(Roof Books, 2002)
In the early afternoon of September 11, 2001, approximately 1:30, I boarded a ferry named Carthage in Tunis, Tunisia headed for Marseille, France. The same ferry can be seen in the film Love Actually, in the background when Colin Firth’s character (Jamie) drops Lucia Moniz’s character (Aurélia) off for the last time. As I went through the security check, I hoped my cheerful disposition and appearance as a white, privileged, American backpacker would shield me from a deeper inspection as my bag contained two Berber daggers that I purchased in a bazaar for friends back home. I smiled, my passport was stamped, and I wasn’t given a second look.
I had a ticket for a general seating area—no cabin—as it was the cheapest for the 24-hour trip. When I sat, the TV for the area was already on and I watched the second plane hit the World Trade Center live. No one was cheering, and everyone looked some combination of shocked and disturbed. I appeared to be the only American, and possibly only non-Arab, on the ferry, at least in my seating area and the common dining areas I explored. The television was at first in French, but someone got up and switched it to Arabic. I certainly wasn’t going to complain or change it back, so I just read the images the best I could and furiously recorded in my journal the little that I understood.
For the last 11 days I had been in Tunis visiting a childhood friend and his family, and while exploring the ruins of Carthage, dining in posh restaurants, mingling at a polo club, or swimming at the beach in Hammamet, the conversation would always turn at some point to international politics and American foreign policy. My Tunisian friends were upper class, highly educated, and spoke fluent French and English as well as Arabic. They enjoyed American hip-hop, The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air, and knew all about the recent Bush-Gore election and its ridiculous fallout. I told them I had once said in the summer of 2000 that if Bush wins there would certainly be another Gulf War; but what did I know, I was a 24-year-old recent college graduate with a philosophy degree working as a budding journalist on the editorial staff of Vegetarian Times magazine. At one point they told me that no one liked Saddam Hussein, he was a monster who gassed his own people, but there was a general respect around the fact that he stood up to the US. They appreciated my general condemnation of my country’s foreign policy history (and present).
At the time I lived just outside New York City in Westchester County and worked in Stamford, Connecticut. There were so many feelings as I locked my eyes to the horrors on the television and tried to make sense of it in my journal. I felt revulsion and despair, along with a deep sadness. With no telephone or internet access on the ferry, there was nothing I could do, but watch. My girlfriend had actually been up in the Towers the previous weekend with her family. They sent me a panoramic video through email from the top that had yet to arrive at my inbox (it finally arrived three months later, like a ghost image from a phantom tower).
One of the strangest feelings was that I couldn’t show too much emotion publicly. I was surrounded by people of a geography (and faith) who lived either with, or adjacent to, these kinds of horrors. Often from my own country. No one looked happy about what they were witnessing. Occasional furtive glances shot my way. I was a curiosity, but I did not want to draw sympathy. In my travels, my greatest concern was always being a gracious and responsible guest. I was raised to abhor the appearance and attitude of the “ugly American abroad.”
There was also a feeling, especially relevant and frightening after the many conversations I’d had over the last 11 days, that there was something inevitable about this; that eventually something like this was bound to happen.
In the evening, I found a dining room and finally ate something, trying to keep my head down and the unstoppable tears out of my meal. The night was rough in many ways. I lied on the floor between rows of seats like most people in this section of the ship. The Mediterranean was choppy, and some people got sick. The smell of vomit mingled with all the human—all too human—smells. My actual sleep was minimal and restless. The television was never turned off and the coverage never left the Towers and their destruction.
The next day in Marseille I wandered around and gathered more information about the attacks as I understood more French than Arabic. I finally got an open telephone line to New York and heard my girlfriend’s voice. I watched Rush Hour 2 dubbed into French to kill time before taking a train down to Barcelona where I checked into a youth hostel with news in English and the familiar sounding voices of Americans and Canadians.
It was another month before I returned to the States. Half the time was spent in Spain with friends and the other half in Paris on my own until my girlfriend came to meet me. I watched my country invade Afghanistan from a bar on the Left Bank and read about the wave of anti-Muslim, anti-Arab, and anti-anyone who looked vaguely Muslim, Arab, or just brown-skinned attacks across my country. I seriously considered not returning.
The stamp in my passport that reads “September 11, 2001” in Arabic is today a strange badge of “I was there”; but where does it represent me as being? Somewhere with a unique and specific context. Somewhere superficially “related” to the events of that day, i.e., a Muslim country in the Arab World.
As a bookish child who grew into a writer and literary scholar I have always understood the world through literature. Two novels that have helped me in the years since September 2001 in trying to process the lead up to the events that day are John Reed’s Snowball’s Chance and Jarett Kobek’s ATTA. Two years ago, I added a television limited-series to this list: Hulu’s The Looming Tower, a dramatization of Lawrence Wright’s detailed documentation of the actions of Al-Qaeda in the late 1990s, along with the FBI’s investigation (led by counterterrorism chief, John O’Neill, whom Jeff Daniels plays in the show).
