Paul Theroux - 9/11 ten years on
American travel writer and novelist Paul Theroux on the meaning of 9/11.
You remember exactly where you were the day the planes hit the World Trade Center, that sudden smoking vastation in the Emerald City, persisting to this day as an inerasable vision of death: horror in instalments.
It began in the morning. I was in my car on Cape Cod, returning from the town dump, a beautiful day of blue sky and marine sunlight, listening to a bewildered man on the radio trying to explain to a normally jolly talk show host the inexplicable crash he had just seen from the window of his flat. “This plane, I dunno, it just slammed into the tower, never seen anything like it.” And not long afterwards, the second plane hit.
We watched, stupefied – it was immediately a television event in real time – and we were bewildered; no one had the slightest idea of why it had happened or what was to come. It was a day scorched by death – flames, screams, sirens, confusion, fear and extravagant rumours (“The Golden Gate Bridge has been hit, Seattle is bracing”).
It was made weirder for me by the fact that the first fighter planes to be scrambled — deafening blatting engines — began to fly over my house from Otis Air Force Base, the local military field, on their way to New York City, for surely (so we were being told) we must be under attack, and that Brother Fire was having his dog’s day.
In time — the feeling ate at me like a sickness — I realised that it was not the Twin Towers, and part of the Pentagon, and the downed plane in Shanksville, Pennsylvania, that had been destroyed, but something much bigger, our national confidence, and that the “lovely, trustful, dreamy, enormous country” (the words are Nabokov’s), the country that I had known as triumphant since childhood, was overwhelmed, and rattled in a way I had never seen before; our innocence was toast.
Almost everything that has happened since has seemed to me desperate and insufficient. The patriotic talk is bluster; we are confused, divided, panicked and paranoid, and we cannot seem to untangle these feelings because we are nagged by an accompanying sense of financial ruin. We have been scared rather than inspired and the political rhetoric has intensified our sense of being under siege.
The day itself dimmed a little for me in retrospect. What I recall just as clearly, with the sort of grief you feel for the premature death of someone you only knew as a whole, live, loved person, were the brighter days that preceded the attacks. I’d made a trip a week before to Bermuda and on September 9, my wife and I were to fly from Bermuda to Boston after a sweet interlude. We were delayed on our way to the airport, but the clerks at the check-in desk teased us for our lateness. “You’d better hurry or you’ll miss the flight.” So we ran, bags in hand, as though for a bus — dashed through immigration, rushed through the customs inspection (“Never mind!”) and, breathless, staggered on board just before the big aircraft doors sighed as they were sucked shut and the latches secured.
“Another minute and we would have left you behind!” the flight attendant said and, seeing me finishing the crossword puzzle, she got another one, and a drink for me, and challenged me to finish the puzzle before we got to Boston. The cockpit door was open and I could see beyond the pilot’s blue shoulder the sun on the fluffy deck of clouds ahead of us. I remember the laughter of the flight attendant, the puzzle, the sandwich, the tall glass of Newcastle Brown Ale I was served. Only a two-hour flight, but in my memory a vision of happiness like the most blissful day of childhood. And never to be repeated.
How could we know when we landed there were 19 men gathering, some in Washington DC, others in Newark, and two here in Boston about to drive a hundred miles to Portland, Maine — all of them preparing meticulously for their suicide mission: eating takeout pizza, making their last phone calls, shaving all the hair from their bodies according to their own “spiritual manual”. On the day of the attacks, according to Summers and Swan in The Eleventh Day, their definitive account of 9/11, the immediate response by the American Defense Secretary, Donald Rumsfeld, was, “You know, we’ve got to do Iraq.” He was in a secure bunker with Vice-President Dick Cheney, General Colin Powell and others including National Security Advisor Richard Clarke, who heard (and reported) this remark, expressing astonishment, saying that Iraq had nothing to do with the attacks. Rumsfeld added, “There just aren’t enough targets in Afghanistan. We need to bomb something else to prove that we’re, you know, big and strong and not going to be pushed around.” The war on terror began, the war on terror continues; no one can say when it will end or what a victory will look like. There is something fearsome, even hallucinatory, in such an obscure and shifting war against a faceless enemy: such fear is the justification for almost any government action, no matter how drastic — military, social, extra-judicial, involving both secrecy and abuses of power.
