 109th or 110th floor of the WTC and talking with the risk manager for the Port Authority, the owner of those towers. "We've done the studies," he said, "and these buildings could withstand a direct hit from a jet plane." Nobody thought about the jet fuel and how it keeps burning, on and on, until it eats through solid metal.

The bass player in my last rock group was a quiet guy. I didn't know him well, but he was smart and sensitive and I liked him. His wife stepped outside the Trade Center as the second plane hit and was doused with flaming jet fuel.

The fuel. Nobody thought about the fuel.

She was burned from head to toe and lingered between life and death for months, disfigured and fighting to survive. She eventually, courageously, did. I sent him an email but it came back and I couldn't track him down. The last time I saw him he was on Oprah, talking about the book he'd compiled from his group letters to friends and family.

The studio where we rehearsed was literally in the shadow of the towers, 200 yards or so away. The studio's owner told me about standing on the roof of the building that morning and watching an entire jet engine land in the middle of his block, splitting the street in two.

I carried my last photo ID from WTC 2 for years after that. I've lost it now. Good thing. Dwelling in the past limits our ability to face the future. Learn what you need to learn, mourn what you need to mourn. Then move on.

At first, even I thought it might be for the best that Bush had stolen the 2000 election. After all, at least he'll be given the support that Gore would have been denied, to do what needed to be done. I never suspected that he didn't want to do what needed to be done.

I saw within weeks that the GOP, like that uncle, had other, darker things in mind. Oh, yeah, right. These are the guys that hounded Vince Foster to death, then made a ghoulish sideshow spectacle of his corpse. Why had I expected better? Perhaps because I, like everyone, needed to believe in something better. Instead they saw the chance to turn 21st Century America into their Blakean vision of a soot-smeared London, with themselves as the few fattened aristocrats.

That was a lonely vision to behold in America circa 2001-2002. Ever see the movie Carnival of Souls? It was like that for some of us. We saw what we saw and said what we said, yet seemed to walk the land unheard and unseen.

Or did you catch Touch of Evil, with Orson Welles? Bush and Cheney and the rest are like that, but without the one remaining tattered shred of decency that clung to Welles' character as his bloated body floated down the Rio Grande.

Somebody in those dark September days - I think it was that reluctant spokesman Dylan - reminded us of these words by Kipling:

We are done with Hope and Honour, we are lost to Love and Truth,
We are dropping down the ladder rung by rung,
And the measure of our torment is the measure of our youth,
God help us, for we knew the worst too young.

I won't be watching television today. Instead I'll think of the children whose parents' deaths are still being exploited, although with less and less success. I'll think of other American children, who have never seen true leadership or national unity, and are growing up with only cynicism and partisanship. And there are so many other innocent young victims - the hungry and homeless here, the dead and wounded and orphaned in the Middle East.

I'll think of what's coming next, and wonder. I'll think of those who struggle to preserve that which makes us strong ... and of those who don't.

I'll mourn for a country that has lost so much, and doesn't even have a Rudyard Kipling to sing its requiem as the reddening sun sets in the West.

A Night Light