If my apartment had faced southwest, rather than northeast, towards the Williamsburg Bridge, I would have gone out on my balcony to see it all with my own eyes. Instead, like most Americans, I had to turn on the television. Not two minutes later, one of the TV commentators cried, “Oh, my God, another plane.” And at that very moment, the loudest BOOM! I have ever heard in my life shook my windows, echoing for an instant up and down the East River.
I stared in shock at the television — at the two towers burning just on the other side of Chinatown — wondering what sort of crazy airline mishap could possibly explain all of this. Then it dawned on me. The planes crashed at least ten minutes apart…. It was coordinated…. Oh, my God, it’s a terrorist attack. A few minutes later, I found myself in front of my building, amidst the small crowd that had already gathered where the view was clearest.
It was not secret that there were people in the world who dreamed of bringing the towers down. The terrorists had already tried once — and they weren’t getting any friendlier. But I thought that the FBI and CIA and whoever else must have the whole situation well in hand. I felt sure that we had thought of everything. But there was one thing we hadn’t thought of — and our only vulnerability to it was that we hadn’t thought of it — and that was the hijacked-airliner-as-suicide-cruise-missile attack. It was something out of the future: that great realm of unknown unknowns.
The first building to fall was further from me. From the corner of Clinton and Grand, it was mostly obscured by the other tower. One minute it was there and then the next minute it was replaced by a huge column of smoke. The reaction on the street was one of deep confusion. People did not understand what they were looking at. Some thought the tower might still be there and we just couldn’t see it. Many minutes passed like this … and then suddenly the second tower collapsed like an accordion, belching little puffs of smoke and death at every crease. In slow motion, it seemed to me, people started screaming. Slowly now, we finally understood what had happened. The World Trade Center had been destroyed by terrorists.
The first casualty estimates were as high as 15,000 dead — among them very possibly close friends of mine. What is still hard for me to explain is how personally I took those attacks. Year later, when people asked why I had taken a job at the Pentagon, my explanation was simple: “September 11. I had a bad reaction.”
An ex-girlfriend whom I had nearly married a few years before was nearly killed that morning. What I didn’t know as I watched what the world watched was that Juliana was late to work that day. I could only assume that she was where she was supposed to be when the planes hit and the buildings came down, and so she might well be dead. Later in the day, I ran into her in the East Village. Her hair was still pasty with that awful metallic dust that carried the smell of death with it, that dust that none of us who saw it and breathed it will ever forget — and which lingered, like the fire at the World Trade Center, for weeks. It turned out that she was only getting out of the subway when the second plane hit. She was quickly herded into a building nearby, where she and a lobby full of people were ordered to lie flat on the floor. And then the towers came down, filling the entire area around them with a dense smoke that twisted the pitch of emergency sirens into the hellish screams of another world.
“You Have to Ask What This Government Has Done to Make the Arabs So Angry” For a few days, nobody dared to breathe a word of justification for the terrorist attacks. But that moment was all too brief. Only six days later, in The New Yorker, Susan Sontag wrote:
The voices licensed to follow the event [i.e., the media] seem to have joined together in a campaign to infantilise the public. Where is the acknowledgement that this was not a “cowardly” attack on “civilization” or “liberty” or “humanity” or “the free world” but an attack on the world’s self-proclaimed super-power, undertaken as a consequence of specific American alliances and actions?
In Europe, the Left was even quicker to confuse the opposing sides of this new war. Gunter Grass, the German novelist recently outed as a former Nazi S.S. officer, compared the Bush administration’s articulation of America’s war aims after 9/11 to the Nazi’s justifications for Kristallnacht in November 1938, when Jewish synagogues were attacked throughout Germany.
Until recently, I was at a loss to understand how people who had enjoyed all of the benefits of democracy — and proclaimed its principles as their highest ideals — could turn against it so callously. But just the other day, in a conversation with one of my closest friends from college, now a comedy writer in New York and so exposed to the same intellectual climate as Susan Sontag, I finally understood at least one important part of it. My friend was reading Voltaire’s Candide for the first time, and he thought it was really cool that Voltaire was so anti-establishment and so old-school at the same time. This infantilised reading of Voltaire left me with only one question. But Todd, don’t you think Voltaire would have been much happier in our democracy than he was in his own monarchy? No way: What Voltaire hated was the system, what he wanted was to speak truth to power, what he sought to destroy was the elites that created moral paradigms mean to exploit the ignorance of common people.
