October 1, 2001
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Things reach out and grab you by the throat, sometimes. You don't even have to be in the same room with those things, in the same city, in the same country, even in the same decade; some things are powerful enough to transcend time and space and affect you through sheer power of word and image. They will affect you just as powerfully ever after as they did the first time you encountered them sense and insanity, feelings of pride, helplessness, fear, fury, rage, terror and other, more inchoate, things will rear up in reaction again and again. The simplest actions you performed every day, the most commonplace items and ideas that you took for granted, all is changed, changed utterly.
September 11 was one of those "things" for America. What won't its people be able to do again? Already I've heard references to people's reactions when the first planes started flying again after the grounding of all aircraft immediately after the carnage in New York an instinctive wince, when they heard the sound of aircraft engines overhead in the empty sky. Will anyone ever look at an airliner again quite the same way? At a skyscraper? What are those people who work in surviving high-rise buildings thinking right now? A repeat of what happened is so unlikely as to be, for all practical purposes, impossible the whole thing was made real through a combination of unheard-of audacity, some unbelievable planning and coordination, and the catching of the "enemy" by surprise. The only way the NEXT terrorist attack will succeed is if it is done in some completely different and utterly unrelated way. That's why the jabbering about "increased security" in airports and on planes, to the extent where passengers have had nail clippers confiscated because they had a tiny nail file attached, is so much hot air right now it's akin to locking the barn door after the rest of the building has burned down.
Before 24 March 1999 my father and I used to watch war movies together. Things from World War II, like "Tobruk" (which even mother watched because of a soft spot for George Peppard), and "The Longest Day," and "Tora!Tora! Tora!". Things with John Wayne in them. Things like "A Few Good Men." Movies where mayhem was the order of the day, where explosions were a dime a dozen, where men died on the screen in a celluloid approximation of the events of real-time wars long done with.
March 1999 brought war close to home when the country I was born in, Yugoslavia, was attacked by planes at 15000 feet, airplanes high enough to drop bombs on the innocent but too high for the defenders of those dismissed as "collateral damage" by the powers behind the attack to do any real harm to those planes. I watched the war on TV, and on the Internet. I watched a country burning. I heard, as many did in shelters throughout the cities, air-raid sirens wailing every night as young children and the elderly were herded into shelters when the planes roared overhead with their deadly cargo.
Trying to escape from the torment, mother and I, trapped in a country far away from this horror but tied to it by family who were enduring it and exhausted by the worry and the fear of it, decided to go to the movies. I picked a Star Trek movie, "Insurrection" a slice of fantasy to take us out of the reality we could not endure any more.
The movie pulled a fast one. We saw flying machines come in over the hills over which a helpless and unarmed people were fleeing. We saw flying machines kill. Try as we would we could not quite divorce the fantasy images on the screen from the reality we were still living, where we saw flying machines killing real people in the real world.
I have woken from that wartime nightmare with an instinctive and almost physical aversion to warplanes. Less than two years after that 1999 attack, my brand-new husband, who is into winged things and once owned a small aircraft himself, wanted to go to a local airshow. I assented....and then stood there frozen one morning, a few days before the show was due to open, watching a couple of military-looking planes slice across the sky with a characteristic whine of power engines as they performed their maneuvers.
"Is this what THEY heard...?" was the only thought in my head. Was this what the people on the ground in Yugoslavia heard before the bombs started falling?
We did not go to the air show. It is probably going to be a good few years if ever before I am able to stand and watch warplane airgames with any kind of equanimity.
I have heard many commentators mouth platitudes about "loss of innocence" with respect to the World Trade Center attacks. This would be correct, but not in the ways that these pundits are using the phrase. The loss of innocence does not lie in the sudden awareness that death is real and that "special effects" have moved off the silver screen and into the real world; it lies in the simple fact that it has become impossible for people to take anything for granted any more. Nothing is safe.
Poets become our prophets. Remember William Butler Yeats?
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction; while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.
The ceremony of innocence is drowned. It's a new world that we faced in the morning, on the morning of September 11. What we do with it will determine whether we come of age, or irretrievably spiral into Yeats's "anarchy." And what determines which path we will take?
Ask yourself what you will never take for granted again. Then work with all your might, try, keep trying even in the face of impossible odds, to bring back a world in which such things will be possible again.
Alma Hromic, the author with R. A. Deckert of Letters from the Fire, was born in Novi Sad, Yugoslavia. However she has lived outside her native country for much of her life: Zambia, Swaziland, South Africa, the UK and New Zealand. Trained as a microbiologist, she spent some years running a scientific journal, and later worked as an editor for an international educational publisher. Her own publishing record includes her autobiography, Houses in Africa, The Dolphin's Daughter and Other Stories, a bestselling book of three fables published by Longman UK in 1995, as well as numerous pieces of short fiction and non-fiction. Her latest novel, the first volume of a fantasy series, Changer of Days: The Oracle, was published in September 2001 by Harper Collins. Recently, Hromic won the much coveted BBC online short story competition. Her story, The Painting, was broadcast in the UK in the last week of January 2001.
Please, DO NOT steal, scavenge or repost this work without the expressed written authorization of Swans, which will seek permission from the author. This material is copyrighted, © Alma A. Hromic 2001. All rights reserved. No part of this material may be reproduced, stored in a retrieval system or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic, mechanical, photocopying, recording or otherwise, without the prior written permission of the publisher.
This Week's Internal Links
Freedom of Speech and Swans - by Gilles d'Aymery
Memorial - by Alma A. Hromic
For Washington, A Lining Of Black Gold In This Dark Cloud? - by Stephen Gowans
The Enduring Reign of the Shruggers - by Antony C. Black
Soldier, Can You Hear? - by Andreas Toupadakis
Can We Change? - by Michael W. Stowell
Remember What Makes Us Great - by Eli Beckerman
My Letter To Government Officials - by Helen L. H. Mader
Questions and Answers on Achieving Peace - by Andreas Toupadakis
Media Pundits Advocate Civilian Targets - by FAIR
Bring Back Napalm - by Anonymous posters on a military forum
Arguments for using Strategic Weapons (Nuclear)... - by Anonymous posters on a military forum
The Armagheddon Game - by Anonymous posters on a community forum
If Dr. Seuss Was On This Plane... - by Aleksandra Priestfield
The War Prayer - by Mark Twain
Alma Hromic's Commentaries on Swans
This is an Emotional Argument (July 2001)
Letter From My Father (June 2001)
They Change Their Sky (May 2001)
Year Two, P.K. (March 2001)
Letter to my Unborn Child (February 2001)
On the Anniversary (September 2000)
Subject: Into Myth (September 2000)
Sadness in Novi Sad, Serbia (April 2000)