Battle Hymn of the Republic: Wednesday, September 12, 2001

The general tension was horrible. To a season of political and social upheaval was added a strange and brooding apprehension of hideous physical danger; a danger widespread and all-embracing, such a danger as may be imagined only in the most terrible phantasms of the night. I recall that the people went about with pale and worried faces, and whispered warnings and prophecies which no one dared consciously repeat or acknowledge to himself that he had heard. A sense of monstrous guilt was upon the land, and out of the abysses between the stars swept chill currents that made men shiver in dark and lonely places. There was a daemonic alteration in the sequence of the seasons—the autumn heat lingered fearsomely, and everyone felt that the world and perhaps the universe had passed from the control of known gods or forces to that of gods or forces which were unknown.

H. P. Lovecraft, “Nyarlathotep.”

I thought that yesterday was the worst. I was wrong. Today has been much, much worse, than I could have imagined. All day I’ve been tearing up unexpectedly, when things with no apparent connection to the whirlpool of emotions out there suddenly force themselves upon my attention. I’ve had to keep reminding myself to take breaths, because I suddenly realize that for the last half hour I’ve been doing nothing but take short, impossibly short breaths, unaware of the toxins building up inside my system.

And it’s been an absolutely gorgeous D.C. day. The happy-minded will interpret this as evidence of God’s beneficence, proof that life does indeed go on. But it seems like a cosmic joke, an invitation for people to go outside when many are afraid to do so or glued to their TVs or telephones trying to find out what has happened to friends and loved ones.

I held class as usual yesterday. That too seems like a terrible joke, although that is the power of events like these, to suddenly make us second-guess and trivialize our prior actions. I had heard just before going into class that a plane had crashed into the WTC. When I got to class one of my students had said that he’d heard it might be two planes, and asked me if they were airliners. I said no, because the initial web reports had mentioned light planes. I’m thinking, “some crazed lunatic.” Just another day in America. Terrible, but there you are. That callousness now overwhelms me with how completely I had become inured to the random act of violence in this oh-so-violent society. There are moments in your life that you will never stop wishing back, and that will be one of mine. I wonder if my students will forgive me.

And we had a good class, working through some difficult aspects of Patchwork Girl. They were remarkably focused and articulate as it seems to me now, although I would expect no less of them.

Class finished, and we walked out into a world of chaos.

21st Street was jammed with cars. Nothing was moving, people weaving in and out of them. I overheard snatches of conversation: “classes cancelled,” “explosion,” “bomb at the State Department.” The air was filled with the wail of sirens. Yet nobody seemed particularly panicked. I walked with a student that I’d arranged to meet and we talked about his schoolwork—his attempt to stay on top of things, his study habits. We got to my office and Connie filled me in briefly: two ariliners crashing into the WTC, another one crashing into the Pentagon, a bomb at the State Department, classes cancelled, the whole downtown being evacuated.

There was a message tacked to my door from Mary: “Mark, come to Georgetown.” Faculty who had taught morning classes were packing up their belongings, arranging rides with one another. Judith Harris came up to me. “You know, this is very unusal for me, I’m not usually this calm. But now, the only thing that terrifies me is doctors, so as long as no doctors come near me I’ll be fine.” All the phones were down, but our internet connections were still up and running, so I dropped Mary a line saying I was on my way. Cayo, Ormond, and Phyllis offered to give me a lift to Georgetown, and as we walked out of Rome, Phyllis was saying, “Who is doing this to us?”

One glance at the street outside and I knew that they were going to have enough trouble trying to get to Takoma Park without a side-trip to Georgetown, so I set out on foot.

Clumps of people were everywhere, standing outside the doors of parked cars with their radios on. Cars were everywhere, most of them not going anywhere, although there wasn’t a lot of panicking as far as I could see. M Street was, as expected, chaos, traffic streams merging from the side streets into one undifferentiated mass. As I made my way down M street, motorcycle cops began to show up, riding up over the curb to try and get in a position where they could direct traffic.

I began to notice things. Two guys in business casual passed me, walking the other way, talking heatedly about the unfairness of their promotional criteria. People around me stared at their now useless cellphones in disgust. A young woman, wearing impossibly high heels, passed me; I thought suddenly how she must be regretting that fashion choice, and then immediately felt churlish. I passed a homeless guy leaning up against the corner of a building, asking for change with a cheerful relaxed air, and I found myself thinking: has no one told him? How many other forgotten and marginalized people have been ignored as we rush to escape? I saw the flag flying over Key park, and immediately thought: that should be at half mast.

