Our nightmare

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For a lot of us, the experience begins the same way. A co-worker or family member summons us: something terrible has happened. And so we gather, in a scene mirrored in offices and homes across the country, staring in stunned silence at the television as this waking nightmare unfolds, affecting us in ways that are both collective and uniquely individual.

We’ve heard the word “surreal” time and again these past few days, but there seems no other way describe an event of this magnitude, one that entwines politics and media and religion and raw, pure, human emotion.

* * *

The image becomes almost dreamlike in the repetition. The jetliner crashing into the tower, the way the building seems to absorb the massive plane without even shuddering. Then a ball of flame. And the screams of terror and disbelief on the ground. The reaction is almost universal.

“Oh, my God!”

Then, minutes later, as we stand there, trying to absorb what has just happened, a second plane enters the picture, a second tower is struck.

“My God!”

What’s happening?

Those images wallpaper every report, it seems, in the nonstop coverage. It is like a nightmare, one where your feet are mired in mud or heavy as cement, so that you cannot run from the terror that pursues you. Real time seems not to exist. It is as if this is all occurring in slow motion, caught in an endless, ever-expanding loop.

Jet is swallowed. Ball of flame erupts. Witnesses scream. Now smoke is coming from the Pentagon.

What the hell is happening?

* * *

Not long after the initial reports of what by then appear to be terrorists’ attacks on Washington, D.C., and New York City, an office worker in Detroit mentions to a colleague that another plane has gone down, this one near Pittsburgh. Her knees start to buckle and her hands fly to cover her mouth to stifle a shriek: “No, not Pittsburgh!” She has family there, and the possibility that they may have been hurt — as remote and unlikely as it may seem — is terrorizing.

An hour later, in that same office, another woman stops in midsentence, turns her back and begins to weep. She has a cousin working on the 90th floor of one of the towers at the World Trade Center.

“I’m sorry,” she says, gaining her composure and wiping her eyes. “I’m just so worried.”

From the outset, millions are touched — not just by an abstract grieving for the loss and suffering of unknown others, but in ways that are incredibly personal.

You didn’t have to actually be in New York City or Washington, D.C., to know how far-reaching an act of terror can be and how deeply it can strike.

* * *

We have learned to be skeptical. Mistakes are always made when chaotic events are being reported on. This time is no different. A car bomb has exploded on the Capitol Mall. It turns out not to be true. A fifth plane has been hijacked. Also untrue. Stay calm, we tell ourselves. Don’t jump to conclusions. Remember Oklahoma City. Before knowing anything, the accusations were being made. “Arabs did it.” Let’s just wait and see what really happened, the newscasters caution. Even so, within hours, the name Osama bin Laden is being raised time and again. For the record, as of Monday, bin Laden, wherever he is, sends word claiming he was not involved.

Tuesday afternoon a worker decides to cut out early to be there when his kids arrive home from school. Waiting for a bus at Jefferson and Beaubien, he contemplates a city that is eerily quiet. The streets are nearly empty — except for the cops, who are everywhere, standing at intersections, zooming past on motorcycles, riding in groups of two and three and four in marked patrol cars and black SUVs. No planes fly overhead in a sky that’s cloudless and autumn-crisp, unnaturally beautiful for a day so tragic.

After an hour, three scheduled buses fail to show, so the man starts walking back to his office, hoping to catch a ride out to the suburbs with a co-worker. A few hours later, the man and an officemate listen to the radio as the drive home hugs Lake St. Clair.

“You have to hand it to whoever did this,” says the driver. “It was really brilliant. I don’t see how it could have been worse.”

“I do,” says his friend. “It could have been an anthrax attack. At first you wouldn’t know what was going on. People would just start showing up sick at hospitals. But after a few days, once everyone figured it out, there would be unbelievable panic. Imagine trying to evacuate all of New York City. Doctors and nurses and police and EMS would all be getting sick as well, so providing care and help would be a nightmare. And then there would be massive chaos as people started breaking into pharmacies and doctors’ offices to get antibiotics, because if you can be treated right away, you can save yourself, but there wouldn’t be enough to go around. You’d be talking about potentially millions of casualties. Believe me, as bad as this is, it really could be worse.”

Then they drive on, lost in separate thoughts, listening to the tragedy spilling out of the radio’s speakers, the blue lake glistening in the late-afternoon sun.

* * *

For some, the return to life as usual begins almost immediately. There was an election Tuesday, and on her radio talk show at 7 a.m. Wednesday, Mildred Gaddis is talking to two Metro Times writers about the results.

But even something so important as the election of Detroit’s next mayor seemed of little consequence on that morning after. The enormity of what happened is beginning to sink in. There is the sense that our lives in this country have been changed in a way that is profound, but far from clear. So unclear. So unfathomable.