That’s when it hit me. These people, whom we assume to be democrats in the most basic sense, do not actually believe in democracy. They certainly do not believe in this democracy, anyway. In fact, they hate our government, and naturally arrange themselves in sympathy (if not propinquity) to anyone who also hates it. The new war was not going to have leftists fighting on the same side as conservatives. That would mean not only a betrayal of dissidence, but a proclamation of agreement with those leaders for whom their enmity knows no bounds — chiefly George W. Bush, for whom they feel a degree of malice akin to that which the rest of us feel for the terrorists themselves.
A few weeks later, during a trip to Madison, Wisconsin, I sat for lunch with several graduate students in the Spanish department, including a dark-haired, black-eyed French girl who immediately became the theme and object of my secret plan for the rest of the afternoon. My little Liebestraum lasted until the moment she opened her mouth. “So you were in New York on September 11?” She asked. Yes, I said. “Well, it’s terrible…. But you know… you have to ask what this government has done to make the Arabs so angry.” I had so many things to say all of the sudden, that I decided to say only one thing and leave no doubt that the conversation was over: “I’m a lot more worried now about what I think of them than about what they think of us,” I said.
Sad Society Five years on, that’s still true. I think often now about how sad it would be to grow up in the world that gave rise to this terrorism. No progress in science, or architecture, or technology — and barely any at all even in letters (and even that, take Naguib Mahfouz or Samir el-Youssef as examples, is largely ignored). Nothing to contribute to the march of civilization save violent new ways of vindicating grievances. Societies more ashamed of the beauty of women than they are of mutilating them savagely. Their world is upside down. To the inscription on the coins in Winston Smith’s world, “War is peace. Freedom is Slavery. Ignorance is Strength,” add this: Death is Life. “We shall defeat the Israelis,” intones Hezbollah’s Nasrallah, “because they love life and we love death.”
Are these people devil-worshippers? Among the few places where Muslims and non-Muslims exist in perfect harmony and mutual respect is the United States. And why is that? Because American society, for all its faults, is in the best sense a Christian society: tolerant, charitable, self-critical. If militant Islam as a kind of devil-worship, then it makes sense that they would by the millions chant “Death to America the Great Satan” while not one American would respond in kind.
At the root of all the evils in the Middle East, they say, is the poison of Israel’s occupation of Arab lands. I have yet to come across a single Muslim who thinks that terrorism is worse than the occupation. On the other hand, the occupation by Arabs of each other’s land, or the occupation by Arabs of anybody else’s land, or indeed genocide among Arabs or by Arabs against others — all of that is fine. France can carve the state of Lebanon out of Syria and let the Christian minority control the government — even that is apparently acceptable. But to prevent the Jews from living peacefully in the land of their forefathers, these people are willing to plunge the entire planet into hell.
So what do they want? Their demands include not only a lifting of the occupation, and a return to the 1967 borders, but also the right to return to the homes they fled when the successive wars they started turned against them. For them, all the trouble started with Israel’s independence, and if we could just reverse Israel’s crimes, there would be peace. But they are lying, and they know it.
To say that the Arabs are in the wrong is a mild understatement. In order to agree with them at all, it is necessary to avoid learning anything about the history of the conflict. But I will tell you: Terrorism against the Jews of Palestine dates from before the Balfour Declaration of 1919, to make no mention of the founding of the state of Israel. Fleeing the pogroms of Russia which started in the 1880s, these starving Jewish refugees soon discovered that they had traded one pogromfor another. By 1914, at least half of the new settlements — on land legally purchased for them by international Jewish charities — had been attacked Janjaweed-style by Arab horsemen. The Turkish authorities were lobbied to deprive Jews of property rights, and to stop further immigration. Anti-Zionist societies cropped up throughout the area.
After the First World War, during the period of Mandatory Palestine, when the British were charged with security, there were well over 100 documented attacks by Arabs against Jewish civilians. In 1929 alone, 133 Jews were killed at Safed in north Israel, and 60 more in Hebron. The Jews of Palestine then numbered scarcely 170,000. About 100,000 of these were refugees from the rising tide of anti-Semitism in Europe — most were living on wasteland, sand-dunes, and marshland.
The British tried to placate the Arabs, but there was no placating them, and indeed there never has been. Without exception, when offered a peace settlement, the Arabs choose war instead. On November 29, 1947, the United Nations unveiled a widely lauded partition plan for Palestine, which gave the Jews a strip of coastline between Gaza and Haifa, another parcel abutting the Golan Heights, and most of the Negev Desert. The Palestinians had everything else, including all the land surrounding Jerusalem, which was to be under international control.
