Let me ask the reader — sitting in a dining hall somewhere, 20 minutes until class, with a tray of half-eaten food — to imagine himself in a position in which he will never be. Let him imagine that he is 15,000 feet above the ground, in a Boeing 767, built in 1999; that he is sitting in the business class, among the toniest of the cross-country travelers; let him imagine he has had his early breakfast, a cup of the bitter chicory coffee served on airplanes; and that in four or five minutes, he will kill all the flight attendants and pilots aboard and commandeer the aircraft.
Let him jump forward, in his imagination, 20 minutes. Somewhere over upstate New York, he is bracing himself for the final phase of his plan, which calls for him to crash this plane, this Boeing 767 loaded with fuel and, more importantly, terrified humans, humans like him; let the reader imagine that he is this man, who does not waver, who, having murdered 10 people, is ready to murder 10,000; let the reader imagine that his faith decrees that all suicides are immediately committed to the depths of hell, without hope of redemption.
Can you imagine taking this final step, crashing the plane into the reinforced steel, the glass, the noises of shattering and splintering all around you, the human screams for an instant before you die? Without hope of redemption from hell?
It strikes me that the primary flaw in America’s reaction to all of this awful, terrible, catastrophic mess, this tragedy — a word that has been used again and again, for once inadequate — is that the reader is not likely to have imagined himself in this position.
My first thought Tuesday morning was of panic for my family and friends in New York; my second was of sorrow for the victims; and my third was amazement, bafflement at the sheer desperation that would propel a man to give his life up, to give thousands of lives away, for a cause that is at best vague to the country he hoped to harm.
More than desperation must have been coursing through the terrorists’ hearts. They lived in a disconnected world. In a world of globalization, they were regional; in a world of technology, their nation was one of nomads, armed to the teeth and brutally angry; in a world of endless, ceaseless advance, their lives were, to most minds, stuck in the 15th century; in a world of secular achievement, they lived in a world utterly based in faith that God would take care of them.
With this faith that there was a God, they gave their lives away voluntarily without hope of redemption.
What scares me most is that this lack of imagination has been most forceful in our leaders. “It was an act of war,” I heard again and again; “We’ll smoke them out,” President George W. Bush said. At Toad’s Saturday night a group began to chant “nuke ’em!” with the fervor of Yankees fans at playoff time.
I don’t doubt that our president and his cabinet — war hogs as my roommate calls them — would have joined in the chant. Maybe they’re chanting in the situation room right now.
This was not an act of war. This was an act of fear, anger, stupidity, insanity and, above all, a deep and presiding confusion at a world that has left the terrorists’ way of life behind. Practically, too, it was not an act of war. There is a shadowy enemy, shabbily organized at best, whom we will pursue, I do not doubt, until we have killed all of them and many of ourselves.
This was not the crime of a nation, but of a few, a few hundred, a few thousand men who acted out the furthest reaches of phobia and rage that their nations feel. The cheering on the streets on the West Bank horrified all of us — but again, let us imagine how they feel.
My heart, above all, is extended to the victims of the attack; to the genuine heroes so rare in America who charged into buildings afire and akimbo because it was their job; but a small part of my heart remains in wonder that any men could be so despondent, so hopeless they would commit this act.
Just as I wonder when our nation puts a killer to death, how we cannot see the anguish that the man must be feeling, trapped in his psychoses. I wonder why we cannot see the deep anguish of the men who committed these acts, an anguish that is spreading in their homelands.
When we go to war I will, if I must, fight. I believe in this tattered assembly of ideas and people and places called America. But I also believe in humanity; I believe in the goodness of men, that in the heart of every man is a pure core, unblemished by anxiety; I believe in God.
As we move ahead, for a little while, only a moment, only a second, let us consider what must have been in the hearts of the murderers; let us believe that in their final breath, they felt a deep regret in that pure core; and before we move ahead, let us look into that place in our own hearts and ask ourselves what we are preparing to do.
Charles Finch is a senior in Berkeley College. He writes regularly for the Scene section.