* * *

Every second of television coverage is horrific. The crashing planes. The people leaping from windows 70 stories up, choosing one terrible form of death over another. The collapsing towers. The crowds fleeing in terror, pursued by a raging cloud of dirt and debris. The grief-stricken survivors looking for lost loved ones.

Every image is terribly, terribly tragic. And we sit and watch, stunned but stoic. Then there comes one more new report — and for each one of us, it is a different one — that is just too sad to bear, and the viewer breaks down and begins to weep. They are stories that rip your heart right out.

Here’s one that broke early, and by now has been well-reported: It is about Tom Burnett, the California businessman aboard the hijacked United Airlines flight that crashed in Pennsylvania. Before the plane went down, the 38-year-old Burnett reportedly phoned his wife, saying someone aboard had just been stabbed and that one of the hijackers claimed to have a bomb.

“We’re all gonna die, but three of us are going to do something,” he reportedly said, then added: “I love you, honey,” before the call ended.

Whatever that plane’s intended target, it never made it. Burnett and his fellow passengers are apparently the reason why.

The word “hero” gets tossed around a lot. Sometimes we are reminded what it really means.

* * *

A veteran reporter sits stone-faced watching events unfold on TV. When the story breaks that 200 firefighters were lost when one of the World Trade Center towers collapsed, his eyes well up, and he leaves the room before completely breaking down.

Asked later why that particular report touched him in a way that all the others didn’t, he explained:

“For more than two years I covered the cop beat at a small paper, so I was at the scene of a lot of fires and accidents and things like that. And I saw, time and time and time again, how firefighters only ever do good. That’s all they do — help people, saving property and saving lives. They are really good people. And to realize that 200 of them, being taken like that, and how wide the ripples of sorrow will spread through all the lives were connected to, all the lives that will be left empty because of that, it’s just really hard.”

* * *

Along with the relentless accounts of tragedy come the stories of weird good fortune. Friends pass bits of good news from one to another, stories about friends, friends of friends, relatives of friends. We hear of the woman who stepped outside the WTC for a smoke just before the first tower was struck. There’s someone who would have been inside had he not overslept and missed a meeting. It makes you realize how tenuous life is. An alarm doesn’t go off and your entire life is changed.

* * *

A friend calls on Tuesday night. “I was talking to a guy at work, and he says he was listening to “The Howard Stern Show,” and they were talking about a Nostradamus prediction they saw on the Internet. There was something about twin brothers in the city of York being struck down on the eleventh day of the ninth month of the new millennium, and how that is a signal that World War III is about to start. Pretty spooky, huh?”

The next day there are several e-mails to the same effect. And, before long, another one under the heading “Hoaxtradamus.” Turns out that the prediction was bogus.

* * *

E-mails proliferate. People with things to say. People desperately looking for answers. Several make a similar point: With nonstop coverage on every channel, there is almost no one trying to explain one of the most obvious questions: Why?

* * *

We all turn to different sources seeking comfort, or at least some perspective At least one person turns to a 1994 lecture by the historian Eric Hosbawm, now in his 80s. The subject was barbarism:

“By understanding this word we have all adapted to living in a society that is by the standards of our grandparents or parents, even (if we are as old as I am) of our youth, uncivilized. We have got used to it. I don’t mean we can’t still be shocked by this or that example of it. On the contrary, being periodically shocked by something unusually awful is part of the experience. … After about 150 years of secular decline, barbarism has been on the increase for most of the 20th century, and there is no sign that the increase is at an end.”

* * *

Barbarism is much on the minds of Detroit’s Arab-American community, whose residents remain fearful that their fellow countrymen will retaliate — not just against the terrorists who committed these devastating attacks, but on them personally, for no other reason than the color of their skin and the religion they ascribe to.

“We have been getting bomb threats,” said Jad Jallah, a kind and gentle man who is community liaison for the Arab-American Community Center for Social Services in Dearborn.

He asks that the reporter calling him send out this message to his fellow citizens: “Let them know that Arab-Americans belong to this country like Irish-Americans and Chinese-Americans. We are hurt by this tragedy too.”

* * *

Those of us removed physically from what is now being called “ground zero” are fortunate in at least one not immediately obvious respect: Television can transport images, but not smells. Ron Williams, the former Metro Times publisher who now lives in Manhattan, a mile or so from what was the World Trade Center, included this observation to friends and former colleagues:

“The smell of the plume is like nothing I have ever quite experienced, a terrible mixture of jet fuel, burnt flesh, asbestos, paint, furniture, carpeting and the paper ash of millions of financial transactions. The smell penetrated our closed windows and I tossed and turned all night with the smell forcing its way into my bedroom and my fitful dreams.”

