A few weeks ago I reread "Slaughterhouse Five," a slim novel about the Allied firebombing that turned the city of Dresden into a pile of rubble overnight. Kurt Vonnegut, who witnessed the firebombing as a prisoner of war and was one of its few survivors, wrote in the first chapter (a chapter about the impossibility of writing the book): "There is nothing intelligent to say about a massacre."
I watched the twin towers of the World Trade Center burn, and the second one collapse, from the Pulaski Bridge connecting Brooklyn and Queens. With me were several dozen other New Yorkers from the neighborhoods of Greenpoint and Long Island City -- Eastern European, African-American, Anglo-American, Latino, Arab, Asian. There was no sound attached to the unbelievable sight, and we returned the silence, our hands covering our mouths. I could only think in words -- "I'm watching so many people die." I couldn't turn the words into pictures or meaning; I didn't have the imagination for it.
Over the next few days there would be countless stories of the almost nonchalant heroism of New Yorkers, and I believed them all, easily. People filed down the stairs of the World Trade Center in an orderly fashion, even though everyone thought they were going to die. One thousand people made a human chain leading out of the smoke, because nobody could see. Over 300 firefighters died trying to save the lives of those trapped in the towers. A man called his wife and said he was about to carry his wheelchair-bound friend down the stairs; neither was heard from again. A Hasidic man from Brooklyn stopped running to pick up an Islamic man from Pakistan, who had fallen to the ground as the cloud of debris swept toward them. Even Mayor Giuliani was, I thought, spontaneously and reassuringly human -- the only politician I saw whom I could tolerate watching, the only one who didn't even try to say anything intelligent about the massacre on that first day.
But eventually one has to start saying things, even when the most logical things have a touch of absurdity to them. And as if to both prove and disprove the impossibility of saying anything intelligent, Vonnegut would write a few pages later: "I have told my sons that they are not under any circumstances to take part in massacres, and that the news of massacres of enemies is not to fill them with satisfaction or glee."
One of the more chillingly surreal moments in the days following the attack unfolded, for me, at the memorial service in Washington, during the "Day of Prayer and Remembrance" on Friday. Everyone who was anyone in D.C. packed into the church, including most of the country's living ex-presidents. As the television audience, we became witnesses to a most extraordinary ritual of hypocrisy and deceit, culminating in the words of George W. Bush that "this nation is peaceful."
The vast majority of American people may be peaceful, but our government is not. And it is, as always, the people who pay the price. I wondered how many of the ex-presidents sitting in those pews would agree with Palestinian intellectual Edward Said, whose response to the attack was: "No cause, no God, no abstract idea can justify the mass slaughter of innocents."
I wondered what could be in the mind of Jimmy Carter, for example, whose administration initiated the policy of arming and training the fundamentalist pawns on what his national security advisor Zbigniew Brzezinski referred as "the great chessboard" in Afghanistan, feeding a war that has cost an estimated 1.5 million lives. This is not counting those lost in the World Trade Center on Sept. 11, whose deaths may turn out to be a direct, rather than simply an indirect, continuation of this very "game" -- since it soon included the arming and training of Osama bin Laden himself. The Afghan people, as journalist James Ingalls wrote, are "no strangers to the terrorism of bin Laden and his friends," thanks in part to Carter and subsequent administrations, but that won't save them from becoming the main targets of American retaliation.
Ronald Reagan wasn't there, of course, and I wished I could imagine that he was at home soul-searching about his bombing of civilian targets in Libya in 1986 or his continuation of aid to Israel after the slaughter of 20,000 civilians in the 1982 invasion of Lebanon. In any case, Reagan's successor George Bush Sr. was there, and even Americans must remember the Persian Gulf War, in which "we" killed an estimated 113,000 Iraqi civilians in the few weeks of the official war alone, and which paved the way for subsequent presidents to bomb Iraq whenever the spirit, the polls, or the economy moved them.
Bill Clinton was there, of course. In addition to continuing the aerial bombardment begun by Bush, President Clinton continued the barbaric embargoes against Iraq, which still result in death by starvation of 4,000 to 7,000 Iraqi civilians per month. Clinton also has his share of experience in "anti-terrorist retaliation" and its "collateral damage" -- one of the most well-known in the Muslim world is his direct order to fire 13 cruise missiles into the Al Shifa pharmaceutical plant in Khartoum, Sudan, which deprived an impoverished nation of desperately needed drugs and caused uncountable deaths. (The United States' claim that the plant was involved in the manufacture of chemical weapons was never substantiated.)
In short, there was not an ex-president in that church who did not have the blood of tens of thousands of Arab and Muslim civilians on his hands, and who did not commit these acts in the name of the American people. And now the American people, who may be paying an incalculable price for the actions of our leaders, are expected to believe that the hijackers, if they were Muslim, had no interest whatsoever in any of these atrocities committed against their people and in their lands, but were simply madmen intent on destroying "freedom" for no other reason than that they didn't like it. Even more, we are expected to believe this so absolutely that there can be no further discussion on the matter.
As if, even in the midst of all our own talk about retaliation (including the purported acceptability of civilian casualties) there is not even the slightest possibility that this was itself retaliation. As if others take any more kindly to the massacre of their people than we do to the massacre of ours. As if we believe that the massacre of other people is not even worth considering, and as if it could not be this belief itself -- this racist arrogance -- that helps push people to such levels of desperate inhumanity. As if the very discussion of these possibilities is itself to participate in terrorism.
Even in Europe there seems to be a growing frustration and hand-wringing incomprehension of the degree to which the American public seems ignorant of our own government's actions. There are glimmers of this on BBC, and an article in the London Guardian on Sept. 13 was titled "They Can't See Why They Are Hated: Americans cannot ignore what their government does abroad." (Incidentally, if the hijackers turn out not to be related to bin Laden or even the Islamic world, then the premature rush to bomb Afghanistan is proof in itself of the regard in which our government holds the lives of the Afghan people.)
But maybe we're not as ignorant as the Guardian reporter imagines. Amid all the war propaganda there are signs that many Americans question our government's relation to the rest of the world, and many are prepared to resist the war that is about to be waged in our name and which, by all current indications, will be another mass slaughter of innocents. (The war has already begun with the U.S. demand that Pakistan cut off the food and other supplies that are keeping some of Afghanistan's already starving people alive, a beyond-vengeful act that will have no impact on the ultra-wealthy bin Laden.)
It is not in spite of its horror and inhumanity that we seek to understand this tragedy; the horror of the tragedy is why we want to understand it and to point our future in a different direction from it. We should not feel guilty or apprehensive about using every bit of knowledge and comprehension we can muster to make any sense of what happened on Sept. 11. It is the least we can do.
This article originally appeared in the newspaper LGNY.