I woke up that morning, as I do almost every weekday morning, to the squawk of drive time radio harpy “Jamie.” Jamie, it must be explained to non-Los Angeles readers, is an idiot, a blithering bim who was clearly hired--in radio, remember--for her looks. That's how shallow my city is: ugly actors can't find work even in radio. It’s a testament to the new-found maturity of her partner, Danny Bonaduce, that he can stand to be in the same room with her for six hours each morning without shoving a pencil in her eye. Unfortunately, theirs is the clearest station on my clock radio dial, and I can't stand to be wakened by static. On that particular morning, as the clock hit 7:30, Jamie was saying something about buildings collapsing. I listened long enough to realize something significant and apparently fatal had happened in New York, but with Jamie cackling obnoxiously at everything anyone said, it was impossible to know the severity of the situation. Bonaduce sounded grim, but she sounded less concerned than she would’ve been by the death of a caller's fifteen-year-old cat.
I showered and shaved, my clock radio still playing in the background. Bonaduce said something about terrorism. Near as I could tell, someone bombed the World Trade Center again. No big deal, I decided, and continued to dress for work. As I tied my shoes, I glanced at MSN.com. Only then did I learn two planes had flown directly into the towers, potentially killing many thousands of people, yet tiny JPEGs on the news site conveyed little of the scope of the disaster. The attack irritated me, no more than that. I copy/pasted the news article to the front page of my website and headed for the bus.
Warner Bros. Burbank is a ten-minute bus ride from my apartment. As always, I walked through the gate without incident, the security guard barely glancing at my walk-on pass to the lot. I continued across the front circle into the executive office building. Another secretary caught me as I picked up my employer's mail. "You should go," she said. "They're closing the lot." They are? "Yeah, because of the World Trade Center." I was amazed, because I still thought the attack had “only” killed a few hundred people. I guess it hadn't sunk in yet. Boy, do I feel stupid about that now.
And callous, because I immediately called my temp staffing agency to ask them what to do. "Go home," my recruiter told me. Yeah, I know that, I answered grumpily, but what do I do about my timesheet? "Huh?" she asked, incredulous. I picked up her tone but thought she was overdramatizing. What I mean is, I explained calmly, should I assume I'm not getting paid for today? It seemed a fair question. After all, here I was, on the lot, bright and early at 8:45 as expected, so why should I be penalized by what I thought was a knee-jerk reaction from Warner? I didn't say all that, thank God, but it was what I was thinking. She had no idea what to say. "I...uh...Well...I think that's something we're going to have to figure out later, but I assume you'll get paid for the days you actually worked. Go home, please!" Okay, I said. There wasn't much more I could say. But she sounded so upset--more than worried, afraid--that for the first time in my life, I heard myself saying, Be safe. I would say that to everyone I met for the next week.
See, I had a minor problem: due to mistakes on both my part and my bank's, I was twelve bucks overdrawn the day before. Nothing major, but it kept me from withholding any money from the check I deposited at an ATM. Consequently, despite having nominal funds in the bank, I was still broke. I’d expected to withdraw some cash on my lunch break, but now I needed money I didn't have for the bus home. I called my bank; they were all sent home as well. With nothing better to do, I started walking. Almost ninety minutes later, I arrived home and wearily turned on the TV. What I saw, of course, made my jaw drop. A few minutes later, tears welled in my eyes. My heart was broken. This could not have happened. I didn't live in a world that looked anything like this.
My roomate and I have a name for this kind of violent, amped-up action movie world: we call it Stupidia. Die Hard 2: Die Harder took place in Stupidia. So did Armageddon and Executive Decision. When people die in Stupidia, villains and heroes alike, they aren't real people, they’re fictional characters--Stupidians. But now I saw real humans plummeting from the highest stories of two of the tallest buildings in America. I averted my eyes, then quickly changed the channel to CNN, which had sense enough not to show us those real-world deaths. Instead, I saw 747s banking into office buildings chock full of people. Real people. Not Stupidians…human beings. Men and women. With children. Holy God.
With an apocalyptic rumble, both towers fell onto Liberty Street. As they fell, my cinegeek's brain said, Ah, look, a digital wipe. They're morphing the floors together as it "falls." The smoke and dust effects were modeled in Sabre by ILM. Look, you can tell. That shot of the smoke and shock wave blasting through concrete canyons is exactly like a shot in the trailer for Independence Day. And then, a moment later, it hit me: no. These are real cars and buildings and airplanes. Real cars and buildings and airplanes contain people. Real people. You just watched several thousand people die. Tears flowed freely at last.
I'm sitting in my office at Warner as I write this, so I can't say as much as I'd like to about the firefighters and police officers and EMTs and National Guard troops and Port Authority personnel and civilians who gave their lives that morning so others might live. That's because, although it's a month later, I will cry again if I do. I apologize for that. To use Dan Rather's word, it's unprofessional. To use my word, it's schmaltzy. To use my friend Colin's word, it's oversentimental. But it's true. Those people mattered. Their deaths were not mere expirations, but sacrifices. They inspire us to make the most of our lives. The day before, to most of the world, they were walking statistics; but on 11 September, they became heroes. I'm humbled by their greatness.