* * *

There are countless other fitful dreams. This one was had by an employee here at Metro Times, who spent some time during his early 20s picking bananas on a kibbutz along the Israel-Lebanon border. In the dream, the cooperative community is as it was then: An armed camp, with electronic trip wires and barbed-wire fences, guard towers, and residents who carried machine guns to fend off attacks. Only in the dream, the kibbutz becomes a home in suburban Detroit, with the dreamer’s children the ones carrying machine guns. When he wakes, he lies in bed awake for a long time, trying to fend off the dreaded feeling that the dream was a premonition.

* * *

Ron Williams’ message contains more that seems worth repeating. It is a quote from Mohandas Gandhi: “An eye for an eye long enough and we will all go blind.”

* * *

Friday is a national day of prayer. It is also a night for some people to attend parties. Not because there is anything to celebrate, but because they need some relief, some time away from the tube and the relentless tragedy.

At one party on Detroit’s west side, there are a lot of musicians. The name Bob Dylan comes up, and someone mentions his song “With God On Our Side,” which sums up a couple hundred years of brutal American policies in a few devastating stanzas.

The last verse goes like this:
So now as I’m leavin’/I’m weary as hell/The confusion I’m feelin’/Ain’t no tongue can tell/The words fill my head/And fall to the floor/If God’s on our side/He’ll stop the next war.

Later that night, CNN is rebroadcasting the ceremony held at the National Cathedral in Washington, D.C. Attended by the president and four of his predecessors, the service concluded with a choir singing “The Battle Hymn of the Republic,” which has this as its first verse:
Mine eyes have seen the glory/Of the coming of the Lord;/He is trampling out the vintage/Where the grapes of wrath are stored;/He hath loosed the fateful lightning/Of his terrible swift sword;/His truth is marching on.

George Bush has left no doubt that this country’s terrible swift sword is about to be unsheathed; what remains is how wide a swath it will cut and how long it will swing.

* * *

Speaking of Bush, during one of his first speeches, when declaring that the United States would ferret out these evildoers lurking in their shadow worlds, he punctuated his words — and we swear this is true — with that smirk of his. What, we wonder, with a sense of incredible dread, must really be going through his mind?

* * *

At the local Meijer store Sunday, there is something different about the background music. The usual soft pop is interspersed with Souza marches. Where is the line between patriotism and jingoism, and how do you know when you’ve crossed it?

A reporter from Metro Times wrestles with that question on Friday afternoon when he visits his son’s suburban middle school to address an eighth-grade journalism class. Walking down the hall, he sees about 100 students gather to spontaneously sing the National Anthem.

“I felt like I was cut in half,” he says. “On the one hand, the scene was so endearing and innocent it made you want to cry. All these children, showing a love of country — I mean, it was really heartwarming. But at the same time, I am thinking … if they only knew more about this country than the propaganda they’ve been fed all their lives, would they still feel the same way? And as I looked at those innocent faces, I couldn’t help but wonder — how many of them might wind up in body bags just a few years down the road should they be sent off to fight in this war their president has already promised will be long and difficult?”

* * *

Throughout the weekend, the messages keep coming, many expressing dismay with the mainstream media. Very few efforts are being made to put this attack into context. If Vietnam was the first “living-room war,” then this is the first Internet war, with a proliferation of opinions and viewpoints largely absent from that found in the mainstream.

A quote from the renowned linguist and progressive activist Noam Chomsky, is widely circulated: “The crime is a gift to the hard jingoist right, those who hope to use force to control their domains. That is even putting aside the likely U.S. actions, and what they will trigger — possibly more attacks like this one, or worse. The prospects ahead are even more ominous than they appeared to be before the latest atrocities.”

* * *

Henry Kissinger appears on CNN, spouting his realpolitik worldview, and a colleague of ours begins to rail. “That dirty bastard.” He grabs a book from his desk, Trial by Christopher Hitchens, and begins to tick off the author’s arguments for prosecuting our former secretary of state as a war criminal: The secret bombings during the Vietnam War, the coup that overthrew Chile’s democratic government and put that monster Pinochet in power, atrocities in Bangladesh, Cyprus and East Timor.

“When are people in America going to come to grips with the fact that there is reason for people to hate this country? George Bush stands there, straight-faced, saying we are a peace-loving people. Maybe so, but we’re also a people willing to turn a blind eye to the fact that we are the biggest supplier of ‘conventional’ weapons in the world.”

* * *

A bombing witness interviewed on radio in New York talked about the personal awakening it led to: “I will never again be able to see news about a bombing anywhere in the world in the same way.”

* * *

A CNN poll reveals that more than 60 percent of Americans believe we should mount a military response to last week’s terrorist attack. When asked whom we should attack, an almost equal number of people say they don’t know.

