Listening to America

Listening to America

What we can learn from the "anguished, angry, fearful, plucky" voices of citizens talking about September 11 and its aftermath

By Jack Beatty

For the past five weeks, I have been working on a radio program that runs two hours each evening from Monday to Friday; the subject, the sole focus, of "Special Coverage from WBUR-Boston" has been September 11 and its aftermath—terror's war on America and America's war on terror. The show features radio diaries, debriefings of journalists and newsmakers from around the world, expert guests, and callers with questions, comments, and presentiments.

The callers provide the incalculable element. One said that the terrorists struck at two targets, the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, that symbolize America, right? Right. Why, then, shouldn't we strike at targets that symbolize Islam, like Mecca? He sounded rational. Shortly after September 11, another caller said he feared that the terrorists would use germ warfare—he mentioned anthrax—and thought that smallpox or plague could be spread by "human bombs." I think our expert guest pooh-poohed the idea. Technical constraints made "weaponizing" germs too difficult, etc. A sergeant who trained U.S. Special Forces called to say that, for all the billions the U.S. spends on defense, he regularly had to dip into his own pocket to buy supplies for his troops. A guest, a former high-ranking officer, said he had never heard of anything like that and all but questioned the sergeant's veracity.

Again and again, the experts demurred, urged calm—calm on the risks of bioterrorism and of attacking Afghanistan, calm on the danger of civil war in Pakistan, calm on the Middle East. My colleague Tom Ashbrook, the host of Special Coverage, was led to wonder aloud whether the relevant strata of the American expert class was not engaged in a "psy-ops" campaign against the rest of us, as if their part in the war on terror was not to let terror get out of hand. In fairness to the experts, knowledge, being retrospective, is scandalized by the unprecedented.

Special Coverage has caught the anguished, angry, fearful, plucky voices of a cross section of Americans and foreign visitors testing their pre-September 11 ideas against September 11. They have tested religion—God works inscrutably; God has abandoned us. They have queried politics, some asking, Did we do something to deserve this? Others feel firmly that nothing we have done—not the sanctions on Iraq, not U.S. support either of authoritarian regimes in the Middle East or of Israel—is or could be responsible. Were we responsible for Timothy McVeigh, one asked? They have sought comfort in history: think of the challenges (Depression, World War II) the Greatest Generation faced, Americans, and square your shoulders for "the duration," as one caller put it, revising a World War II phrase. They have shared strategies of coping: confront your fears, feel your anger, it's okay to be sad. An Israeli psychiatrist counseled, "Life continues."

Several callers reminded us what brief rummaging confirmed: attacks on New York City have haunted the popular imagination at least since the invention of the airplane. Here is the historian Ronald Schaffer's description of a poster put out by the Committee on Public Information, a U.S. propaganda agency, in World War One: "The 'Hohenzollern Dream' depicts a gigantic, portly German soldier … holding a rifle and bayonet on one shoulder while a vulture perches on the other. His left boot is partly immersed in New York harbor, and with his right boot he is crushing the towers of skyscrapers." Another poster shows lower Manhattan in flames, as German planes circle overhead, with the severed head of a wrecked Statue of Liberty in the foreground (the head reappears, unforgettably, on the beach of a post-nuclear Earth in the climax of the 1968 movie Planet of the Apes). Act one of Orson Welles's 1938 broadcast version of "War of the Worlds" ends with the giant martian war machines crossing the Hudson River toward the West Side of Manhattan, the scene narrated by a correspondent atop a skyscraper, registering the approach of his own doom. Fail-Safe (1964), a then-terrifying Cold War thriller, ends with an American plane, compensating for the accidental U.S. obliteration of Moscow, dropping a nuclear bomb on Manhattan. In the 1990s two films, Independence Day (1996) and Deep Impact (1998), linger on the destruction of lower Manhattan. In the former, clouds of fiery dust pursue panic-stricken New Yorkers up Wall Street, preluding the reality of September 11; in the latter, a tidal wave collapses the Twin Towers themselves.

Interviewed at a Cambridge, Massachusetts, day-care center, a pregnant young mother, who was in Manhattan to witness the fall of the real towers, said she and her husband may leave the country. She sobbed as she told our reporter, "I don't ever want my kids to see that or experience it." May history grant her wish. It is not, after all, too much to hope for.

This article available online at:

http://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2001/11/listening-to-america/303153/