WTC: Thoughts from the Week of September 11, 2001


It was only last week, though it seems like a lifetime ago, that I was standing on top of the Empire State Building, squinting to the south with my two older children toward the proud twin towers of the World Trade Center. They’d seen those towers many times before on my computer screen, in a QuickTime movie trailer for next year’s Spider-Man film, so they were excited to see them in real life. (In the trailer, Spider-Man traps a helicopter full of bad guys with a web stretched between the two towers.)

Scant days later, my kids watched on TV as those same towers were destroyed before their eyes. I think that between the QuickTime trailer, the Empire State Building visit, and the horrific TV images, my daughter wasn’t quite sure how to put the pieces together: "If we were on the Empire State Building today," she asked my wife, "would it still look like that?" Whether by "like that" she meant "how it looks on TV" or "how it looked at the time," I don’t know.

As for me, I wasn’t watching on television: I can see Manhattan quite well from the conference-room balcony at my office on the other side of the Hudson in New Jersey. Along with dozens of stunned coworkers, I watched the World Trade Center cease to exist before my eyes. I myself didn’t catch the flash of light when the second plane hit, nor did I witness the exact moment of collapse of either tower — though coworkers saw them all — but I watched the billowing smoke, spotted the distinct trail of smoke made by the second plane, witnessed the cavity in the skyline and the giant shroud of dust left by the collapsing skyscrapers. At some point late morning, I went home, to help my kids deal, and to deal myself.

My brother-in-law, who lives in Manhattan, wandered around the scene of the disaster, taking pictures with his digital camera. He was one of many who witnessed the horrendous sight of people leaping from the upper stories, falling "for what seemed like minutes." (Within hours his pictures were posted on his website, which has in only a few days accumulated six-figure hit levels and prompted emails from all over the world. If you’re interested, you can see them for yourself, though note that the images are large and may take some time to download.)

Later I learned that the son of a neighbor and former coworker had been practically in the act of walking into the first tower when the first plane hit. Another coworker has a friend from church who’s still missing, who worked on the 95th floor of the first tower, several stories above where the plane struck. Then there’s my boss, who knows one of the missing firemen. These things are about as close as the tragedy has come to me personally. I’m lucky, I guess.

That first day, I kept thinking, stupidly, of that Spider-Man trailer. Repeatedly I found myself wondering whether that scene had really been planned for the film, and thinking about how, if it had been, now they would have to take it out; and how director Sam Raimi might feel about that — just as if any of that mattered.

I wasn’t surprised to learn later that the trailer had been pulled from the movie’s website that same day. I also read that Warner Brothers was pondering the release of its coming Arnold Schwarzenegger vehicle, Collateral Damage, which features a skyscraper being blown up by terrorists in its opening scene. (The release has been cancelled.)

Convergences like these are of course coincidental and unfortunate; but I wonder if anyone in Hollywood ever thinks about another, more substantial relationship between terrorism and American culture. By this I don’t of course mean the kind of connection people usually try to draw between tragic events and provocative films: Obviously it goes without saying that no terrorist blows up a building because he’s seen them being blown up in the movies. Nor am I remotely implying, as Pat Robertson and Jerry Falwell have recently suggested, that America’s recent tragedies consitute some form of divine judgment upon the decadence of our nation’s culture or politics.

Rather, my point is simply that a particular sort of anti-American fanaticism does have something to do, at least in part, with some more undesirable aspects of our nation’s inexorable influence upon world culture. To Islamic radicals — and even ordinary sane Muslims — America is not unreasonably regarded as the wellspring of Internet pornography, abortion-rights and gay-rights advocacy, coercive population-control policies, and, yes, decadent Western music, dress, television, video games… and movies.

Oh, certainly there’s our unpopular politics, especially our support of Israel. And our continued military presence in places like Saudi Arabia, so resented by that individual suspected of masterminding the WTC attack. But I think it’s a blind spot in our secular Western worldview that makes us tend to reduce to mere politics what is, in fact, more complicated. In the Middle East, as in Northern Ireland, politics and religion are inseparably bound up with one another. And no doubt Muslim fanatics hate America in part because of its historically Christian roots. But they also hate it for a spirit that is as much an abomination to Christianity as it is to Islam.

This spirit is indeed so antithetical to both religions that at times Christians and Muslims have actually sided together against secularism. For example, in Beijing at the 1995 international conference on women, Western-led efforts to promote abortion were defeated by combined resistance from Muslim and Catholic countries.

Yet now, tragically, we have been confronted with an enemy so terrible that all these differences have been momentarily set aside. All over the world there have been near-unanimous expressions of shock and sadness and anger at the horrific crimes that have wounded our world. All of us, whether Christian or Muslim, Jew or atheist, pro-life or pro-abortion, Republican or Democrat, capitalist or communist, English or Irish, Buddhist or Hindu, have been brought together by one principle we can all agree upon: We do not want to live in a world where airplanes are flown into skyscrapers.

September 11 2001