Snowball’s Chance is a sequel to Animal Farm that Reed wrote in his East Village apartment in the three weeks immediately following September 11. It begins with the death of Napoleon, and then most of the other old guard pigs, followed by the return of Snowball. What Snowball learned out in the world that he now introduces to the farm is pretty much neo-liberal corporatism and imperialism. Manor Farm is renamed Animal Farm, a second windmill is built and they’re called the Twin Mills, and plans for a carnival, Animal Fair, are drawn up. As the wealth and might of the farm grow it encroaches upon the neighboring farms and the Woodlands where woodland creatures resist farm animal modernity and reluctantly follow beavers. The beavers are fundamentalists obsessed with the Ancient Beaver Code and more than ready to risk the lives of squirrels, voles, moles, chipmunks, and other woodland animals to protect beaver dams and control the waterway that runs down to the farm. At first the animals of the farm arm and help the beavers against the neighboring human farms, since they are hunters and trappers, but eventually the farm animals acquire the human farms through legal means.
Reed’s allegory is clear and simple. It ends with Animal Farm being the wealthiest, mightiest force in the village through the success of its carnival, and some of the “othered” woodland animals, directed by the beavers, hijacking the carnival Ferris wheel, dousing themselves in gas and once lit, rolling it into one of the two windmill towers. During the ensuing violent mayhem, the second windmill tower falls. The very next lines read:
And more dust rose—and there was blackness. And then there was Snowball, standing atop the chicken coop.
And the animals heard that great pig Snowball, who had somehow acquired a bullhorn, announcing, “We were prepared for this.” And without pause, that great pig Snowball called the extremist attack, ‘The Massacre of the Twin Mills.” And for it, he vowed—
“Revenge, justice, retaliation! The blood of the beavers will flow in the river of the Woodlands!”
All the rest of the animals rally to his words and start chanting, “Animal Farm, Animal Farm,” and then the book ends with the chant of “Kill the beavers! Kill the beavers! Kill! Kill! Kill!”
Building on the reader’s familiarity with Orwell, while augmenting his flat prose, Reed offers a fable that is ultimately a deeply nuanced narrative and critique. Reed affords the reader a glimpse into the machinations of Snowball, the other pigs, and their cunning goat advisors, creating genuine sympathy for the citizen animals of the animal farm. The same sympathies are extended to the citizen animals of the woodlands, many of whom emigrate to the animal farm for a better life and to avoid the fundamentalism of the beavers.
Jarett Kobek’s ATTA is almost as different from Snowball’s Chance as humanly possible while still technically being about the same subject. This powerful novella alternates first person and third person chapters, told by and about Mohamed Atta, eight of each down to a final chapter “Zero” set on the fated date. Atta was unique of the perpetrators that day in that he was the only Egyptian, he was the oldest, he was from an upper-middle class background, he was well-educated, and he didn’t have much religious training. Of the other 18 terrorists involved that day, the other pilots were from Lebanon, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates, while all of the muscle was from Saudi Arabia.
Kobek presents Atta’s motives in the attack to be directed at modernity, and in particular, as it is expressed through architecture. Atta received a Master’s degree in Architecture from Hamburg University of Technology after studying architecture at Cairo University. His MA thesis was about returning the Syrian city of Aleppo to an Islamic/Orientalist heritage and skyline by removing Western, modern architecture.
Atta’s paranoid rantings show how problemed the terrorist mindset is. Part of Kobek’s thesis is that Atta was most likely mentally ill in some way. Kobek illustrates this with the device that buildings speak to Atta, and afflict him with a mind-numbing, dizzying hum. In the first person chapters, Atta himself rationalizes this culturally and religiously. Early in the book we read:
I achieve the engineering calculations implicit within the dark art, but I am too Muslim for the sodomitic flights of imagination requisite for Western architecture beneath the lash of Le Corbusier. I long for simple brick and earthen mud but they ask for modernist antimiracles. I am not a modernist. I am not a Brutalist. I will not build concrete and steel abominations that haunt the sky. I will not block the sun with my arrogance.
We see Atta travel with the other leaders to Afghanistan to meet with Osama bin Laden. When bin Laden clarifies the mission for Atta, we read in first person how Atta finds his deeper individual purpose in the mission: “And then he names the target. And I am his. High rises of high rises, the mid-century assault. Minoru Yamasaki’s children, the twin abominations.” The feeling of inevitability in ATTA involves the training, planning, and commitment we see, no matter how unstable Atta is an individual person.