Mary had propped the door to the Car Barn open and I went inside, but then found that I couldn’t for the life of me remember where her office was. I asked a student but he didn’t know, so I rode with him up to the second floor and went into the MBA office. The woman there had never heard of the Key Bridge project, or UIS. And to make matters worse, she couldn’t understand my accent. Had it suddenly got stronger with anxiety and uncertainty? Was I speaking too fast? I felt calm, and on the contrary everything seemed to be moving in slow motion. I used their lobby phone to call up to Mary. She sounded perfectly calm, almost as if I’d just dropped by to have lunch, told me to stay where I was and that she would be down to get me.

I wandered towards the elevator, turned around and noticed an office suite to the right, with three or four people staring out the windows. I guess there must have been windows in the MBA office but I hadn’t noticed, so focused was I on finding Mary. I walked into the doorway of the office, craned to peer around one of the people, and saw the Pentagon.

Everything was still the same, the Rosslyn skyline, jagged with corporate headquarters and hotels, the slow Potomac, blue and highly reflective, the mid-day sun skittering off its surface and into the thick green lining its banks. And three miles away, give or take, a charcoal cloud rising out of the Pentagon. I felt everything rush in on me at that moment. No one ever forgets that kind of feeling—an overwhelming sense of the unreality of it all coupled with a dreadful certainty of the all too real, each fighting it out with the other and refusing to yield. The Pentagon had been attacked. Everything I had heard was true (of course, as we found out today, everything hadn’t been true—there was no bomb at the State Department, no plane still in the air heading to DC—although assuming there was, I found terrible comfort in the idea that the Air Force would not now hesitate to shoot it down, however many passengers were on board—I don’t know whether that is true or not, but how willing was I to sacrifice those nameless innocents).

I met up with Mary, and she calmly moved through the office, making sure that all her staff were on the way home, shutting down the office functions, touching base with colleagues and superiors. Upon going outside we briefly contemplated trying to stay in town until the traffic cleared. Absurdly, we though of getting some lunch, even though every placed I had passed had been closed. But we decided that however late we left it chaos was still going to prevail, so we might as well set off now.

The Key Bridge & M intersection was a snarl of traffic. There were no police to be seen and two individuals (may have been off-duty officers, but I don’t think so) had taken it upon themselves to direct traffic. The congestion was made worse by the stream of bewildered students trying to leave the university. One of the guys was stopping each student car, asking them where they wanted to go, giving them instructions on how to get there. We joined a stream of people walking across the bridge. As bicyclists squeezed their way past, we talked of whether it should be compulsory for cyclists to have bells, trying not to look at the spreading stain in the direction of the Pentagon.

We picked up the car at the Rosslyn Marriott, where Mary always parks, and headed for the 66.

Surprisingly, traffic was moving pretty well on the freeway, especially compared with the tangle in the city itself. At one point we were passed by a couple of secret service SUVs and a limo, lights flashing, heading West at fully speed. We thought it might have been on its way to Dulles (which is where, it was rumored, the plane that had hit the Pentagon had taken off) but from what emerged subsequently I think it more likely it was a high ranking government official being spirited away somewhere.

We got home about 1pm, grabbed something to eat and (in my case) a stiff drink and turned on the TV. With that press of a button we joined the rest of the country in an act of communion based on a collective nightmare. Images and rumors tumbled fast and furious over one another. And even the most outlandish rumors subsequently debunked were nothing compared with that plane hitting the tower over and over and over again. I couldn’t grasp what had happened; writing this I still can’t. I know something terrible happened, and I keep wondering what it was and then remembering: “Oh yes, a plane with people on it was deliberately smashed into a building with people in it and thousands may have died. But that can’t be true.”

At a certain point we couldn’t watch anymore, took a break, talked with our neighbour, Parag, did other things, anything else. And when we dipped back in there was always more of the unbelievable. Rumors that we had already struck back at Kabul, a fire in the Pentagon that would not die, a gaping hole in the NY skyline with buildings continuing to collapse, new, more intimate angles of the second plane tearing the heart out of the second tower, images of people hurling themselves to their deaths. You couldn’t watch yet you couldn’t not watch, sifting for anythign that would cause any of it to make sense.

