September 11: The View from the West

Jonathan Raban in the New York Review of Books:

20050922flagOn September 11, 2001, the United States reflexively contracted around the wound inflicted on its eastern seaboard, and for a short spell the country felt as small as Switzerland. Two thousand eight hundred miles west of the World Trade Center, roused by the phone ringing at 5:55 AM, I switched on the TV in time to see the second jetliner, flying at a tilt, aimed at the south tower like a barbed harpoon arrowing through the blue. It seemed at that moment as if the entire city around me were holding its breath. The bedroom window was open, but the usual white noise of a weekday waking morning was eerily absent. Somehow, in the eighteen minutes since the first strike on the north tower, everybody knew, and everybody was watching CNN. Unlike any news I can remember, news of September 11 was almost exactly simultaneous with the events themselves.

The blatant symbolism of the attacks —transcontinental American passenger jets destroying American skyscrapers—left no room to doubt their intended target. If you happened to live in Seattle, or Portland, or San Francisco, you were not excluded: the plane-bombs were squarely directed at the great abstraction of “America,” its daily economic life, its government, its military power; and every resident of the United States had reason to feel that he or she was under assault by the terrorists. September 11 was unique in this: other shocking and violent events in the American past were relatively specialized and local—the assassinations of presidents, the destruction of a naval fleet, the mass murder of children at a school, the fiery annihilation of an eccentric cult, the blowing-up of a federal building. Except when they occurred in your neighborhood or line of work, they were about other people. September 11 was different because it was so clearly and insistently about ourselves.

More here.