Over the next few days, business came to a screeching halt in the executive hallways of Warner Bros. Our next film, Collateral Damage, would be postponed indefinitely. Not only did Warner execs delay the release, they even took the unprecedented step of pulling all advertising for the movie, everywhere. Within days, no one-sheet poster or trailer or billboard for Collateral Damage could be seen on planet Earth if Warner could help it. TV networks gave up tens of millions of dollars a day in advertising, delaying their fall premieres to air freely swapped news updates without commercial interruption. Thousands, maybe millions of people stood on street corners, brandishing candles and encouraging us to honk for freedom. Julia Roberts, David Letterman, Dan Rather, and Jon Stewart broke down on national television, weeping for the living and the dead. Commercial and personal websites alike devoted their front pages to pleas for contributions to the Red Cross. Both houses of Congress banded together, at some risk, to sing "God Bless America." The tragedy affected every American, young or old, Muslim, Jew, Christian or otherwise. And U.S. and allied forces commenced retaliatory strikes against the Taliban on 7 October, so it isn't over yet--not by a long shot.
What have we learned from all this? First and possibly foremost, America has identified its enemies for the twenty-first century. Communist states are no longer our nemeses. We don't care how other countries run their political structure anymore, as long as they treat us and their citizens with a minimum of human decency. Inflated oil prices are frowned upon but permissible; acts of terrorism are not. Socialism is hunky-dory by the good ol' U.S. of A.; stealing food from civilians to pay for competitive armaments is not. This has always seemed ridiculously clear to me, but now it seems the rest of the free world is catching on.
Do you have any idea how perversely excited I am to see a new fight against capital-E Evil? My grandparents, the Brokaw-labeled "Greatest Generation," waged the fight against Nazism, for which they've been fairly lauded ever since. My parents fought racism and misogyny and the Greatest Generation, who wanted them to go off and die in a pointless war in Vietnam. Until now, my generation fought...what? Homophobia? Video games? The ongoing struggle against the insidious popularity of Floridian boy bands? Now we can rage against Osama bin Laden! We can nurse a righteous indignation against car bombs and land mines and political torture and outright mass murder in our very own streets! We need to feel we're a part of--on the right side of--a moral and ethical struggle. I'm not immune to the lure of herd behavior, but at least I feel safe in my belief that I'm right and the murdering coward bin Laden is wrong.
Speaking of herd behavior, we’ve seen plenty of that this month, haven't we? Not a day goes by that I don't receive a mass email insisting I pull over at 7:00, light a candle, donate blood, weep for the fallen, pray for the living, then forward that email to every person in my address book. Did I know Nostradamus predicted the attacks? Well, no, because he didn't. Wouldn't it be funny if we redesigned the World Trade Center to look as if we’re giving Osama the finger? No, to be honest, it wouldn't. Isn't it creepy that a scowling "face" appeared in one image of the smoke emanating from the Towers before they fell? Yes, I suppose it is, but only as significant as the "face" on the moon, which is not very much. Listen, people, get a grip. I'm Mister Oversentimental, but even I'm getting tired of this nonsense. Lighting candles won't resurrect the dead, nor will it benefit the survivors in any way. Waving a flag only makes one a better American in the superficial way wearing school colors makes one a better student. And to be perfectly, brutally honest, singing "God Bless America" only calls to mind the tragic degree to which God failed to bless America that Tuesday morning. If there is a God, She obviously doesn't give two flips about national or political borders, nor will She undo what has already been done. (Many Christians pay lip service to the idea of an all-knowing, all-powerful God, yet imagine their prayers will affect--improve?--their God's decisions in some way.) This isn't about Us vs. Them, nor is it about Jehovah vs. Allah; it's about Right vs. Wrong. Be on the side of Right. Donate time, money or blood to your favorite charity. Those are good things. Try to maintain a healthy streak of individualism and skepticism about world events. The last thing we need at a time like this is more knee-jerk jingoistic insanity, because herd behavior like that (from a number of disparate entities) is part of what led us to these attacks in the first place.
Our herd has come a long way, though. Less than sixty years ago, when attacked by a foreign power of non-white ethnic extraction, European-Americans rounded up Japanese-Americans and "protected them" by locking them into internment camps. Propaganda poster artists created racist caricatures of German and Japanese soldiers in an attempt to terrify provincial Americans. Straight-faced government revisionists instructed citizens to call sauerkraut, with its undesirable German name, "victory cabbage." Nowadays, by happy contrast, our rich, white, conservative, not excessively bright Texan president delivers inspirational speeches from the steps of Muslim mosques. Oh, there are still a few idiotic yokels making "camel jockey" jokes, but the rest of us simply glare at them until they shut up and slink away like the slimy invertebrates they are. For every attack on a Muslim or Islamic place of worship, there are twenty examples of European-Americans urging understanding of, and sympathy for, law-abiding citizens of any race, color or creed. Maybe God has blessed us this month after all: She blessed us with a spirit of inclusion and unity. We Americans have a new respect for the pluralism and empathetic worldview to which our country has aspired, albeit imperfectly, since day one.
--11 October 2001