Radical media, politics and culture.

Martin Amis on Terrorism

mackswell23 writes: "This is another valuable piece...

Special report: terrorism in the US

Martin Amis
Tuesday September 18, 2001
The Guardian

It was the advent of the second plane, sharking in low over the Statue
of Liberty: that was the defining moment. Until then, America thought
she was witnessing nothing
more serious than the worst aviation disaster in history; now she had a
sense of the fantastic vehemence ranged against her.

I have never seen a generically familiar object so transformed by
effect. That second plane looked eagerly alive, and galvanised with
malice, and wholly alien. For those
thousands in the south tower, the second plane meant the end of
everything. For us, its glint was the worldflash of a coming future.

Terrorism is political communication by other means. The message of
September 11 ran as follows: America, it is time you learned how
implacably you are hated. United
Airlines Flight 175 was an Intercontinental Ballistic Missile aimed at
her innocence. That innocence, it was here being claimed, was a
luxurious and anachronistic delusion.

A week after the attack, one is free to taste the bile of its atrocious
ingenuity. It is already trite - but stringently necessary - to
emphasise that such a mise en sc?e would
have embarrassed a studio executive's storyboard or a thriller-writer's
notebook ("What happened today was not credible," were the wooden words
of Tom Clancy, the
author of The Sum of All Fears). And yet in broad daylight and full
consciousness that outline became established reality: a score or so of
Stanley knives produced two
million tons of rubble.

Several lines of US policy were bankrupted by the events of last
Tuesday, among them national missile defence. Someone realised that the
skies of America were already
teeming with missiles, each of them primed and cocked.

The plan was to capture four airliners - in the space of half an hour.
All four would be bound for the west coast, to ensure maximum fuel-
load. The first would crash into the
north tower just as the working day hit full stride. Then a pause of 15
minutes, to give the world time to gather round its TV sets. With that
attention secured, the second
plane would crash into the south tower, and in that instant America's
youth would turn into age.

If the architect of this destruction was Osama bin Laden, who is a
qualified engineer, then he would certainly know something about the
stress equations of the World
Trade Centre. He would also know something about the effects of ignited
fuel: at 500C (a third of the temperature actually attained), steel
loses 90% of its strength. He
must have anticipated that one or both of the towers would collapse. But
no visionary cinematic genius could hope to recreate the majestic
abjection of that double
surrender, with the scale of the buildings conferring its own slow
motion. It was well understood that an edifice so demonstrably comprised
of concrete and steel would also
become an unforgettable metaphor. This moment was the apotheosis of the
postmodern era - the era of images and perceptions. Wind conditions were
also favourable;
within hours, Manhattan looked as though it had taken 10 megatons.

Meanwhile, a third plane would crash into the Pentagon, and a fourth
would crash into Camp David (the site of the first Arab-Israeli accord)
or possibly into the White House
(though definitely not into Air Force One: this rumour was designed to
excuse Bush's meanderings on the day). The fourth plane crashed, upside
down, not into a landmark
but into the Pennsylvanian countryside, after what seems to have been
heroic resistance from the passengers. The fate of the fourth plane
would normally have been one of
the stories of the year. But not this year. The fact that for the first
few days one struggled to find more than a mention of it gives some idea
of the size of the American

My wife's sister had just taken her children to school and was standing
on the corner of Fifth Avenue and Eleventh Street at 8.58 am, on the
eleventh day of the ninth month
of 2001 (the duo-millennial anniversary of Christianity). For a moment
she imagined herself to be on a runway at Kennedy Airport. She looked up
to see the glistening
underbelly of the 767, a matter of yards above her head. (Another
witness described plane number one as "driving" down Fifth Avenue - at
400mph.) There is a modest arch
that fronts Washington Square Park; American Airlines Flight 11 from
Boston to Los Angeles was flying so low that it had to climb to clear

We have all watched aeroplanes approach, or seem to approach, a large
building. We tense ourselves as the supposed impact nears, even though
we are sure that this is
a parallax illusion, and that the plane will cruise grandly on. My
sister-in-law was right behind Flight 11. She urged it to swerve, to
turn into the plentiful blue sky. But the
plane did not turn. That afternoon her children would be bringing
refreshments to the block-long queue waiting to give blood at St

Now the second aircraft, and the terror revealed - the terror doubled,
or squared. We speak of "plane rage" - but it was the plane itself that
was in frenzy, one felt, as it
gunned and steadied and then smeared itself into the south tower. Even
the flames and smoke were opulently evil, with their vampiric reds and
blacks. Murder-suicide from
without was now duplicated within to provide what was perhaps the day's
most desolating spectacle. They flailed and kicked as they came down. As
if you could fend off
that abysmal drop. You too would flail and kick. You could no more help
yourself than you could stop your teeth from chattering at a certain
intensity of cold. It is a reflex. It
is what human beings do when they fall.