The Arabs rejected the U.N. Partition Plan immediately, and took to the streets, weapons in hand. With Palestine degenerating into violence around them, the British withdrew in May 1948, leaving most of the administration in Arab hands. The Arabs then launched a campaign of ethnic cleansing. They surrounded Jewish communities throughout Palestine, cut off their water and food supply, and began massacring them. The surrounding Arab states invaded in all azimuths. In the face of another impending holocaust, barely three years after the end of World War II, the Jews declared the independence of the State of Israel. And all I can say, as I imagine what it must have been like for them, so soon after the Nazi Holocaust, to be facing another one in Palestine, is: Thank God that this time they had weapons to fight back with.
As Israel’s young army advanced, hundreds of thousands of Arabs fled — even though, in most cases, the Israeli forces did not touch the Arabs who remained, being concerned above all to protect Jews from a massacre, not to perpetrate a massacre of their own. The Arabs who did not flee made the right choice: Their descendants today number well over a million Arabs living peacefully among Jews in Israel. Despite restraint on the part of the Jews, the Arabs call the events of 1948 the Great Catastrophe: Al-Nakbah.
It was a catastrophe they brought entirely upon themselves. And indeed, almost all of what they complain about — the security measures, the occupation, even the rejection of the rule of law amongst themselves — these are tragedies they have sought out with malice aforethought. And they have explained their reasons. As Frantz Fanon wrote during the Algerian War of the late 1950s, “At the level of the individual, violence is a cleansing force. It frees the native from his inferiority complex and from his despair and inaction; it makes him fearless and restores his self-respect.”
Us vs. Them I feel the deepest pity for Palestinians of my generation, most of all because I would not wish upon anybody the ancestors they had, many of them so demonically racist, that even after the defeat of Nazi Germany, even as the Holocaust gave humanity a glass in which to see the shame of its own barbarism — even then! — these men decided to organize widespread massacres against Jews, heedless of all consequences for their own dignity, and for their happiness of their progeny. They preferred killing over peace, even in defeat, and not for the last time. It was decades upon decades of this mindless violence which led Golda Meier to remark that there would never be peace so long as the Arabs hated the Jews more than they loved their own children. And indeed, and in no small part because the West so fondly coddles them still in their insane and satanic cult of hatred, peace remains beyond imagining in Palestine.
The West has long enough coddled these supposed self-styled victims in their ghoulish hatred of the Jews, which in vulgarity and sadism (if not in its effectiveness) sometimes exceeds even that of the Nazis. Why have we forgotten that Jews were stripped of property rights in many parts of the Arab world in the late 19th century? Why do we ignore the fact that a million Arabs can live in peace in Israel, but not a single Jew can survive, absent the protection of the IDF, in an Arab community? And why do we ignore their sadism against innocent civilians? Why do we stand so ready to explain away their wild-eyed zeal for maximizing civilian casualties and injuries? Why do we ignore their cruelty towards each other?
Susan Sontag thinks that all of this is the “consequence of specific American alliances and actions.” What a fool. The people who agree with her should above all be paternalistically scolded for so childishly pawning their common sense to their present passion. Their entire agenda is nothing more than adolescent rebellion elevated to a cheap philosophy, a philosophy ornamented by masochism, but motivated by cruelty.
Five years on, I meditate still on the attacks of that day; how they changed my country and altered the course of its history. Many people died in my happy city on September 11, 2001. But New York City is happy still. But wiser.
For all its faults, there is something great and undefeatable about Western Civilization. For some reason I may never more than dimly understand, its creative genius always proves stronger than the destructive power of its enemies. Few are the centuries that this civilization has not marked progress. Even in the dark ages after the fall of Rome, the vast forests of Europe were being cleared, preparing that fertile land to become the cradle of scientific revolution and modern democracy.
The terrorists could bring down the symbols of my civilization’s greatness — but not its greatness. Five years after 9/11, our Golden Age continues its forward march, in peaceful countrysides and across the countless vibrant towns and cities where nearly a billion people are raising their families in peace and safety and happiness. It is for them that we fight. But in fact none of the challenges of history have been able to stop them living as they want to live, as they were meant to live.
Meanwhile, the cities where the plague reigns supreme, where the rats seem permanently encamped, where progress and hope and safety are otherworldly notions — those blighted cities are in the Islamic world. Think about the face they are showing to history and to the world: Chaos and hatred and misery. They deserve our boundless pity. On September 11, 2001, we got a taste of their world, a brief reason to feel sorry for ourselves. But on this September 11, the bells toll most insistently and ominously for them.
– Mario Loyola is a former assistant for communications and policy planning at the Department of Defense.