* * *

The move to clamp down on the very “freedom” George Bush says is under attack is almost immediate. The banner headline in Sunday’s combined issue of the Detroit News and Free Press, for example, screams: “America Approves Limits To Liberty.”

An “irresponsible” rush to judgement, says ACLU of Michigan Executive Director Kary Moss.

“I don’t think Americans need to sacrifice their freedoms for what may be an illusory sense of security.”

Perhaps cooler heads will prevail when we’re not being subjected to polls taken within days of one of the worst tragedies in U.S. history.

Moss hopes so.

* * *

“We will rid the world of the evil-doers,” George Bush promised the nation, counseling patience. We’ll need it. According to the U.S. Department of State Web site (www.state.gov) there are no fewer than 40 “designated foreign terrorist organizations” in existence throughout the world. They range in size from less than a dozen people to more than 10,000 and are located on every continent except Antarctica.

* * *

On Friday, the Senate voted 98-0 for the following resolution:
“The president is authorized to use all necessary and appropriate force against those nations, organizations, or persons he determines planned, authorized, committed, or aided the terrorist attacks that occurred on Sept. 11, 2001, or harbored such organizations or persons, in order to prevent any future acts of international terrorism against the United State by such nations, organizations or persons.”

Liberal columnist Norman Solomon reacted: “This resolution, written as a blank check, is payable with vast quantities of human corpses.”

* * *

A progressive nonprofit group called the Institute for Public Accuracy has been issuing a stream of expert contacts offering alternative viewpoints to those dominating the mainstream media. Among them is Jeffery Sommers, a history professor in Georgia. He offered this perspective: Colin Powell said yesterday that Osama bin Laden is the prime suspect. If that accusation is right, this would be what the CIA calls “blowback” — when what we’ve created blows back in our face. The Taliban’s coming to power is partly the outcome of United States support of the mujahadeen, radical Islamic guerillas, in the 1980s war against the Soviet Union. “In Afghanistan, we trained the fundamentalists for covert operations — the stuff of terrorism. After they came to power, they turned on their former benefactor, the United States, which had achieved the smooth flow of oil from the Middle East at a terrible human cost. A decade of bombing and sanctions has left Saddam Hussein in power but over 700,000 Iraqi children are dead. Palestinians live under brutal military occupation. When the Arabic nations try and address this matter civilly in the UN, as they just tried … at the Durban conference, they are rebuffed. When blowback strikes, the consequences are as devastating as they are tragic.”

* * *

Ann Coulter is in no mood to hear that sort of analysis. The columnist’s dear friend Barbara Olson was aboard one of the hijacked planes. The wife of U.S. Solicitor General Ted Olson performed heroically, phoning her husband to warn him of the terrorist action just before the jet she was aboard slammed into the Pentagon.

A dead-serious Coulter minces no words: “This is no time to be precious about locating the exact individuals directly involved in this particular terrorist attack,” writes Coulter in the online edition of the National Review. “Those responsible include anyone anywhere in the world who smiled in response to the annihilation of patriots like Barbara Olson … We should invade their countries, kill their leaders and convert them to Christianity. We weren’t punctilious about locating and punishing only Hitler and his top offices. We carpet-bombed German cities; we killed civilians. That’s war. And this is war.”

* * *

At the other end of the political spectrum is historian Howard Zinn. The author of A People’s History of the United States and a bombardier during World War II observed:
“The images on television horrified and sickened me. Then our political leaders came on television, and I was horrified and sickened again. They spoke of retaliation, of vengeance, of punishment. I thought: They have learned nothing, absolutely nothing, from the history of the 20th century, from a hundred years of retaliation, vengeance, war, a hundred years of terrorism and counterterrorism, of violence met with violence in an unending cycle of stupidity. Will we now bomb Afghanistan, and inevitably kill innocent people, because it is in the nature of bombing to be indiscriminate?…

“We need to decide that we will not go to war, whatever reason is conjured up by the politicians or the media, because war in our time is always indiscriminate, a war against innocents, a war against children. War is terrorism, magnified a hundred times.”

* * *

As Metro Times prepared to go to press Monday, we could not shake our sense of foreboding. The consequences of last week’s heartrending violence, both in the short term and the long term, were anything but clear. We remain filled with questions — about everything from the economic fallout to the scope of the retaliation we are convinced is imminent to the well-being of Arab-Americans to the sobering possibility of more attacks against. As they say in our business, its time to put this issue of the paper to bed. But, more than at any time in memory, it will be a fitful sleep, filled with uncertainty over what nightmare may be waiting in the mornings to come. In closing, we offer our deep and heartfelt sympathy to all victims of terror, wherever they call home.

This report was written by Curt Guyette, Metro Times news editor, with contributions from Metro Times staff. Send comments to [email protected]

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