In Washington, Tuesday afternoon saw the city in flight not just from terror but from itself . . . People poured out of office buildings and . . . within two hours, everyone was gone . . . The streets were deserted, as if the explosion at the Pentagon had triggered some secondary neutron-bomb blast downtown. People . . . on the sidewalks hurried along, stopping to look skyward when a plane became visible or audible. I have never before seen people in an American city grow nervous at the sound or sight of aircraft.
The crassest of patriots and jingoists, clanking their chains for war, will dominate the talk-show gas pipes. Brace for a new wave of Brokaw-ish bathos about the sacrifices that American forces made in Normandy and that they soon will be called on to perform again, though we’re not quite sure where . . . yet. Prepare for a long national ritual of mass victimhood destined almost certainly to culminate in some sort of redemptive blood feast on foreign shores.
Perhaps the eeriest feature of this media blitzkrieg was watching the coverage morph from honest shock to the higher brainwashing — Media Fundamentalism. Suddenly, we were being told how to be patriotic and how to mourn . . . One afternoon I was listening to a radio interview with journalist Robert Fisk, the last Westerner to interview bin Laden, who was explaining that the terrorist financier comes across as neither mad nor demonic. Abruptly, the interview was cut off from the studio with the sentence, “As important as it is to understand those who may have perpetuated these attacks, it’s equally important to remember the victims.” The station then began talking to a guy whose wife was killed in the attack. And this was on NPR.
On Tuesday, the hostile calls have abated, and Usman Madha is in genuinely good spirits when he leaves the mosque in the evening. “People always ask how to pronounce my first name,” he says. “I used to tell them it doesn’t matter. Oosman, Usman, Osman. Whatever. But from now on maybe I should tell them it’s U.S. Man. You like that? I think it’s good,” he says, his tone suddenly almost giddy. “Okay, from now on, that’s who I am. U.S. Man.”
“Americans will no longer feel safe on their own soil,” they say. I so seldom feel “safe” in America that my own unease and sense of displacement in my homeland hums in the background on a constant purr. It’s just part of the soundtrack. The night before the New York and D.C. attacks, I had a nightmare of being chased down and assaulted by cops. I woke up shaking and sweating, feeling like Dead Man No. 3 in a Freddy Krueger flick . . . Bin Laden and his ilk didn’t just fall out of the sky. They ain’t just playa-hatin’. Most Americans have no idea what it costs so much of the world for us to be America. How could we? We don’t even know what it costs Americans for this country to exist as it does.
Bush believes in a god. Lots of people do. Can you imagine what it must feel like to believe in a god? It must be awfully comforting. Sometimes I wish I believed in a god, just to make life easier. But I’ve never been able to muster that kind of arrogance. Do you recall the last time that anyone was terrorized by agnostic fundamentalists?