Something Big Has Happened: There Are No Commercials On TV

Event Scenes


In the aftermath of the terror, 9-11-01.

The immediate suffering and destruction occupy ones thoughts. The need for feeling is immense, but feeling is not easy. No one knows what to feel.

How many video cameras were aimed at the WTC Tuesday morning? Television seems to have an almost endless supply of new footage. We see it again and again from many vantages on television and in our sleep. It is all, however, silent. The airliners hit silently. The fire balls flare silently. The towers collapse silently. The world has become a worse place for every one. For those in and near the towers, this worsening of the world must have been experienced as incomprehensible sound, but for the rest of us, the terror and sadness reverberate in silence.

For those who believe in terror, for whom Terror is a God, terror simplifies. The simplification is credible proof of the deity’s power. Fundamentalisms of all kinds — religious, scientific, economic, sociological, ethical — all simplify, and the simplifications are violent and destructive because the complexity of the world is forced into the City of the Simple by way of a single, narrow gate.

The god Terror has two kinds of followers — the agents of terror and the terrified. They belong to the most vicious circle. The one makes no distinction between the guilty and the innocent, killing indifferently. The others accept the terrorists’ simplification and respond. The greater the simplification, the greater the reverberation. The reverberations of this terror may become deafening or have already. Those of us who were not near enough to hear the first impacts are deaf. We do not hear the explosions or the screams. How do we get out of this circle? Inside the worship of terror the reverberating silence can only continue. It is necessary to multiply perspectives and rise to higher levels of complexity from which many of perspectives can be comprehended at once. This is always the task of knowing, but at certain times, the imperative is doubly compelling.

The failures of the security and espionage systems have been noted. No one doubts that these failures will be addressed. Abundant material resources will be made available to secure airports and gather intelligence. The personal freedom and privacy of everyone will be put into jeopardy. The next terrorists, however, will not fly airliners into skyscrapers or, if they do, they will do it in an unexpected way. Terrorists have no profile; they belong to no norm. They inhabit blind spots in our habits of defense. For this reason they are terrifying.

The failure of the conceptual system, the larger system to which security and espionage belong, has not been adequately noted. We have been presented officially only with the concept of war. It is a war, but only in a remote and misleading sense — “a different kind of war” was the President’s term. It is possible to say that any x is like any y, and in some sense it is. Any two things are more like one another than they are like nothing. It is an interesting exercise in certain cases to puzzle out the relations; some times it is psychologically revealing. This was a discovery of surrealist poetry. The metaphor, terrorism is war, as a basis for policy, however, is dangerously inexact. Its vague associations will not suffice for policy makers who need precise understanding of an unprecedented situation. If it is war, there is no visible enemy; no territory to conquer or secure. The military has no particular site to defend. It has none of the forms of war; none of the strategies of war are applicable. If it is a different kind of war, it is different in almost every sense. Our policy makers respond to the carnage and destruction, the mess in the southwest corner of Manhattan. Their habits of mind are stuck at World War II. They think of Pearl Harbor and Iwo Jima — their fathers’ war. They are oil men. They understand matter and energy, digging down into the earth and making the oil flow.

The terrorists in Conrad’s The Secret Agent find all material sites unworthy and express the desire to bomb pure mathematics. Terrorists work almost entirely in a realm of abstraction. The World Trade Center was for them not concrete and steel but information. These terrorists almost found a way to bomb neo-liberal economic theory.

The American conception of defense is to deliver massive charges of destructive energy anywhere in the world — a concept oil men understand. The terrorists, however, live among us and our friends. The terrorists of September 11 were armed with small knives that legally passed airport security. Their power belonged not to a world of matter and energy only but to a world of matter, energy, and information. To them the matter and energy were relevant only as tools; they had no value in themselves. The global air space in which they acted so brilliantly and destructively is an information field — blips on the air controllers’ radar screens. On the morning of September 11, some of the blips began to move in unexpected patterns. It was not an attack, as it would have been in war, but a reprogramming. Certain crucial information was redefined and removed from the system in which it was understood by air controllers and redefined in a system where it was understood by terrorists.

