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Winter 01
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So, here's the thing
Bill Bilodeau

"What Now? "

Written September 17, 2001.

If this be war, we may already have lost.

Regardless of what response our country makes to the terrorist attacks on New York and Washington on Sept. 11, or how successful, the terrorists' goal may have already been achieved.

It changed me. I'm different, unable to concentrate on most anything without seeing a plane hitting a building, without thinking of what it might have been like to be at the top of the World Trade Center or in a Los Angeles-bound plane on that Tuesday morning.

Was that their objective, to wake us up, to change how safe we feel in our comfortable lives, prosperous by almost every other country's standards even as we whine that we don't have the kind of car we'd like or a fourth bedroom to spread out into?

Or was it simply publicity they sought, like the hackers who spam media Web sites hoping to see their work displayed on the evening news, or local delinquents who paint slurs on the town water tower and wait to gleefully read about it in the newspaper?

Maybe they just want to be admired for their audacity, their cunning, their precision. Maybe they just wanted to kill as many Americans as they could.

Whatever. It worked. We're scared. And mad. And horrified.

Like most everyone else in the U.S., I guess, I'm feeling somewhat more fragile, less sure of what my day will bring than before that morning. I go through the day wondering if something, not a plane from the sky, but perhaps a car crossing the center line or a freak gas leak or ... just something, might instantly change my life in ways I can hardly imagine.

In the days following the crashes, I found myself at odds with my own feelings about it all. Some of them I'm not proud of, but they were genuine and I'll stick by them. I felt for everyone who died, for all their families, for everyone who saw the carnage firsthand. My God, I live hundreds of miles away, in a safe little hamlet, and only saw this stuff on TV, but I still feel as if I'm in shock; as if some part of me has been taken away, something that helped me concentrate and function as a normal human being. Five days after the hijackings, I drove my family through Hartford to a friend's home, and I was as nervous as I ever recall being on the road, as if I was waiting for the earth to open up and swallow us whole.

Yet ... my first reaction when I saw the second tower hit by the plane was: Cool! It was like seeing the special effects in the first Star Wars or in Terminator 2 for the first time.

I couldn't help it. It was the first thing I saw when I walked into the room after my wife called me to come see what was happening. Even after the realization that I was watching real people dying, I couldn't help but admire the planning, the execution, the balls it took to hijack two planes and crash them into twin skyscrapers. My reaction to hearing there were four planes hijacked, and that three of them hit major targets was, "Wow, pretty good average." When the towers fell, I thought that must have surpassed even the wildest hopes of the people who planned the deed. I could picture them sitting in a room somewhere across the ocean, leaping out of their chairs, cheering and hugging as if their team had just won the Super Bowl. I wish I could say that thought sickened me, but it didn't. It fascinated me: There are people in the world who care more about their success, more about some abstract cause, than about thousands of lives. More on that below.

Of course I was saddened, sickened by the loss of life. For days, not an hour went by that I didn't picture in my mind a scene of what it was like for the victims and near victims.

But my reaction to the nation's reaction was curious. Cancel baseball? The Emmys? All network TV for days? Clearly, I thought, the damage is done. Theyıre not going to strike a baseball stadium, too. At least, certainly not in St. Petersburg, where my unfortunate Red Sox were to play. This was the insult added to injury. "Thousands dead and dying in New York and Washington? That's a shame. No baseball to ward it off with? No football? Now I'm mad!"

It's true. I was longing for something, anything to distract me from the barrage of news coverage, the all day, all night media squawking. I wanted some relief, some entertainment.

But then, this was entertainment, all the same. Gripping. Visually exciting. Life-and-death -- it unfolded before our eyes, full of mystery. How many were dead? How many survived? Who dunnit? How? Were there fights on the planes? Any others not successful?

This was the ultimate reality programming, and every network had it.

Unfortunately, along with it came the inevitable overload of TV newscasters struggling for a career boost, something different, something poignant and memorable to say -- when really the pictures said it all.

Ah, the pictures. How many TV shots of little John John Kennedy saluting did we suffer after his plane went down? That many, times a thousand, is how often we've now seen that second plane crash into the World Trade Center. With no actual news to show for hours on end, the networks played their trump card: "We've got riveting video, pal, and you're gonna watch it every fucking time we show it! You can't turn away! Go ahead and try! It's too exciting! It's too gruesome! It's too compelling!"

They were right. At least, in my case. I watched, every time, over and over. I hungered to see it again, from a different angle. Dammit, why didn't they have a better angle? How many TV stations and networks are in New York? How many tourists with video cameras? Where was a good close-up of the plane hitting the tower? ABC Sports would have had it. CBS, too. Fox Sports would have had it with a little clock in the corner and a running death count. But the news? No. For hours and hours, the same three-second clip ran on every station.

It just seemed unreal, a made-for-TV event. My wife commented that everyone she saw on TV at the scene seemed so calm, considering what they'd been through, what they'd witnessed. Of course, this is the sanitized, TV version of life we get: The sounds must be muffled, lest they interfere with the words of wisdom offered by the correspondents, or worse, the interjected questions of the anchors; the smells are missing, as is most of the visual impact of the wreckage, the hundreds and hundreds of bodies, which are not suitable fare for civilized viewers.

Instead, we get people talking, incessantly, about what it means from a political standpoint. Will it be a turning point in the Bush presidency? Will he be up to the challenge? Will the Democrats stand by the Republican administration? As if that's what anyone in the real world cares about.

For me, as tangled as my feelings were, the thing that remained most was the image of thousands of people flocking to hospitals and city streets, armed with photos, literally begging anyone who passed by to look and see if they recognized a husband, a daughter, a fiancee who remained missing in the rubble.

Theirs are the faces of terrorism to be remembered. Theirs is the pain we should carry forth with us as the images of planes and fires fade. They will not forget. For them, life will not quickly - if ever - go on.

For the rest of us, in a few months, we'll be living our lives again, taking our kids to school, schlepping off to work, going to McDonald's and Dunkin' Donuts and Safeway (that is, if our country isn't at war with Iran, Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan or some other country suspected of harboring those responsible).

Despite how I feel, how those I talk to say they feel, we will move on, and far sooner than we should. This was a life-altering event, and not just for those personally connected to it. But that doesn't mean much to most people in our anesthetized culture. My guess is we'll collectively funnel our feelings into patriotism as long as it helps the cause, then quickly retreat into what feels comfortable - looking out for ourselves; striving to get ahead.

Were I not hampered, as I wrote above, by the lack of concentration this whole thing has left me with, I could probably make a connection here. It might have to do with believing the whole reason for this insane action on the part of people very different from us might have to do with the very things I just noted.

We will go back to our "normal" lives, just as soon as we can manage it. We'll be seeking what so many in the past weeks have said was being attacked on Sept. 11: our way of life.

I think there was certainly more to choosing the World Trade Center as a target than the spectacle it would provide; more than disrupting lower Manhattan or even the financial markets. I think they were chosen because, to an outsider (and many insiders), the people in those buildings represented our way of life: they worked with money, more money than anyone in most foreign nations will ever see; they wore expensive suits and ate expensive meals and lived expensive, unduly comfortable lives, by the standards of ninety-nine percent of the world.

They were what many Americans might think of as representative of the best our country has to offer, and what others might see as our worst. They were symbolic of our nation's hunger for and gravitational orbit around material things. In our anger and pain, I think the point, if indeed that was it, will likely be lost.

And when the fighting subsides and the pain and numbness has retreated to a fuzzy memory and video clips, most Americans will be right back on that quest, trying our damnedest to tuck the whole thing quietly away and return to "normal." Sadly, I'll probably be one of them.