There was a bizarre disconnect between the horror stories we were hearing on the radio about what had happened less than a mile from where we lived and the fact that we never felt personally threatened. When you think of the science-fiction scenarios of civil disaster in a major metropolitan area, you don’t imagine that within eyesight of ground zero, life can go on with comfort basically uninterrupted. We had lights, water, air conditioning, phone, internet, food. A few blocks down, it was another story.
Most days we didn’t breathe the smoke. It depended on the wind whether we detected what I remember calling a “sour” smell. Christie Whitman, a Republican apparatchik who had formerly been governor of New Jersey and was now the Bush-appointed director of the Environmental Protection Association, took her place in history by lying outright and telling us the air was safe to breathe. It wasn’t, but they were determined to have Wall Street reopen. It was a murderous lie. She didn’t tell us that the asbestos fibers in the smoke were so tiny that the measuring equipment couldn’t detect it. There were microfibers of glass going into our lungs. Gypsum. Corpses. People were working fourteen-hour days down at the cleanup, without masks, breathing deep lungfuls of that poison.
As the autumn wore on, we made that pilgrimage downtown to the twisted metal skeleton as often as we could. The fires burned until December. We were not only breathing in a dense cocktail of chemicals, we were breathing in the dead.
One day, Constance opened the drawer where we keep the pillowcases. That smell wafted up out of it. That smell of incinerated building materials and bodies.
It took Bush four days to get around to coming to New York City. When he did, he was crowned as a hero by the national media, with the far-right media setting the pace. The farther away you were from the scene of the attacks, and the more what you knew of it came from TV, the more pre-digested and pre-spun it was for you, the more belligerent a response you wanted. Dick Cheney was busy at his undisclosed location, trying to figure out how to work September 11 into his previously planned invasion of Iraq. The consolidation of the neocon agenda was under way: imperial war, corporate looting, aggressive restructuring of governmental institutions, domestic repression.
We were terrified the whole time. Not of Islamic terrorism. That had already happened. We were terrified because it had happened and Chimpy W. Fustercluck was in charge, with Mr. Undisclosed Location himself, Dick Cheney, whispering in his ear. We were right to be terrified.
The loathsome Paul Wolfowitz, whose existence I had previously been unaware of, spoke of “ending states that support terrorism.” He later explained, oh, what he meant was, “ending state support for terrorism.” Great, we’ve got amateurs threatening the world and they can’t even say it right. But the low point was when George W. Bush, who was talking crazy shit about how he was going to “rid the world of evil-doers,” on Sunday September 16, 2001, referred to his “war on terrorism” as a “crusade.”
Oh my God, I realized: he doesn’t even know what the Crusades were. To him, crusade is a Billy Graham word. Campus Crusade for Christ, that kind of thing. But he actually is unleashing a Crusade. Which is exactly what Osama bin Laden wanted him to do. What does the word crusade translate to in Arabic? Jihad.
From my dispatch of October 2, 2001:
>Down at Ground Zero, the smoke continues to pour upward. I think even uptown a lot of people don't realize the fires are still burning. When the wind is blowing strong out of the north like it has been for the last two days you might think the fire's out because the smoke disperses so rapidly. But even with the three strong rains we've had since the 11th the fires continue. A week or so ago I heard they had abated to the point that it could be discerned that there were three main fires. New little ones flare up occasionally, throwing a fresh plumelet of smoke into the air.
>At night is when it's most spectacular, because the work that goes on 24-7 down at "the crime scene" is floodlit, so the smoke is brightly, theatrically illuminated from underneath. When you look to the south -- still expecting to see the towers -- you see instead a
gleaming cloud of bluish-white billowing smoke roiling up from below, as if belching out of hell.
>The trope most often invoked is the disaster movie. But it reminds me more of H.P. Lovecraft, in whose "The Dunwich Horror" a vortex in New England is a portal to unfathomable evil that threatens the entire planet.
>Lovecraft wrote to his hometown paper, the Providence, R.I., Evening News, on 5 September 1914:
>[begin block quote] It is an unfortunate fact that every man who seeks to disseminate knowledge must contend not only against ignorance itself, but against false instruction as well. No sooner do we deem ourselves free from a particularly gross superstition, than we are confronted by some enemy to learning who would set aside all the intellectual progress of years, and plunge us back into the darkness of mediaeval disbelief. [end block quote]
Setting aside all intellectual progress and plunging us back into darkness is a pretty good definition of horror.