Like Snowball’s Chance, ATTA does feel like a fable, but a dark fable of anti-modernism and a twisted American dream. It’s an enemy’s book that critiques the enemy as well as what he opposes: me, my country, and my culture. After Atta reads a tabloid-style biography of Walt Disney, the third person narrator says, “A story repeats itself. A man, or his parents, or his parents’ parents, come to America. Hard work, toil in obscurity amongst unknown wretches. Great open land. The one who works the hardest reaps eventual reward, rises to prominence, achieves great things, makes a name for himself. This is also my story, thinks Atta … I too am an immigrant success.” And then it describes Atta’s critique of Disney himself:
From perverse meditations within dank reaches of poverty, Disney imagines the world anew, an oubliette under occupation by animals in imitation of human society. Disney’s arrogance assaults not only America, but the full world. Disney is the face of the neo-Colonial. Gone are British and Belgian guns, the French forgo fighting. In their place is a new dark prince, a man who brings Muslims to heels, conquers through blasphemy and seduction. Shapely images wiggle, abuse minds and souls. A New World order, an American hegemony.
The Looming Tower is a potent geo-political thriller that dramatizes the hunt for Osama bin Laden, beginning with the American embassy bombings in Kenya and Tanzania of 1998 until the September 11 attacks. Jeff Daniels plays FBI counterterrorism chief Agent John O’Neill, Taha Rahim plays Ali Soufan, a younger FBI agent who is Muslim and fluent in Arabic, and Peter Sarsgaard plays CIA analyst Professor Martin Schmidt (a fictional composite CIA character).
10 minutes into the first episode, titled “Now It Begins…,” Agents O’Neill and Soufan sit down to their first conversation together having just watched the May 1998 ABC News interview between John Miller and Osama bin Laden. O’Neill asks Soufan what he makes of the interview and his response is: “I think it’s the third warning. First was the ’96 declaration of jihad, then the February fatwa, and now bin Laden is going straight to the American people.” O’Neill asks why three times, and Soufan refers to a passage in Hadith on how to deal with snakes entering your home without permission where the Prophet Muhammad declares that the snake should be warned three times before it is killed. Soufan says the snake is the United States and bin Laden is warning it to leave the Middle East and specifically Saudi Arabia. This moment makes the narrative of a limited series television show with an obvious ending feel very tight.
Over the course of the show, we see three main attacks on Americans: the embassy bombings in 1998, the attack on the USS Cole in Yemen, and the World Trade Center. The historical narrative supports the notion that bin Laden was “going straight to the American people.” The Pentagon, the White House, and the World Trade Center are three of the most emblematically American things connected to imperialism and hegemony. As the hunt for bin Laden continues across the investigations of each attack, the viewer gets the sinking feeling that many people saw this final atrocity coming.
The crux of the show—as the 9/11 Commission also established—is that greater sharing of intelligence between the CIA and the FBI could have possibly prevented the attacks from happening. The ten episodes of the limited series really drive this home. It should be noted that our retaliation after the embassy bombings was called “Operation Infinite Reach,” and nothing could express American hubris more in the 1990s before 9/11 and after the Cold War, which we won, of course.
The overwhelming feeling of inevitability comes through in the penultimate episode where John O’Neill retires from the FBI and takes a job as head of security for the World Trade Center. In the final episode we see Jeff Daniel’s character in his office before the moment of death and we know bin Laden is responsible, the man O’Neill had fruitlessly dedicated many years to catching.
My intention in this short essay is to discuss—and offer literary support—for my feelings on that day. From three different angles, The Looming Tower, ATTA, and Snowball’s Chance, all seem to me to illustrate the inevitability of the attacks. After so many conversations in Tunisia—the first Muslim country I’d ever been to—about how the US is viewed from that part of the world, it felt inevitable to me too while I sat there in the ferry watching it all unfold on the screen.
Targeting the World Trade Center wasn’t new—in 1993 there was a truck bomb in the parking deck that killed six and wounded over 1,000—and this being the second attack also led to my feeling of inevitability.
Inevitability does not mean deserved. There is an essay called “9.11.01” by Susan Sontag in her collection At the Same Time: Essays and Speeches in which she begins:
To this appalled, sad American, and New Yorker, America has never seemed farther from an acknowledgment of reality than it’s been in the face of last Tuesday’s monstrous dose of reality… Where is the acknowledgment that this was not a “cowardly” attack on “civilization” or “liberty” or “humanity” or “the free world” but an attack on the world’s self-proclaimed superpower, undertaken as a consequence of specific American alliances and actions?
In her second essay on this matter from the same collection, titled “A Few Weeks After,” she is quick to reinforce, “And for all that I deplore about American foreign policy—and American imperial presumption and arrogance—the first thing to keep in mind is that what happened on September 11th was an appalling crime;” and two paragraphs later: “To in any way excuse or condone this atrocity by blaming the United States—even though there has been much in American conduct abroad to blame—is morally obscene. Terrorism is the murder of innocent people. This time it was mass murder.” As it often happens, I am in full agreement with Sontag here.
Inevitability is its own feeling detached from deservedness or morality. Inevitability is the second law of thermodynamics; it is every ebb that follows every flow; it is every dog having its day; and it is every empire in history falling. America the untouchable, America the exceptional, America the isolated … in the 21st century the global became local for the United States of America. This inevitability was reinforced for me by my strange vantage point abroad. When it comes to violent geo-politics, the feeling of inevitability is always a fearful one.