I went to bed and slept a little in between terrible dreams of people jumping from burning buildings. Fragments of irrationality rendered in a detail the best camera could not hope to match. When I woke up I was more exhausted. It took me straight back to when we heard about the destruction of the compound at Waco. We were living in our first apartment in Irvine at the time. We didn’t have a TV so we never saw the images of the burning, although I may have seen a color photo on a newspaper front page at a newstand (because we didn’t have a paper subscription then either). So all we had was the radio. And I dreamed of burning children for the next couple of nights.

“An active imagination” my parents and teachers commented from time to time. But in times like this such excess of sympathy is almost a liability.

And today you could feel the terrible absence at the heart of it all. Too much of some things and not enough of others. Too much weather. Too few people. Too many humvees and armed National Guardspeople (one vehicle guarding the hospital entrance just across the road from me). Too few survivors. Too much hate. And nothing that could oppose such hate.

The Metro this morning was much emptier than usual. And no one was saying anything. One woman in my carriage started a conversation but quickly stopped, feeling self-conscious no doubt. People mostly just read..

There were police at the Foggy Bottom Metro—but then there often are. And on the surface the same shuffle of humanity through the university itself. You had to look in the students’ faces to see that they looked as if they had been sucker-punched. Outside the limits of the campus, DC was practically deserted.

In an e-mail to faculty, staff, and students GW had announced that classes would resume “as usual,” an attempt at getting back on track that may have seemed like a laudable idea (show the terrorists we weren’t affected, etc.) at the time, but was a conspicuous failure and only made me angrier as the day wore on. It wasn’t business as usual and we were affected. The university should have closed, given everyone an attempt to absorb this, find a way to deal with it. Or at least there should have been some administratively sanctioned coping mechanism, as I learned later from Mary there had been at Georgetown. There was a candlelight vigil at 9 that evening but the cynical side of me couldn’t help observing that this fell outside the regular “work” hours of the university.

Undoubtedly, some teachers tried to march through their content as if nothing had happened, lecturing on into a deep absorbent pool of stunned disbelief. I heard from some students that this was the case. Other teachers tried to begin talking about the events and reported widely varying responses both to their attempts and to events from the students themselves. At one extreme my colleagues reported most of their Middle Eastern students (many of them, ironically, Kuwaiti) either didn’t show up for class or mailed their teachers saying they were too scared to attend. Other students took refuge in inane bursts of patriotism (one of my friends reported a student had come to her class with USA written all over his body).

The Composing listserv became the vehicle whereby many of the department’s writing teachers struggled to figure out how they were going to teach today, tomorrow, and the next day. I saw some of the best, most engaged ideas for teaching to this event, the kind of response I would have anticipated from a group of people I have come to respect deeply. Great teachers rushed to fill the void as we often do, left by our university’s abdication of responsibility for the welfare of its students. All the ideas were both extraordinarily helpful and comforting, and intimidating for I could not find it in me to use this as a teachable moment.

Obviously I wanted to respond but all around me I was seeing the results of people rushing to respond, mistaking the articulation of grief for analysis, anger for justification, fear for reason. I couldn’t become a part of that. Something else was required but I couldn’t put my finger on it. I don’t think I ever did.

I headed home around two and I was the only person traveling either up or down the escalator at Foggy Bottom. The escalator was making a terrible shrieking noise and I found myself wondering the noise was new, some strange response to the absence of normal weight, or was the noise always there and simply invisible behind the normal human mutter entering and exiting the station.

Tonight some of the numbness began to wear off, and it was a bad night for both of us but especially Mary. As the stories of the victims began to emerge, stories that took them out of the vast pool of statistics, each of them a loss that, to use Guiliani’s phrase, was more than we could bear. Tonight details bean to emerge that the plane which hit the Pentagon had originally been heading for the White House, and it slowly began to dawn on Mary and I that an airliner traveling at 500mph wouldn’t have to fall short of the White House by much for our whole Tuesday to have been a vastly different experience.

