Not long after the first American Airlines jet crashed into the World Trade Center, CBS showed footage of hundreds of people rushing away from the building. What astonished me were the faces. A few people looked terrified, most of them looked stunned, and one, a beefy New York cop, sauntered by with a smile frozen across his face. If this were a Hollywood movie — and in describing the events of Tuesday, action movies became the inevitable reference point — such a smile would mean that the cop was the villain beaming in triumph. But here it only meant that this cop — like everyone around him, and those of us watching the events on TV — was at a complete loss. His world was literally collapsing around him, and he lacked the emotional vocabulary to know how to react.
In the hours that followed, everything felt unloosed from its moorings. You heard friends on the phone sobbing, saw people driving like zombie maniacs on the freeways, and suddenly discovered that everyone you knew had some horror story about the shoddiness of America’s airport security. Collectors flocked to Manhattan gift shops to invest in post cards of the downed towers; morons sent death threats to Islamic schools in L.A.; Newt Gingrich talked to Bill O’Reilly about “Islama” Bin Laden. And the media went topsy-turvy. Even as the leftish Village Voice’s Web page ran a headline that read simply, “The Bastards!” CNN indulged in the stunt of interviewing novelist Tom Clancy simply because he’d written a thriller about a similar attack. I was braced for the worst —Clancy is, after all, a wannabe Rambo— but he launched into a monologue about how Islam is a religion of love, like Christianity and Judaism, and we shouldn’t believe that the actions of a few madmen actually represent such a religion. “My God,” I told my wife. “Tom Clancy has become the voice of reason.”
It’s the nature of media culture to try to make everything feel safely formatted, and the networks quickly posted glib little slogans up on the screen. “America Attacked.” “Terrorism Hits America.” Yet they looked pathetic, umbrellas held up to stop an avalanche. After all, it’s one thing to declare that America’s at war, as did Dan Rather, who dubbed it “apocalypse, now.” It’s another to say this when you’re not sure who has attacked you. These events were so far outside any anchorman’s expectations that the networks fell into numbing repetition — those towers just kept collapsing — punctuated by bursts of unexpected honesty. At one point, Peter Jennings interviewed a freelance ä 33 photographer, Kevin Sutavee, who’d taken far grittier footage of the towers than any of the professional news crews. Sutavee said the bombings embodied the “power of ignorance,” but he also said that he could understand why the disenfranchised might well hate capitalism. You knew if ABC News weren’t so utterly discombobulated, it would never let somebody say that on its telecast.
The one voice you expected to hear was President George W. Bush, who came across like David Schwimmer’s weakling commander in Band of Brothers. It was bad that his initial response was to say that America was going “to hunt and to find those folks responsible.” Realizing that the term “folks” wasn’t exactly the mot juste for describing terrorists who may have killed thousands, most news outlets took to paraphrasing his words to make him sound more presidential. And it was worse when he said that terrorism against our nation “will not stand” — a direct reference to the words his father used after Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait. The difference, of course, is that the WTC was already not standing.
If anything could make the American public long for a real president, it was seeing Bush scurry around the country after the attack. He may have spent his first seven months humiliating Colin Powell, but I kept hearing people say that they couldn’t wait for the secretary of state to get back from Peru; it would be comforting to see a grown-up standing there on the podium. While there were endless comparisons with Pearl Harbor, Bush delivered no Roosevelt-style “Day that will live in infamy” speech. No, watching Bush address the nation from the Oval Office Tuesday night, you knew that he himself hadn’t found the proper emotional vocabulary to lead the country. This isn’t an ideological point. Even when wounded by an assassin’s bullet, Ronald Reagan managed to be reassuring.
It’s always tempting to blame the president for terrorist attacks, and it must be said that Bush’s arrogant attitude toward the rest of world — essentially, “Fuck you, we’ll do we want” — has pushed international resentment of America to dangerous levels. I was living in Southeast Asia during the first months of his presidency, and our close allies there were appalled by his disdain for the opinions of other countries. But while Bush comes across as an American lout, his policies are continuous with those of his predecessors, including Bill Clinton’s.