Yesterday, I showed y’all what I wrote in the first hour, more or less, after learning of the attacks in New York and Washington 10 years ago. That raw, stream-of-consciousness piece ran in the “extra” that The State put out that day.
As soon as I had handed that to the folks putting that special edition together, I turned to what we would say for the next day’s paper — for Sept. 12. Then, almost as quickly, but with the benefit of a couple of more hours to let the news sink in, I wrote the following column.
Still nothing I would hold up as one of my best pieces of work, but it has its moments. For me. See what you think. And remember again: This is not a piece written with the benefit of years of reflection:
NOW THAT REALITY EXCEEDS FICTION, WHAT SORT OF ENDING WILL WE WRITE?
State, The (Columbia, SC) – Wednesday, September 12, 2001
Author: BRAD WARTHEN , Editorial Page Editor
WE’RE IN TOM Clancy’s world now.
Mr. Clancy is derided as a writer by critics for many reasons, one of them being the fact that his plots tend to be so fantastic and contrived. Take his novel Executive Orders. It was too much to be believed. It opened with a 747 having been deliberately flown into the U.S. Capitol, shutting down the government. This is followed by a series of coordinated terrorist attacks that result in thousands of civilian deaths on American soil. And for most of the book, no one knows who is doing this to us, or why.
We now know what that’s like. In fact, what we are now facing is worse than Mr. Clancy’s fevered imaginings.
It may seem unbelievably frivolous to be thinking about pulp fiction at a time like this, but my mind keeps returning to it, and partly because this seems so much like something from the realm of fiction – or because I wish it were.
It certainly outstrips anything that’s happened on any one day in this nation’s real-life history.
The comparisons to Pearl Harbor are inevitable. But in so many ways this is different – and worse. The death toll is larger, and the bodies we’re counting – and will continue to count for some time – aren’t wearing uniforms. They didn’t sign up to fight. They were just going to work, in what they thought was a free and peaceful country.
It’s also worse because we don’t know where to go with our grief and our rage. On Dec. 7, 1941, those sailors looking up at the red suns on the wings of the planes that were killing their buddies knew exactly what to do – and so did the rest of the nation.
I wonder if we’ll ever know what to do about this, in the same, ultimately satisfying sense of being able to restore peace and security to our nation and world. Oh, when we find out who did this, there’s no question about what we’ll do in the short term. Give us a target, something to shoot back at, and it will soon be nothing but smoke and ashes.
It will be a very short war. But what will we do when it’s over? How will we deal with the other disaffected, unconnected people around the world who will take inspiration from Tuesday’s events? What can we do, and what will we do, about the fact that there are people who hate us for no better reasons than that we are strong, wealthy and free?
Pearl Harbor isn’t our only comparison. People have mentioned the explosion of the Challenger as being comparable – then, too, the nation watched in helpless horror as fellow human beings died, in real time. But as awful as it was, there were only seven dead. And we figured out how to fix it. It was a simple problem of engineering.
Better O-rings won’t take care of this.
There are no precedents. Nothing in our past was quite like this. Even the Civil War, the most traumatic event in our collective experience, was in a sense less unsettling, in that everyone had a clearer understanding of what was going on.
Just as we can take little comfort from the past, our future offers no solace. It’s certainly not going to be anything like what we expected.
Some of the changes will come only if we’re smart enough to make them happen ourselves. Americans are going to have to start caring more about foreign affairs, if we’re ever going to deal adequately with this challenge. We can’t just fire a few cruise missiles and then hide behind a magical “Star Wars” shield. We’re going to have to engage the world – or at least, we’re going to have to demand that our elected leaders do so. And those political leaders are going to have to set aside a lot of their petty, partisan differences – or we’re going to have to replace them.
In other ways, some kind of change is inevitable, and all we can do is pick between unsavory choices.
From now on, this nation will be either less safe or less free. The openness and the freedom of movement that we take for granted make us enormously vulnerable, a fact that is absurdly obvious today. I suspect that at least in the short term, we’ll choose being a little less free in order to be a little safer. And that’s a sad choice to have to make.
I said we’re in Tom Clancy’s world. That’s true up to a point. The biggest difference is that I know how the book ends – once Jack Ryan and the other fictional protagonists figured out who was attacking the United States, they made war upon them with devastating effectiveness. In the end, the nation emerged stronger than ever.
What will happen in real life? Our capacity to make war is undisputed. But in the long term, how will we ever be the same?
The fact is, we won’t be. Our challenge is to emerge as something better than we were, not something worse.