Tuesday, September 12, 2006

Contemplating the end of the world

One of the more thoughtful meditations I've seen among all the 5th anniversary commentary on 9/11 was James Carroll's column in the Boston Globe.
Abstracting from such painfully contested interpretations, can we return to the event that set all of this in motion? Today, can we leave the conflict aside to ask, Why was this nation's first reaction to the catastrophe of New York-Washington-Pennsylvania defined by the empathy we felt for one another? Indeed, empathy that day was nearly universal, including much of the world's instant identification with American anguish. Before we knew anything about Al Qaeda, bin Laden, the Cheney-Wolfowitz war plan, the new threat of global terrorism, the axis of evil -- the most important aspect of the event had already occurred. This aspect, however, the interpretations would ignore.

Some (including me) have said that an inch below the surface of our horrified reaction was a long-standing but subliminal dread of a nuclear war, as if the smoke above Ground Zero were a mushroom cloud, the Manhattan Project come at last to Manhattan. Soon enough, nuclear preoccupation (Iraq's WMD, Iran's enriched uranium, North Korea's bomb) would define the national purpose (with the United States renewing its own nuclear weapons program).

But I believe now that the immediate trauma Americans experienced that first morning was still more primitive than that. Beyond politics, beyond nationality even, what humans saw in that flash was a glimpse of nothing less than the end of the world. Here is the final meaning of the name ``World Trade Center" -- what happened that day was a world-event, almost certainly the first fully realized one in history. The collapse of the Twin Towers on themselves was a manifestation of the radical contingency of the human project itself. The terrorists were mere instruments of this world-historic destruction, far exceeding as it did any outcome they could have imagined. Their purposes were mundane, even irrelevant, when compared to the transcendent epiphany that resulted from the unprecedented combination of venality, accident, technological innovation, and instantaneous global communication.
Carroll concludes by saying that, In the face of this bleak vision of human contingency and cosmic indifference, this stark vision of the end of the world, all we have is love. This drove the intense, worldwide empathy in the days after the tragedy, and that's what we need to hold onto.

I began reading Carroll's columns during the runup to the Iraq war, when he was an outspoken voice for peace, and I was looking for answers. I went on to read his powerful memoir, "An American Requiem: God, My Father, and the War That Came between Us." It's like the story of many fathers and sons of my generation, but writ large because of the backgrounds of this particular father and son. Not only is Carroll a former priest, but he was studying for the priesthood and protesting the Vietnam war while his father played a significant role in that war.

I'm passing on some of my notes about the book, because they provide a frame for his 9/11 column:
Father -- Lieutenant General Joseph F. Carroll -- an upright Catholic FBI agent (though he had once hoped to become a priest) and family man, very much the stern head of family. At Sen. Symington's request, he is given a direct commission as air force general to set up Office of Special Investigations to ride herd on defense fraud. Then in 1961 became first head of Defense Intelligence Agency, as a military check on what was viewed as unreliable CIA.

Vietnam blew up in his face, at the same time son was protesting and beginning to question his calling. Involved in bombing targeting, but would not lie -- and so was abruptly removed from his post, for essentially political reasons. Fell apart after that, spent remaining life in deep dark depression, filled with guilt for what he had done to the boys he felt responsible for.

Also steeped in Cold War atmosphere. Missile Crisis and other alerts, when father would disappear, and wife would be instructed to take car and the boys and leave their Washington area home as quickly as possible, and drive south as far as possible as fast as possible. All the wives of senior officials were so instructed. They also had their own info network to let them know when a nuclear attack seemed imminent -- they took turns driving past an AF base --Andrews? -- and looking to see if the planes that the grapevine had told them were to fly the U.S. leadership to safety (or at least, shelter) were still on the ground, which they always were.

Senior Carroll always thought there would eventually be a nuclear war ("No weapon ever developed has not been used, eventually") and he thought it would be catastrophic and destroy everything he held dear. And yet he soldiered on, doing his duty.
Many of us grew up shadowed by threat of instant nuclear annihilation during the Cold War -- and it's a threat that has by no means totally disappeared, which is what makes the Bush administration's cavalier attitude toward nuclear weapons so disturbing. Carroll grew up, not in the shadow, but close to the heart of the beast, and the experience informs his writing.

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