Under my byline


Posted in Living by Rrishi on 12 September 2001

That morning, on campus

The first sign that something was wrong Tuesday morning was that my cellphone refused to dial any number at all. Walking about my university campus in suburban Maryland, just outside Washington, DC, it was clear that a lot of people were having the same trouble. A tall junior in my French class mentioned that CNN was going on about an attack on the World Trade Centre in New York and on the Pentagon in suburban Virginia, just across the Potomac River from DC. This was difficult to believe; such horror does not belong in a bright, clear morning with a whole busy day of things to do ahead. And this is America, not Mumbai.

Someone had dragged a large, aged television into the department office. A small crowd of professors, secretaries and graduate students were standing around watching grainy news coverage. I grabbed an elbow and asked, “Is it true?” and a graduate student of military history recited the damage, his hands distractedly pressed against his head in a recognisable gesture of helplessness: planes hijacked, the twin towers burning, the Pentagon burning, reported attacks on the Capitol and the Old Executive Office Building alongside the White House, evacuations and terror.

It was not silent, Americans are not often silent. Every time the sequence of the second airliner slamming into the tower was played, there were new exclamations of incredulity. Ever so often, someone would walk in and ask what was going on; there would be a rush to explain things, to share in the reaction afresh. Someone began to cry. For a group of tremendously articulate people, however, it took a while for analysis to surface; nobody was at first concerned with who did it or why, or what the reaction would be. Retribution was not the first thought; there was just a hunger for information, and a fear that there were more crashes to come. After all, there were other planes missing. Interestingly, the first thoughtful reaction I heard came from the student of military history, who hoped that the government would not lash out blindly and order attacks against random foreign targets to assuage public opinion.

The morning wore on, but most people did not leave. They popped out to telephone, to check on friends and family, to do a spot of work. Parents from other states were calling the graduate student office in early hysteria to check if their children were okay (eliciting reactions like “Whatever, it’s only my mother, I’ll call her later…”). The television coverage was slightly odd, because cameras and crews were kept at a distance from the damage. For American media, which makes a habit of zooming in on individual reaction, of capturing the instantaneity of what it was like to be there, of demanding public confirmation or expiation of private emotion, of making every trauma and joy a public trauma or a public joy, this was oddly impersonal. The brief interviews with New Yorkers fleeing from lower Manhattan did not start until later, when more new information was not forthcoming. There were few close-in shots of the damage and the human reaction. It was like the standard New York calamity film, people fleeing, collapsing skyscrapers. It was somehow all too familiar to be really happening.

Still, New York is like Mumbai: everyone knows someone who lives or works there. One of our professors clattered into the office, asking whether people had died in the World Trade Centre. Of course — people replied — hundreds, perhaps thousands. Her nephew worked there, and she was unable to get through to him. Since the phone lines into the city were jammed or closed, it took all day to find out whether or not friends and relatives were all right. Email was still up and running, and by late afternoon just about all my friends in New York had checked in to say they were safe. The professor with the nephew in the World Trade Centre looked calmer a while later, so I hope she had good news.

The scrolling-text news banner across the bottom of the television screen announced that our university was closed. Despite the university president’s hot denials, there was nothing to do but return home. Police were clearing downtown DC of people, and government workers were streaming back out to the suburbs, creating mid-morning traffic seizures of enormous proportions. We were uncertain whether or not the subway and metrobuses were operating, so effectively we were penned into the university neighbourhood. Road and rail connections between Washington and nearby Baltimore were closed off by the military. It was a capital under seige.

At home, my police-aide roommate was all nerves. “It was a fantastic display of precision terror,” he said in awe. We checked the news online periodically, but the CNN and MSNBC websites were overloaded. By late Tuesday evening, today’s Washington Post op-ed essays were available on the website. Writers in this normally liberal pacifist newspaper said that the attacks had brought to an end “the nation’s decade-long holiday from history,” and compared September 11, 2001 to December 7, 1941. (My roommate mentioned speculation that the attacks took place on Tuesday because it was, in the American style of writing dates, 9-11-2001, or 911.) “Americans are slow to anger but mighty when angry,” said George F Will, and Robert Kagan took this further with a call to arms, asking whether the current generation of Americans will stand up for America like “The Greatest Generation” who fought in the Second World War. President Bush followed this up in his short speech last night with rhetoric reminiscent of the Cold War, that America was being targeted because it represented freedom to the rest of the world. This time, however, it is a hidden enemy. Who must the airstrikes be sent against?

Members of my online Harry Potter community dropped their usual attention to topic restrictions and rushed to check whether those in DC and New York were all right. They set up an all-night therapeutic chatroom for people to discuss their feelings about the disaster. The Washington Post has a live online grief counsellor today. Children were sent home from some schools with notes suggesting that their parents find their own ways to explain the tragedy to them. Many turned to religion, asking for and offering prayers for the people affected, people they do not know. Members of Congress met on the rear steps of the Capitol yesterday to sing “God Bless America,” in what was described as an act of defiance. President Bush drew upon Psalm 23 — “Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I fear no evil for you are with me” — and ended with the traditional “Good night and God bless America.” This afternoon, there will be a memorial service conducted by university chaplains on the great lawn in front of the library, where the university president has urged students to “come together” and “be with each other throughout the day”.

This is only the start of a new time for Americans, here in DC as elsewhere. Delhi and Mumbai are used to bombs, Washington and New York are not. Mere revenge is not going to be the end of this story.

(Written for The Week of Mumbai. Visit the US National Guard webpage for Gil Cohen’s painting, above.)


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