Wed, 12 Sep 2001 10:57:41 -0400 (EDT)
From: Mary Pickering
Subject: Day 2
To: Friends and Family

Dear family and friends,

This is a difficult e-mail to send. Today is an incredibly surreal day. Some of you in NZ will have woken up to this news. Those of you in the US will have been glued to your televisions as we have, probably with the same feelings of helplessness, horror and disbelief. We’ve been alternating between emotional distance, unable to comprehend the numbers dead and the enormity of the tragedy and times when we break down at the sight of firefighters hugging each other after running literally for their lives or the stories of last phone calls from the hijacked planes.

Today details are starting to emerge. Today numbers are beginning to be talked of, though no-one is attempting to guess at the total fatality. 200 firefighters, 70 police officers, 100-800 pentagon workers.

Yesterday was a day for rumours, some beyond belief yet true, some false, thank goodness. The rumour of smoke at the White House or the attack on the mall was frightening to me because Mark works a block from the White House. Phone lines were down, but thankfully e-mail was not – Mark was able to let me know he’d walk up to Georgetown and pick me up. Although I knew he was teaching and most probably safe, it was scary not to be able to get a hold of him.

For those of you who are not familiar with DC, I work in Georgetown which is immediately across the Potomac river from Rosslyn, Virginia. I park the car in Rosslyn and walk across the Key Bridge to my office in the Car Barn which is right at the head of the bridge. From our office, we could see the smoke clearly from the Pentagon, which is about 3 miles from Georgetown. Mark said that it became real for him as soon as he saw the Pentagon. Mark works at George Washington University which is about a block from the White House and it is logical that the White House would have been a target – perhaps for the plane that went down in Pittsburg. We heard that there was another plane heading for the Pentagon, although I was sure it would be shot down before it was allowed anywhere near DC. How horrifying to even be thinking such thoughts, let alone with such calm!

The thing that struck us was that the action was so incredibly simple – the hijackers used the threat of a bomb and box cutters to gain control of the planes. They had trained pilots that flew the planes into the targets. The Pentagon is right next to a major national airport and it was an easy matter to turn the plane into the building. And jet fuel burns like no other fuel, except perhaps Napalm.

As we watched tv yesterday, we found ourselves wishing that the President would return to DC, walk across the lawn and speak to us. This he did at 9 pm in the evening, after having been spirited to safe locations throughout the day. We can understand why the secret service did that, but we were glad to see him back in the seat of power and speaking with the trappings of power with which we’re so familiar – the backdrop of the oval office and the presidential seal.

We did wish though that he’s spoken with far far more passion. He had beautifully written speeches, but his delivery is far from inspiring. At one point he said that we would hunt down the folks (folks! – who is this – the Beverly hillbillies?) who did this and punish them. We wished that he had looked straight in the camera, pointed to the terrorists and said “*I* will hunt *you* down and bring you to justice. You cannot hide.”

If you’ve not lived here, you may not realized how important the role of the President is as “National Comforter.” It’s a role that Clinton was extremely good at, but I don’t think Bush is. It seems like such an unimportant thing, but the US is so large that we need a central focus for our grief and resolve. I hope that Bush will be that for us. We certainly need someone.

When we first moved to the US, we believed, as do many foreigners, that Americans are overly fond of the flag. After Oklahoma City though, we learned that it is an important symbol of a united nation – seeing every flag (and I have a theory that it is impossible to find a place in the US where you cannot see a flag somewhere around you) flying at half-mast reminded us of a national tragedy – not just Oklahoma’s tragedy. Today I walked across the Key Bridge (named for Francis Scott Key who wrote the lyrics to the Star Spangled Banner) and noticed that the flag on top of our office was still flying at full mast. So a maintenance worker and I went up there to lower it.

We’re all so helpless – it’s about all we can do – give blood and lower flags.

What a rambling e-mail. Many apologies. I pray strange secular prayers that we do not act hastily, that those of middle eastern ethnicity remain safe in the US, remembering how wrong people were following Oklahoma City about the identity of the terrorist there, but that we get whoever did this and that the US is able to retain one of its proudest traditions – that of access to buildings, art work, politicians, US culture. I hope that we do not become paranoid. These attacks have not turned us into Britain, or Lebanon or any other country rocked by terrorism. There is no precedent for a terrorist attack of such magnitude. There is no other country in the world with the openness and size of America to have suffered this sort of attack. How will our country change?

Thanks for the e-mails you have sent and the calls you’ve made. We appreciate knowing that we are in your thoughts.

M&M

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