Three days before the attack on the Twin Towers I saw "Air Force One" on television, that silly simulation with Harrison Ford about the hijacking of the American president's plane. The next day I flew to New York. I arrived on September 10. When I awoke at a New Jersey hotel and turned on the TV the next morning, it took me many minutes to grasp that it wasn't another nonsense film like "Air Force One" that I was seeing.
Over and over the pictures played in a loop, as it's called in broadcast jargon: An airplane crashing into the Twin Towers and then another one. First thought: In what movie did I once see something like that? Then the question: How can this even be, that buildings like these collapse so easily? Uncomfortably, I also recollect that in the first moments the images aroused in me an almost aesthetic appreciation more than anxiety. This can't be real, I thought, it's too beautiful. Subsequently a number of enormous photography volumes came out that basked in the horror with revolting fetishism.
I made it into Manhattan only the next day. On the train there were already signs that something very profound was changing in America. A miserable-looking conductor walked through the cars announcing: "No fare today, no fare today." The passengers had difficulty believing their ears. "Life will never be the same again," I jotted down, but it was years before I internalized the meaning of that cliche.
Everywhere south of 14th Street, Manhattan looked like a ghost town, people in the village wandered aimlessly. The area was closed to motor vehicles, and only reporters were allowed near the mountain of debris that remained of the Twin Towers. Masses of computer cases lay about there, an archaeological remnant of a tremendous economic empire. Not far from there were thousands of parked cars - their owners were still buried under the debris. The cars stood like monuments to their memory.
The dust that covered the southern part of Manhattan made breathing difficult. It was a particle mixture of steel, glass, and human remains. A man on the street told me about the people he had seen the previous day jumping from the heights of the building, in the hopes of being saved. "A rain of people," he said, and described to me how their limbs convulsed. In the place where the towers had stood - a symbol of the strength of the world's number one superpower - a giant mushroom cloud billowed.
In the tony north as well there was a terrible atmosphere of grief-shock. Americans had not yet formulated a culture of grief. In contrast to the Israeli media outlets, which immediately focus on the story of the victims, media outlets in America initially focused their attention on the transportation mess.
A few days later I descended into the inferno itself. I joined Roly Matalon, the rabbi of Congregation B'nai Jeshurun, who was going there with several members of his congregation to bring sandwiches and water to the firefighter crews. We got set up initially at St. Paul's Chapel, where George Washington worshipped on the day he was sworn in as president. Toward midnight we were taken in a small group into the depths of the shadow of death. The flames were still burning; most of the remains of the bodies had not been removed yet. A smell of hell was in the air.
I was able then to identify with the human tragedies the attack had caused. I wanted to admire the effort New York was making to return to its vibrant and colorful life I love so much. Within a few days, the white horse-drawn carriages could be seen once more driving tourists around Central Park. The vendors selling candied peanuts, the Chinaman who can write names on grains of rice, and the nearly-naked cowboy you can hire to have your picture taken with at Times Square - I greeted like long-lost friends.
I repressed the fact that I had actually never liked those two boastful towers, and viewed with sympathetic forgiveness the patriotic wave that swept America, with flags visible in every window and even on the fruit cart where I like to buy a banana when I'm in Manhattan. It seemed there had never been so many people in New York who felt the need to display their pride in being Americans. It was easy to say: We are all Americans.
There was something very Israeli about the way that terror pushed so many Americans into tribal closeness and a determination to shore up their world of values. The general opinion was that the terrorists had struck them because they were American. Conclusion: They must be even more American. They felt something similar at the time of the Cold War with the Communists. I did not understand then that America was sinking.
The collapse of systems
At Union Square, as we sat under the statue of Abraham Lincoln, I entered into conversation with several people. It was a few days after the attack. Until recently, they said, they lived with a sense of security, as was to be expected. Their country is a superpower, sprawled between two oceans. One man said that more than the collapse of the towers he was frightened by the collapse of the transportation and communications systems. He suddenly realized that Manhattan is an island, and when he tried telephoning all he heard was the voice of an automaton that had malfunctioned: "Thank you, Thank you, Thank you." It was so macabre, the man said.
Many of the automated responses you hear there today begin with the instruction, "For English, press 1," because the default choice is Spanish. America built much of its strength on its multicultural identity, but more and more immigrants are having trouble realizing the American Dream.
"Air Force One" aired again last Friday on Channel 10, and it occurred to me that the cliche had fulfilled itself: America is indeed not what it used to be. It is tempting to write that Bin Laden defeated America, but looking back - albeit not far enough back, from a historic standpoint - it seems that in the past decade America defeated itself.
For here is what we had: A cowboy president who dragged the United States into war in Iraq. To this day it hasn't managed to get out of there completely. Then there was a series of disasters for which perhaps not only nature but also the system itself were responsible: The space shuttle Columbia, which disintegrated in 2003; the rescue debacles in New Orleans, which was hit by Hurricane Katrina in 2005.
The impression that has grown from year to year is that America is simply not functioning properly anymore. The course of the war in Afghanistan doesn't exactly rectify this feeling. More and more Americans have discovered that, contrary to their expectations, they will not be able to give their children better lives than their own. Everywhere in the world today people think twice before investing in the dollar. America owes trillions of dollars to China, which imparts a promising future. The crises that befell the American economy convey not just lousy luck, not just swindling, but mainly amateurism: Sorry, America. What's going on with you, America?
The Internet the United States bequeathed the world made several big strides forward in the past decade, and at a certain point it even seemed like the Americans were shaking themselves out of it and finding themselves again. That was when they elected Barack Obama. Everything appeared to promise a new start. Primarily it seemed like the fundamental American values were being shaken out and dusted, in preparation for a new spring. But Obama isn't conveying a youthful spring anymore; quite the contrary.
And so that terrible September comes across as a kind of opening fanfare in a Wagnerian opera about the decline of the gods. The Israeli dream, which so many of us were raised on, was and remains to a great degree an American dream. So I am reminded of what Levi Eshkol asked when informed that there was a drought in the country: Is there rain in America?
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