Politics & Policy

Where Were You When…?

The lockbox in retrospect.

Where were you when the World Trade Center collapsed?

Well, I’m in Pendleton, Oregon. Virtually every important person in my life is in New York City or Washington, D.C. At 9:00 AM or so I called and left a message for my wife (of three weeks) to call me and turn on the TV when she got in. She called, and said that the security guard at the Justice Department had told her what had happened. As the attorney general’s chief speechwriter, she said she had to run and help with some statement. She called back 20 minutes later, to say that she was being evacuated.

My parents and brother are fine. My mom says that the ambulance and police sirens are constant outside her window. Still, though I pray otherwise, I wouldn’t be surprised if I know someone who was hurt or killed at the World Trade Center.

Meanwhile, Pendleton is an eerie place. The dining room in my hotel is packed with people watching the coverage — vaguely reminiscent of people huddled around a radio listening to reports of the Pearl Harbor attack.

There’s a big rodeo in town called the Pendleton Roundup, and the whole place seemed to be packed to overflowing with visitors last night. RVs line the streets and fill parking lots. But, this morning, the streets are largely empty. After about an hour or two of TV coverage, I went out with my Walkman to walk my dog. I listened to the radio as Cosmo and I played fetch in a small park next to the rodeo stadium. The sounds of the cows mooing in their pens almost drowned out the NPR broadcast coming through my headphones. Across the street, small groups of tourists and locals huddled together in the temporary RV park they’ve made out of the Albertson’s supermarket parking lot.

Suddenly, the NPR broadcast grew louder, or seemed to. Then I realized that the Rodeo PA system was blasting the National Public Radio newscast. In this day of firsts, this may been the first time an American rodeo amplified NPR’s Morning Edition on purpose, which gives you just a sense of how quickly Americans can rally together when necessary.

In fact, I found it oddly touching that QVC, the home-shopping network, is running the following announcement in lieu of regular programming: “QVC acknowledges today’s events and expresses our heartfelt concern with this national tragedy. For more information, please turn to your TV news channel. In light of these events, QVC will be temporarily suspending its broadcast.”

I’ve chatted with a few people in Pendleton. One lady in the lobby of my hotel was desperately trying to call her daughter by cell phone. She was worried because her daughter is a flight attendant, and all of the cell-phone lines were blocked. Eventually, she got through. I told her that my new wife and my parents were in Washington and New York, respectively. She said she’d pray for my family. I got a little choked up; I offered to do the same.

Some people here seem upset, others fascinated. But one emotion seems to unite all: anger. I know it was my overriding response as I listened to witnesses describing how a dozen people deliberately leaped to their deaths from the World Trade Center, in order to escape the blaze. Rage was preeminent as I watched Palestinians cheer in the streets in joy, as innocent Americans died in the largest suicide-bomber attack on innocents and noncombatants in human history. And fury was all I had for Peter Jennings as he seemed to defend the anti-American revelers, even as they celebrated this attack.

Of course, our first priority must be to help those in need, be they victims or families of victims. But after that, the next priority is equally obvious: controlled rage and determined, furious anger. The Jenningses of the world will find a chorus, no doubt — in the respectable pages of the New York Times and elsewhere — agreeing that this is “not a time for anger” and that “vengeance is not the answer.” We will be told how complicated the many factors are which led to this act of war. I’ve no doubt that the complexities of the context are great, as they were before Pearl Harbor. But the answer to this event is simple, as was the answer to Pearl Harbor. Punishment: swift, severe, and public.

This was an act of war, and we must force the world to choose sides: Are you with us, or with those who did this to us? Decide now. There is no middle ground. There are no other squares on the board. What was once complicated is now simple.

America is up to the task. Indeed, as the echoes of partisan shrieking over the budget and the absurdities of the Social Security lockbox fade quickly in the face of a real challenge, I’m reminded of the observation (by Eugene McCarthy, I think), that “America can choke on a gnat, but it can swallow tigers whole.” We’ve been choking on gnats for the last few months. It’s time to devour some tigers, and without apology.

That, at least, is how it seems to me, here in Pendleton.

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