The response, and the abuses of power, are a matter of record. Afghanistan was bombed and invaded and the Taliban took to the hills; Iraq was invaded and Saddam Hussein toppled. Although the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq continue, it has been a long time since I saw any American television correspondent reporting on them, though one day last month, “Bloody Monday”, was one of the worst days of violence in Iraq since the war began, with 15 co-ordinated attacks throughout the country. These attacks involved both suicide bombers and improvised explosive devices (IEDs), resulting in the deaths of 80 people, with hundreds seriously wounded.
The outrage was hardy noticed.
“We’re winning,” the official American line, can be translated “We’re sick of it.” Politicians have tried to prettify and ennoble the response to 9/11, medals have been awarded, flags flown, but this is patriotism at its most hyperbolic, verging on theatre.
What has followed in the 10 years since 9/11 has been a tightening of attention along with its opposite, a sense of despair or indifference. A decade later, all over America, small signs and huge billboards: “If You See Something, Say Something”.
Big bleak institutions were formed by the United States government in response to 9/11, with the assurance they would make us safer. The Bush White House allowed US interrogators to ignore the global treaties banning torture, claiming that its use for intelligence gathering was justified by the global war on terror. The Patriot Act was passed and, although it was criticised by Obama in his campaign for the presidency, promising a repeal of some of its more sinister provisions (surveillance, wire taps and so forth), it has not been repealed; indeed, Obama this year signed a four-year extension of it.
The Department of Homeland Security, a smug implacable name for an immense circumlocution office, was created by the Bush White House and it thrives under the Obama White House. Torture, with some prim modifications, continues under the euphemism “enhanced interrogation techniques”. In the aftermath of 9/11, random abductions by the US were carried out, the captives sent to willing third countries to be tortured on our behalf, a practice known as “extraordinary rendition”.
Of all the agencies created by the panicky response to 9/11, the Transportation Security Agency (TSA) is the most visible and to me one of the most obnoxious for its obstinacy, its clumsiness, its inefficiency and its ubiquity. There was a time when bag searches and interrogation of travellers was purely a feature of travel in eastern Europe. Now such searches and screenings are a common feature of life in America; and that we have become habituated to it, submitting without complaint, is one of the saddest consequences of 9/11. I think of it as the Gestapo-with-a-grin, Stasi-with-a-smile method of intimidation, a species of security theatre that has redefined what a weapon is (a small bottle of liquid, a nail file, a hat pin, a shoe) – it has redefined the notion of privacy, of travel, of freedom. There are roughly 60,000 TSA screeners, most of them semi-educated, unemployable in any other phase of life, some of them not even US citizens, a great number from an aggrieved underclass, many of them subsequently fired for thieving from the bags they were charged to protect. Like many instant officials involved in private security in America — mall cops, sentries, fat guys with truncheons and badges — they are, on the whole, intolerably rude.
I was reprimanded by a TSA official recently at a large metropolitan airport for not presenting my passport to him opened to the right page. “What am I supposed to do with this?” he snarled, flicking at it, pretending to be confused. He harassed me with dumb insulting remarks until, provoked, I opened the passport and handed it to him with my information page and picture showing. I voiced my objections (people behind me wincing at my effrontery), and demanded to know his name, later reporting him to a senior TSA officer who admitted the man’s behaviour was unacceptable. The misery at airports has been told in appalling detail, the thefts and abuse by screeners, the bullying, the absurdities — pat-downs of four year-olds, of old grannies in wheelchairs, along with accusations of buttock fondling, and worse.
I have been painfully aware of the bland assurances of many US politicians that water-boarding is not torture — though passing through the Tuol Sleng Prison in Phnom Penh, I learned that it was one of the chief methods of torture used by the Khmer Rouge. Any country could do to me what the US government has done to so many travellers: abduct me, subject me to torture, imprisonment without trial, or even rendition, and say, “But this is exactly what your country does.” When Gadaffi’s regime used cluster bombs against its people a few months ago, the American Secretary of State piously stated that such weapons were inhumane and should not be used. What Mrs Clinton did not say was that cluster bombs have been condemned by more than a hundred countries in a global treaty but among the signatures missing on the treaty are those of Israel, China, Libya and the US. Moreover, cluster bombs (cheap, profitable, easy to make and hideously effective) are manufactured under billion-dollar contracts by Textron Defense Systems in one of the suburbs of Boston, in my home state of Massachusetts.