In the matter and energy world, four airliners were hijacked and three of them were successfully converted into missiles loaded with the weapons of their own fuel to produce symbolic destruction. The terrorists had no interest in the WTC in itself. Airplanes, carrying business people and tourists, ordinary things of an ordinary and peaceful world, were not changed in any material sense: as matter-energy things they were ordinary and continued to be; as matter-energy-information things they were missiles, loaded with deadly bombs. The death and destruction were incidental to the terrorists’ intent to produce a different interpretation of all information. Although the devastation at the impact sites is inconceivable, the destruction was global. Our ability to think complexly was impaired. Confidence in the reliable flow of information through the global network, which is not only a communications system but also a kind of immune system that identifies and attacks misinformation, failed. The terrorists managed to turn the matter-energy-information system against itself.

The terrorists have no regard for the world of matter and energy, for the world of flesh, where we find ourselves, shuddering, with a new and unpleasant tension in our bodies, and our fight-or-flight glands pumping. Terrorists exist so entirely in a realm of abstraction that they can calmly pilot jumbo jets into the tallest buildings. Their strength is their disregard for the material world. The “war” with the terrorists has no place of engagement in the world of matter and energy. We always miss them there. They can disappear into the information flow and become invisible until they want to manifest.

It would be more accurate to think metaphorically not of war but of a disease of the autoimmune system. In order to have a war there must be another side, and in the global system, everyone, including the terrorists, belongs however disruptively to the inside. Osama bin Ladin was trained by the CIA. He is one of ours. The immune system attacks and destroys itself. The global system has included everyone, and it has put extraordinary stress on those who live in the vicinity of vast and dwindling oil reserves as well as others. It is precisely their inclusion that makes them so ornery. They are desperate to create themselves as outside, and, though their means are deplorable, their desire is understandable. If we think in terms of disease, a different kind of effort is required. The problem is systemic. The guilty without losing their guilt and the innocent without losing their innocence are implicated. Healing, not killing, is called for.

I write in the confusion and stress of the moment, but it is not useful to think of our condition as war. Sadly, however, the warlords and oil men are in the ascendancy. They prepare to take to the fields like Don Quixote. They are armed with weapons of the ultimate terror, and they do not understand the world in which it has been possible for them to create the weapons they now ignorantly wield. The situation is precarious. All we can do is to hear the complexities in the silence and make it manifest in every possible way, but this might be enough.

* * *

It is Sunday night after the attack. I am sitting in Port Authority Bus Terminal on 42nd Street, waiting for a bus home to Albany. I came to the City today to see the gaping hole in the skyline of the richest and most powerful city in the world. I saw the emptiness clearly. The World Trade Center is gone.

When I arrived I walked down the Avenue of the Americas south. It was warm. The air had an autumn brilliance and clarity. I stopped in a juice bar and got a papaya-pineapple-apple smoothy and sipped it as I walked. War and the rumors of war mess up the rhythms of living, and the ways people were walking and gesturing were not quite right. A young woman was looking intently at one of the endless missing person posters on a light pole. As I passed, she turned, our eyes met, and she said, “I knew him. I didn’t know he was dead.” “Did you know him well?” I asked. “No. He was just around.” A few blocks further south, I passed a man, who was not much more than five feet tall, wearing a jester’s cap and repeating in an angry voice: “The mutha fukkas killed our people. The mutha fukkas killed our people.” There were others, people who do not usually talk to themselves, I think, talking to themselves, but most were going somewhat grimly about the business of being normal. Their bodies were tensed and their expression a little too set, but the New Yorkers were out, trying to get the rhythms right. Near one of the fire stations, where a spontaneous memorial had appeared, there was a tap dancer, too old to dance athletically, keeping a solid and complex beat almost, it seemed, without moving. It was an important testimony. My daughter, Anne, whom I had met by that time, and I talked about Lester Young, and how cool one needs to be waiting for war.

We walked down to the police barricades at Canal Street. There was not much to see. Looking down the avenues, southward, where one used to see the looming towers, nothing was there. The police let us go to Anne’s office just below Canal. Everything was okay. We watered the plants and threw away a rotting banana someone had left on a desk.

Then we went to the Frick to put something to see in that blankness. We looked a long time at Titian’s Pietro Arentino, Vermeer’s Officer and Laughing Girl, and Chardin’s Still Life with Plums. The paintings somehow belonged more to the future than the past and the steel man’s ornate house.

Don Byrd, Albany, New York, September 11-16, 2001.