Bin Laden hoped to provoke a civilizational war between Islam and the West. And we took the bait.
There was a perfunctory knock on my door before a friend rushed in to wake me up. “They’ve attacked the World Trade Center,” he yelled, looming suddenly above my bed. “They already did that,” I groggily responded. “You’ve got to get up!” he shouted as he rushed back out the door. And I actually went back to sleep. An hour later, rousing myself, I made my way to the laptop and saw a photo of a flash of fire near the top of one of the Twin Towers on AOL’s welcome screen. I suddenly realized it had not been a bomb but a plane. No: two planes. I ran over to my friend’s. And as I watched his television, video footage of the second plane, entering the tower like a diver slipping ripple-free into a pool, kept playing. It dawned on me that the first plane had been partly a way to get the whole world watching as the second mass murder took place. What kind of evil is this? A silence fell over the room. We were all standing, or pacing. After a while, I walked outside and heard the eerie quiet of a sky without planes, and saw people walking about in a daze. And a little later, I saw the towers fall, one after the other, imploding, like my psyche.
Images matter. Within a few hours of going back to sleep after hearing mere words, I was in an utterly different world. As a way of generating pure, unalloyed terror, this was demonically perfect. I was terrified by the thought of the mayhem in the buildings. I was immobilized watching a live, instantaneous mass death. I was traumatized by the huge wall of dust that spread like a CGI wave through the streets of lower Manhattan. I was, like most of us, simply terrorized. And it’s only now, a decade later, that I’ve come to see how significant that feeling was, how transformative it would become. We often talk about terror in terms of the terrorist. We do so less in terms of the terrorized. But it was how this act changed those of us who were bystanders that made this event more awful than a mere mass murder. It was mass murder as theater and as threat.
It took months for this initial trauma to ebb, years for my psyche to regain its equilibrium. And it took me close to a decade to realize just how slickly Osama bin Laden had done his evil work, how insidiously his despicable performance art had reached into my mind and altered it, how carefully he had set the trap and how guilelessly I—we—had walked right into it.
We need to understand that 9/11 worked. It worked as a tactic to induce American self-destruction, even if it failed spectacularly as a strategy to advance Al Qaeda—and its heretical message of suicidal warfare—across the globe. It worked because this was not just another terror attack. The emblems were clear: the looming towers of Western capitalism in New York, the cradle of Western democracy in Washington. When the third plane crashed into the Pentagon and the fourth (United 93) was brought down by its passengers, the drama didn’t cease. We saw the symbol of America’s military preeminence lying with its side opened like a tin can. And we imagined the panic and courage in the air over Pennsylvania as people just like us finally found their bearings and fought back.