What has this got to do with 9/11? Everything — because the manufacture and sale of weapons, like the bag searches, phone-taps and surveillance, are justified by the war on terror. Almost everything can be justified by it, even a directive to scowl. At some airports in America there is a warning posted at security checks: “Do not make jokes”.
To Americans today, the world seems hellish and unforgiving. Americans travel less and are fearful of travelling in any Muslim country. Islam is like the heretical subversion depicted in Dante’s Inferno, where Muhammad and Ali are tortured in Circle 8 and the diabolical City of Dis is characterised by its weirdly lighted mosques.
No one is much interested in what causes anger in Muslim countries. One of the public utterances by bin Laden, and a chief motivator for the 9/11 hijackers, concerned the inequities in the Palestine issue — not just the occupied territories, but American involvement in the persecution of Palestinians, allowing Israelis to build settlements in the occupied West Bank and demolish Arab Jerusalem. Any aggrieved web-savvy Muslim can claim that at the highest levels of the US government, many Americans – politicians, so-called Neo Cons, cabinet members, operatives – hold dual US-Israeli citizenship. Americans are not allowed to be dual citizens of Iraq, Iran, Syria, Pakistan or any other Muslim country; so it is not odd that a Muslim in, say, Saudi Arabia or Jordan — the countries of the hijackers and the plotters of 9/11 — would see America’s interests as indistinguishable from Israel’s.
It is perhaps melodramatic to say Americans are living in an age of fear. Because no one can stand much strength-sapping tension for very long, we have become exhausted, dispirited and small-minded, living through a period of inexpressible self-induced dullness, with a subtext of fear and uncertainty that is reflected in all phases of life. Popular culture — books, films, music – has never seemed more philistine and trivial and escapist.
The public talking heads (bald man in suit, hair-flinging blonde, the finger-wagger and the smirker) go on saying, “We’ve got to put more boots on the ground,” “We need to see it through,” “We must go on fighting!” But none of the politicians, or pundits, or national figures who helped create the war psychosis by issuing the demented call to arms ever risked their own lives; none of them fought. With a handful of exceptions, none of their children are fighting. There is no draft, there is hardly any debate. Sacrifice is urged upon us, but it isn’t shared.
So who is taking orders and doing the fighting? As a matter of fact, I meet the combatants all the time, because for much of the year I live quite near a large US Army base and an even larger US Marine base in Hawaii. When I go to the local tailor in the garrison town of Wahiawa, the soldiers in line to get a uniform mended or altered are doing so because they are being shipped to Iraq or Afghanistan. I always chat with them. I am impressed by their sense of duty, and it is not unusual for me to be talking to a black woman from a poor town in a southern state, with small children (“My husband does the mom stuff while I’m away”) who is headed for her third or fourth deployment of a year or more.
I search in vain for something positive in the aftermath of 9/11. The Iraq adventure has been disastrous, Afghanistan is unwinnable, pacification is further off than ever, and we seem to be bankrupting ourselves. We are mocked by our own statistics. According to a Pentagon report a few months ago, the US military spends more than $20?million annually on air conditioning for its personnel in Iraq and Afghanistan.
It is humbling to realise how ineffectual we have been, and to see how little we have learned in the past 10 years. Humility is not a trait that anyone ever associated with this country, and no American ever thought of our government as beleaguered and broke. I think we are humbler, a good thing, but I also think humbled folk can represent a great opportunity for a demagogue. Living through this past decade has not been pleasant, but for those who cared to look for the meaning of events, it’s been an education. No silver lining, but there is something grimly bracing in the reality of it all, in our being able to say with Shakespeare’s Leontes, “I have drunk, and seen the spider.”
Paul Theroux’s next novel, ‘The Lower River’, will be published by Hamish Hamilton in March 2012