The Pentagon is a symbol, and the WTC is, or was, a symbol, and an
American passenger jet is also a symbol - of indigenous mobility and
zest, and of the galaxy of
glittering destinations. The bringers of Tuesday's terror were morally
"barbaric", inexpiably so, but they brought a demented sophistication to
their work. They took these
great American artefacts and pestled them to gether. Nor is it at all
helpful to describe the attacks as "cowardly". Terror always has its
roots in hysteria and psychotic
insecurity; still, we should know our enemy. The firefighters were not
afraid to die for an idea. But the suicide killers belong in a different
psychic category, and their battle
effectiveness has, on our side, no equivalent. Clearly, they have
contempt for life. Equally clearly, they have contempt for death.

Their aim was to torture tens of thousands, and to terrify hundreds of
millions. In this, they have succeeded. The temperature of planetary
fear has been lifted towards the
feverish; "the world hum", in Don DeLillo's phrase, is now as audible as
tinnitus. And yet the most durable legacy has to do with the more
distant future, and the
disappearance of an illusion about our loved ones, particularly our
children. American parents will feel this most acutely, but we will also
feel it. The illusion is this. Mothers
and fathers need to feel that they can protect their children. They
can't, of course, and never could, but they need to feel that they can.
What once seemed more or less
impossible - their pro-tection - now seems obviously and palpably
inconceivable. So from now on we will have to get by without that need
to feel.

Last Tuesday's date may not prove epochal; and it should be the
immediate task of the present administration to prevent it from becoming
so. Bear in mind: the attack
could have been infinitely worse. On September 11 experts from the
Centres for Disease Control "rushed" to the scene to test its atmosphere
for biological and chemical
weapons. They knew that these were a possibility; and they will remain a
possibility. There is also the integrally insoluble hazard of America's
inactive nuclear power
stations (no nuclear power station has ever been dismantled, anywhere).
Equivalent assaults on such targets could reduce enormous tracts of the
country to plutonium
graveyards for tens of thousands of years. Then there is the
near-inevitable threat of terrorist nuclear weapons - directed, perhaps,
at a nuclear power station. One of the
conceptual tasks to which Bush and his advisers will not be equal is
that the Tuesday Terror, for all its studious viciousness, was a mere
adumbration. We are still in the
first circle.

It will also be horribly difficult and painful for Americans to absorb
the fact that they are hated, and hated intelligibly. How many of them
know, for example, that their
government has destroyed at least 5% of the Iraqi population? How many
of them then transfer that figure to America (and come up with 14m)?
Various national
characteristics - self-reliance, a fiercer patriotism than any in
western Europe, an assiduous geographical incuriosity - have created a
deficit of empathy for thesufferings of
people far away. Most crucially, and again most painfully, being right
and being good support the American self to an almost tautologous
degree: Americans are good and
right by virtue of being American. Saul Bellow's word for this habit is
"angelisation". On the US-led side, then, we need not only a revolution
in consciousness but an
adaptation of national character: the work, perhaps, of a generation.

And on the other side? Weirdly, the world suddenly feels bipolar. All
over again the west confronts an irrationalist, agonistic, theocratic/
ideocratic system which is
essentially and unappeasably opposed to its existence. The old enemy was
a superpower; the new enemy isn't even a state. In the end, the USSR was
broken by its own
contradictions and abnormalities, forced to realise, in Martin Malia's
words, that "there is no such thing as socialism, and the Soviet Union
built it". Then, too, socialism
was a modernist, indeed a futurist, experiment, whereas militant
fundamentalism is convulsed in a late-medieval phase of its evolution.
We would have to sit through a
renaissance and a reformation, and then await an enlightenment. And
we're not going to do that.

What are we going to do? Violence must come; America must have
catharsis. We would hope that the response will be, above all,
non-escalatory. It should also mirror the
original attack in that it should have the capacity to astonish. A
utopian example: the crippled and benighted people of Afghanistan,
hunkering down for a winter of famine,
should not be bombarded with cruise missiles; they should be bombarded
with consignments of food, firmly marked LENDLEASE - USA. More
realistically, unless
Pakistan can actually deliver Bin Laden, the American retaliation is
almost sure to become elephantine. Then terror from above will replenish
the source of all terror from
below: unhealed wounds. This is the familiar cycle so well caught by the
matter, and the title, of VS Naipaul's story, Tell Me Who to Kill.

Our best destiny, as planetary cohabitants, is the development of what
has been called "species consciousness" - something over and above
nationalisms, blocs,
religions, ethnicities. During this week of incredulous misery, I have
been trying to apply such a consciousness, and such a sensibility.
Thinking of the victims, the
perpetrators, and the near future, I felt species grief, then species
shame, then species fear.

Martin Amis

Guardian Unlimited
Guardian Newspapers Limited 2001"