The events of yesterday morning and their repercussions have left an indelible mark on each of us in a way that we will remember like a tattoo doubtless for the rest of our lives. For our parents, John F. Kennedy’s death marked their generation because it was history they lived, that they touched or that touched them. For our grandparents it was WWII, D-Day, VE Day, Hiroshima, Nagasaki, and the portentous bombing of Pear Harbour—to which yesterday’s events have been unvaryingly analogized. The only other time I have felt like a participant or a spectator in certain history
was in 1986 when we watched the launch and subsequent explosion of the space shuttle Challenger in my grade two class.
The difference between the Challenger and the American Airlines flights 77 and 11 and the United Airlines flights 175 and 93 is all too obvious. In 1986 we could only ask our gods the inevitable and unanswerable "Why?" or shake or bow our heads. This awful fall we can only ask "What next?" and wait for the answers to reveal themselves or seek them out.
The certainty of yesterday’s plane crashes, two into the World Trade Centre, one into the Pentagon and one in Western Pennsylvania (rumoured to be aimed at Camp David) is that they were no coincidence. Cell phone calls from passengers and crew on some of the planes to emergency lines revealed some of the horrifying details of what was happening onboard. Each plane had between three and five hijackers aboard who used knives to force the passengers and crew including the pilots to the back of the plane. In at least one case one or maybe more stewardesses were killed before the planes crashed. The planes were guided into the buildings presumably by the hijackers themselves. Any pilot would have his or her life taken before they would acquiesce to that demand.
I heard from a friend who was up early this morning listening to CBC that another plane was reported to have crashed in Colorado near or on the NORAD base, but that the CBC had stopped reporting on it almost as soon as it happened. A call to NORAD elicited the predictable response: "No plane crashed in Colorado," said the woman on the line. If NORAD was damaged, destroyed or otherwise incapacitated there is no way that the public would hear about it. Confessing absolute vulnerability to air and space attack of all kinds would be a death knell for the US in the ring of world power. Regardless, among the dead or missing are: 250 firemen, 266 passengers and crew, 800 or so Pentagon staff, 78 or so police and countless New Yorkers.
I can think of a Bukowski poem where he describes the naiveté of his company by disparaging them as people whose "cities have never been bombed…." If anything, the North America of today is growing up in a way that it hasn’t since the US Civil War.
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The US and their allies are potentially under continued threat. By whom is the question that will be in the news for weeks to come. We may not learn just whom or how they were involved until years later—we’re still learning about JFK’s assassination. Books like Norman Mailer’s Harlot’s Ghost use fiction to get closer to the truth than non-fiction will ever be able to. In times like this, when we are mired in the history we are trying to study, this speculation is all we have. It is this speculation that media outlets will make their primary activity now that the few facts we know are out, but the story is still incomplete.
The media speaks of the "sophistication and co-ordination" of "such a major conspiracy" and how it could be concealed from international intelligence agencies. What strikes me most is the simplicity of the terrorism. It could have been planned by the simplest minds. All that is needed is: a flight schedule for the major airlines; a little structural analysis of the targeted buildings; airline tickets; and several groups of people with exacto-knives, swiss army knives, plastic knives and an immortal belief in an ideology that places the US military, the World Trade Center and all that they symbolize and all who participate in their activities as irreconcilably antithetical to whatever it holds as good or right. Anyone capable of planning a weekend baseball tournement could have planned this attack. Almost anyone could have executed it. But historically only fanatical religious terrorists have a pattern of self-sacrifice to their terrorism.
As a result, the media and many US government spokespeople hold Osama bin Laden as the prime suspect as he has declared his violent and absolute opposition to the US and all that it represents. Housed by the Taliban in Afghanistan, he has denied connection to the hijackings, as he has denied his connections with all the other bombings that have been attributed to him. An assault on the Taliban earlier yesterday evening was thought to be a retaliation for what is being called an attack on the US, but the US Secretary of Defence denied any connection to the attack. US involvement in the Bay of Pigs invasion was denied similarly, though that isn’t necessarily relevant. Bin Laden said that it was an American party that was responsible. He might not be wrong.
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The World Trade Center was a functional symbol of US economic power. The Pentagon is a functional symbol of US military power. The United States holds the world under threat of economic violence or military violence simply by the fact that it has the power to destroy by fire or by economic famine almost anyone or anything—and depending on which political entities you are allied with, that threat is either implicit or explicit. The implicit threat of military action—be it from the US or from anyone—is the reason that every sovereign nation has and needs a military. But these attacks don’t seem to be the work of any sovereign nation, but rather a nation without property, a nation of an ideal.
A nation is an idea. An ideology. President George W. Bush would have the world believe the United States is a nation whose guiding idea is freedom. We will soon hear the word "freedom" littered throughout the media until it looses any shadow of meaning that it might have left in an attempt to give to it the meaning and feeling that the images we’ve seen on TV since yesterday morning inspire in people all over North America. And, as Bush would have the world suspect, the nation whose guiding idea is "evil" is bin Laden’s nation of Islam.
Here is where my own naiveté and my own egocentricity steers the speculation. Who else would do this? Who else holds the US in such contempt—particularly its economic power and its military force? I think to the places I know that I’ve seen violent adversity in which the ideas represented by the World Trade Center and the Pentagon were participant in conflict. Vancouver’s APEC Summit in 1996. Seattle in early 2000. Washington D.C. later that year. Quebec City in April of this year. These are the places where I’ve seen thousands of people show their opposition to these represented ideas in the only way in which they are legally endowed: non-violent protest. And at all these protests there were groups dissatisfied with the slow, seemingly impotent process of non-violent protest. Even the common ideas of the peaceful protesters would steer North America far to the political left of the currently implemented ideas of the political powers. Yesterday’s events could be seen as a drastic jerk of the wheel, or a bullet to the chest of the driver, or to the engine block, by a group of aggressive radical left-wing activists.
That an attack of such "sophistication" could slip through the massive wire-tapping and monitoring of suspected terrorists by US intelligence would be no surprise if the attack was planned by an unsuspected entity. The weapons that were used were airplanes, civilian transport, and knives, domestic tools. Not bombs. Not guns. Is this another civil war? Possibly.
But if I’m right, if radical left-wing activists have declared war on the North American status quo, then I’m left with one other, more dire question that runs deeper than the question "Who?" that we’re all asking. The question is, "Which side am I on?"
For the sake of sleep, I’ll hang on to what’s certain: the sky has fallen; the world is changed. For the sake of sleep, I’ll call myself a fool. Maybe I’ll hope to still be a fool in the morning.