Washington, D.C. November 2001

What Auden Didn't Know

The things that stay in place
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On September 11, when the Pentagon was hit, Debbie Lehan, the operations manager at my apartment building, in Washington, D.C., and Damon Boone, the lead engineer, moved their cars out of the underground garage and parked them to block both ends of the building's horseshoe drive. Of course that was absurd—as if the terrorists had thought, "World Trade Center, Pentagon, and ... the place on Connecticut Avenue where Naomi Wolf used to live." But by noon all the building's children had been gathered home from school or day care. The children played in the empty half oval. Career daddies and career mommies hovered. The barricaded driveway was absurd, if one could keep from tearing up.

"Better to do something," Debbie said.

Damon unlocked the door to the building's roof. We could see the Pentagon on fire across the Potomac. "It makes me angry, scared, sad, all at once," Damon said. According to the theory of terrorism, it was supposed to make him paralyzed with terror.

The traffic on Connecticut Avenue was coming from downtown as if in the evening rush hour. But there was none of the usual honking at the District's unsequenced and haphazardly placed stoplights.

Downtown the cars were gone and the stores were closed. Police officers stood in ones and twos. On the corner of F and Fourteenth Street two businessmen, two bike messengers, and a panhandler were listening to the panhandler's portable radio. A tape of President Bush's first response to the terrorist attack was being broadcast. One of the messengers said, in the voice people use when they're saying something important, "After today things will never be the same." Then he seemed to have one of those moments that came to everyone on September 11, with jumbled thoughts alike in size but wildly mismatched in weight—pity, rage, how to get the shirts back from the dry cleaner. "Transportation in the air won't be as fast," he said in a smaller voice.

At the corner of Fourteenth and Constitution a policeman set out flares to block the street. The policeman took the plastic caps off the flares and tossed the caps aside with the decisive gesture of a man suspending minor public mores in a crisis. A young man on a bicycle stopped at the curb and said to me, "At least the grocery stores are open. But the trucks can't get to the stores. If it's going to be a big international war, I'll just fast."

The young man had a theory that the terrorism had to do with America's pulling out of the UN conference on racism in South Africa, but he was interrupted by a woman indignant that the portable toilets at the Washington Monument were still in use. "They don't know what I could be doing in there," she said.

The grass expanse in the middle of the Mall was deserted except for the homeless, suddenly homeless alone. Like everyone else, they seemed subdued, although they didn't stay subdued. The next day, at Eighteenth and L, I would see a ragged man in the middle of the street shouting, "I'll kill all of you people! I don't like any of you!" No one, including the soldiers who were by then everywhere in Washington, paid attention.

Michele Lieber, a lobbyist who lives in my building, had come downtown with me. Alongside the Mall snack and souvenir trucks were dutifully open. Michele asked a snack-truck proprietor if business was good. "Yes, of course," he dutifully said.

That day, for the first time in thirteen years in Washington, I saw no protesters. And hardly any were around on Wednesday. A reopened Lafayette Park would feature only an old woman with a sign saying WHITE HOUSE ANTI-NUCLEAR PEACE VIGIL SINCE 1981 and a middle-aged hippie on a similar anti-nuclear sleep-out SINCE 1984. The old woman was talking mostly to herself. "They provoked what happened," she said. The hippie was talking to two adolescent girls with piercings, discussing his pet squirrel.

On Tuesday afternoon even TV crews were absent from the White House vicinity. On Constitution at the Ellipse the ABC White House correspondent Terry Moran was on a lone stand-up, not saying much to the camera. A few people gathered around the TV crew, also not saying much. "We just got here from Slovakia and everything happened," a tourist said.

Michele and I had walked to the reflecting pool behind the Capitol before we saw any more tourists. A family in sports clothes was standing there looking baffled. I introduced myself to the father, and his first words were (one is grateful for not being conspiracy-minded) "We're from Slovakia."

At Bullfeathers, a restaurant on First Street, four or five televisions were on, their volume turned up. A congressman and his female aide were in the men's room, the only place quiet enough for the congressman to do a phone interview. The congressman was saying, "We will make the people who did this pay. It is awfully hard to defend yourself from people who have no respect for human life." He seemed to be pulling in two directions—as did the soldiers on the streets the next day, camouflaged for invisibility and wearing blaze-orange traffic-control vests.

At The Dubliner, a bar on North Capitol Street, two congressional staffers were talking. "The congressional leadership has been whisked off to 'an undisclosed location,'" one said. "As far as I'm concerned, they can keep most of them there." This touched on another theory of terrorism: that the organization of society can be attacked by striking organizations; that we can't organize things ourselves.

"Four Guinness," the first staffer said to the bartender.

"Time to take sides," the second staffer said.

"Time to turn sand into glass," the first said.

Ariel Sharon was on CNN. "This is a war between the good and the bad," he said.

On Monday night, September 10, I had finished an article for this magazine about Israel, a country that has been under terrorist attack for generations, forever, and where I had found daily life to be markedly free of the effects that terrorism is supposed to produce. On Tuesday I didn't want the article to be published. It wasn't grim enough. I was thinking (like bike messengers and everyone else), After today things will never be the same. Lines from W. H. Auden's poem "September 1, 1939" came to mind: "Waves of anger and fear / Circulate over the bright / And darkened lands of the earth." By Wednesday I realized that I'd never known what Auden was getting at with that poem, except, perhaps, in "As the clever hopes expire / Of a low dishonest decade." Apt enough, but "Where blind skyscrapers use / Their full height to proclaim / The strength of Collective Man"—what's that crap? Or this: "Ironic points of light / Flash out wherever the Just / Exchange their messages."

Anyway, Auden was one of the few Englishmen who, when World War II loomed, acted as Hitler would have Englishmen act: he ran away. In Israel waves of anger and fear circulate all the time, but so do jokes, and gossip, and silky evening breezes. So, too, in America.

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