• U.S.

Mourning In America

9 minute read
Nancy Gibbs

In a week when everything seemed to happen for the first time ever, the candle became a weapon of war. Our enemies had turned the most familiar objects against us, turned shaving kits into holsters and airplanes into missiles and soccer coaches and newlyweds into involuntary suicide bombers. So while it was up to the President and his generals to plot the response, for the rest of us who are not soldiers and have no cruise missiles, we had candles, and we lit them on Friday night in an act of mourning, and an act of war.

That is because we are fighting not one enemy but two: one unseen, the other inside. Terror on this scale is meant to wreck the way we live our lives–make us flinch when a siren sounds, jump when a door slams and think twice before deciding whether we really have to take a plane. If we falter, they win, even if they never plant another bomb. So after the early helplessness–What can I do? I’ve already given blood–people started to realize that what they could do was exactly, as precisely as possible, whatever they would have done if all this hadn’t happened.

That was the spirit building in New York and Washington and all across the country, faith and fear and resolve in a tight braid. Because the killers who hate us did the unthinkable, nothing is unthinkable now. A plume of grill smoke venting from a Manhattan steak house leads to the evacuation of midtown office towers. Does every unclaimed package tick? After the Pentagon was hit, generals called their families and told them not to drink the water, it could be poisoned. Sales of guns and gas masks spiked. The NFL canceled its games for the first time ever; bomb scares emptied 90 sites on Thursday in New York City alone. People wore sneakers with their suits in case they had to fly fast down the stairs. Even after a SWAT team stormed a plane on the tarmac at Kennedy Airport to detain what it feared was the next wave of killers, no one had imagined this was over. It isn’t. It may never be. We are on our way to a different place, and we will never hear the words of the songs the same way.

Oh Beautiful, for Patriots’ dream, that sees beyond the years Thine Alabaster cities gleam undimmed by human tears.

The rescue effort had not stopped, even as it grew more dangerous. Lower Manhattan was a sharp steel forest where volunteers and fire fighters dug around the clock without rest. Doctors at St. Vincent’s Hospital told of the fire fighter who had to carry out the decapitated body of his captain. The search dogs were overwhelmed; there was just too much flesh to smell. One emerged with a torn, blackened teddy bear in its mouth. Rescuers found the bodies of airline passengers strapped in their seats, a flight attendant with her hands bound. Doctors at the triage stations grieved that there were not more survivors to treat. All they could do was wash the grit out of the rescuers’ eyes. Every so often the Klaxon sounded, another fractured building about to faint. Medics had to keep moving the morgue. Even the rescuers had to be rescued from the hidden caves, the shifting rubble, the filthy air. When the rains came Thursday night the peril merely increased, as the ash turned to porridge and the fires hissed and spat.

The rest of the city was strangely quiet, missing something, like when you have a tooth pulled and keep feeling for the space with your tongue. The World Trade Center towers were so big they had their own ZIP code; will that number now be retired, like that of a baseball hero suddenly gone? Amid the cortege of families wandering from hospital to hospital–Have you seen my wife, she was six months pregnant, on the 94th floor?–one man had a postcard of the Twin Towers, with the message written: THEY ARE MISSING. I AM LOOKING FOR THESE TWO GREAT BROTHERS OF NEW YORK.

O God, our help in ages past Our hope for years to come. Our shelter from the stormy blast and our eternal home…

At Washington National Cathedral on Friday, the Day of Remembrance, they sang these old hymns, the ones sung after wars broke out and Presidents died. There sat five Presidents and the generals and statesmen who came to hear lessons about mercy and justice, about the temptations of vengeance and the duties of leadership. Congress had become a coalition government; defense is not foreign policy anymore, it’s domestic. President Bush declared a state of emergency and called up the reserves; Congress wrote a $40 billion check. Soldiers at home and around the world were on high alert, and ready; 200 of their comrades had been burned and buried alive at the very command center of armed force. “This nation is peaceful, but fierce when stirred to anger,” the President said. “This conflict was begun on the timing and terms of others. It will end in a way and at an hour of our choosing.”

But it will also come in a way we still cannot imagine, because we are fighting an enemy we have never met. Suicide bombers are supposed to be 17-year-old zealots with nothing to live for but the hope of a martyr’s welcome by 72 virgins in paradise. These men, the FBI reveals, lived middle-class lives, had degrees and jobs and wives and kids and a willingness to leave them all to kill us. Among the casualties last week was our sweet certainty that anyone lucky enough to be able to live in America, share its vices and freedoms and gifts, surely would not want to destroy it.

Colin Powell, the wartime general, was back out front, pulling together the support of allies in both the hunt and the fight and letting others know that from this point on, if you do not act as our friend, we will consider you our enemy. Bush and Powell didn’t have to work hard to mount a coalition, though, because the bombers had done the job so effectively. As many as 500 Britons are feared to have died in the World Trade Center, along with Colombians, Canadians, Australians, Japanese, Egyptians and countless others; the terrorists had unified their opponents in an instant. The band played the U.S. national anthem during the changing of the guard at Buckingham Palace. Dublin’s shops closed for a day of mourning, and Canadian stores sold out of American flags. WE ARE ALL AMERICANS, was the headline in Le Monde.

For those near ground zero, trying to reach stable ground felt like climbing out of a sand trap; a couple of steps up the slope, then back down again at the sound of some child talking about her missing daddy, a fiance mourning a wedding that will never happen or a wife aching that she did not say goodbye to her husband thoroughly enough that last time. The final love letters had been delivered by cell phone: Be brave, commanded a tender husband, take care of our daughter. I love you.

The city was a cemetery in waiting: streetlights and phone poles plastered with portraits of the missing where normally the ads for lost pets or cheap painters would be. Outside the 69th Regiment Armory in New York City, the families afloat on hope and dread waited on line for the chance to fill out the seven-page form asking about their loved ones’ tattoos and earlobes and shoe size and whether their fingers were tobacco stained. Maybe they are in a hospital, confused but safe. “I’m looking for my mother,” says Brian Daniels. “Her name is on the website that she’s fine, but I don’t know where she is.” He doesn’t know that many of those listings are false, and no one has the heart to tell him. The despair is unrelenting, and the funerals have hardly begun.

But so too is the hunger for action. Lines for newspapers stretch half a block; people walk with flags sticking out of their purses, wear them as bandannas on the streets. Everyone fights back in his own way; Wall Street retaliates by getting back to business. “We’ll have conference calls every morning,” a boss tells his team, whose offices have been vaporized. “I want that letter of intent in the morning.” You can’t stop competing if you’re an American business–now the fight is for office space across in Jersey City, N.J. Broadway reopens its theaters; at the end of The Producers, Nathan Lane and Matthew Broderick lead the audience in God Bless America.

It will take us months, years, to understand what has been changed by this, and how. Irony is no longer safe for comics; comedy itself is in tears. Three decades of popular culture have turned into period pieces: Working Girl and Escape from New York and Wall Street and Sex and the City and The Sopranos and every opening shot of the tip of the island that was designed to say, “We’re in Manhattan right now.” Now we will see those shots and know they came Before. When you got turned around in Greenwich Village’s crooked streets, the towers were the lodestars. It will be easier to get lost now. “Those were my local mountains,” a New Yorker says, but the mountains were laid low.

But yet one more hymn, from Friday’s service:

And though this world, with devils filled, Should threaten to undo us, We will not fear, for God hath willed His truth to triumph through us.

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