No Shelter

Photo by Jack Gould "This may be the day America's luck ran out."

—Unnamed newscaster on KCAL, as New York City and the Pentagon were wrapped in smoke

"BEWITCHED: Darrin finds an envelope containing $100,000"

—Onscreen info box of what was scheduled to be on KCAL at the time.

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New York is still choking in smoke and debris as I write, but it's appearing likely that more Americans just died in the World Trade Center (WTC) and the Pentagon than the 55,000 who died in the entire Vietnam War. I may know people who were in the building. I certainly know people who know people who were in there—friends, relatives, lovers, work associates. It will touch us all.

Security is being ratcheted up around the country. At the moment, there's not one commercial or private plane in the air over the U.S.; government buildings are closed; Disneyland and Knott's Berry Farm are both closed; the President of the World's Most Powerful Nation is hieing from bunker to bunker at military bases.

Ratchet away, but there is no security. Terrorists can wait a week, a month, years for us to return to our comfy, somnambulant lives.

Living here in Southern California, it's only natural to regard life as a screenplay. How many "terrorists turn LA into a crazed bedlam" scenarios have we all thought up while stuck in traffic? And the simple, horrifying truth is that it costs astronomically less to realize these atrocious scenarios in real life than it does to simulate them on film.

Possibly the most jarring juxtaposition I've ever seen was just on CNN: George W. Bush assuring us that he "will do whatever is necessary to protect America and Americans" while the split-screen replayed the video of the second jet exploding through the second WTC tower. Untold thousands of Americans had just died on his watch; two 110-story towers had vanished from the New York skyline. It was a bit late in the day to announce that Americans would be protected.

And there honestly is no way of ensuring any future protection. Would the billions Bush wants to spend on a missile shield protect us from a domestic jet? What about nuclear or biological weapons that fit in a bowling bag? What about fertilizer bombs? What about human diseases, crop-killing microbes, or costly computer viruses that might never even be linked to terrorist activity?

Should we then pour more money into the black bag of intelligence operations? The ones that failed to anticipate everything from the collapse of the Soviet Union to this latest atrocity?

There is no security. While we Americans have been obsessed with trivial fluff, we have ignored the troubles roiling in so much of the world, and our government has often stirred the pot. But we have reached, if not passed, the point in world history when we can refuse to consider how people in the rest of the world regard us.

Lest I be misunderstood, let me say this: there is no justification for the horror that has just been perpetrated upon us. If the WTC attack does not stand as one of the most heinous acts in modern history, then this is indeed the beginning of a dark, brutal century.

There is neither justification nor blame large enough to encompass Tuesday's actions. If authorities ever establish who perpetrated this atrocity, you won't find me calling for compassion. But you could bury them up to their necks at a miniature golf course and let kids whack their heads for eternity, and it wouldn't make anything better. It won't bring back loved ones. It won't protect those who are still left to love. And it won't make people in other lands hate us any less.

The KCAL newscaster may have inadvertently hit it on the head when he said America's luck had run out because it is pure luck that something this horrific has not happened here before.

My parents' generation groused that billions of our tax dollars went to foreign aid, and all those foreigners did in return was hate us and spit on our flag. But much of our aid money—from Iran to Nicaragua—was propping up dictators who repressed and murdered the citizens of their countries. We may have been too busy watching Bewitched to notice that distinction, but the people shocked with cattle prods in those far-away countries noted whose dollars were paying for them.

America does a lot of good in the world, but we also do a lot of self-serving, morally unjustifiable things that leave people dead in our wake. When a nation wields as much power as the USA and does so with as little public oversight as we exert—where we let our officials get away with terms like "collateral damage" to gloss over the moral evil of killing innocents—there is going to be fallout.

Most of our newspapers don't print the news the rest of the world sees, and most of our citizens don't even read a newspaper. When Americans' idea of news is freeway chases, sex scandals and lottery results, how do we even begin to comprehend the motives behind the horror of this week's events?

One of my friends suspects the attacks were carried out by the protesters who were rioting outside the G8 meeting in Genoa. And I can see how she might think that, since American TV ignored the hours of TV footage Europeans saw, of the Italian police rioting and beating prostrate elderly protesters.

How much do Americans even know about the discord in the Middle East, the likely spur of this terrorist attack? In U.S. newspaper accounts, every Israeli killed has a face and a story, while the Palestinian dead are just tallied numbers. They were all just as alive, and they're all just as dead. And it helps not a whit for us to label the murderers with rocks "terrorists" while calling the murderers supplied with our jets and rockets "security forces."

President Bush is promising vengeance, the marvelous solution that is working so well on a daily basis from Belfast to the West Bank. And no one is asking where such horror begins.

There is no shortage of nuts in the world. Didn't even one of the Columbine kids have plans to hijack a plane and crash it into a crowded building? And for what reason? Acne? We will never be safe from wackos.

But there are still more people driven mad by the injustices in the world. If you've seen children on your block killed by a helicopter gunship, you might be less inclined to see the evil in killing people whose nation helped pay for that gunship.

Again, nothing could excuse what was done to those twin towers holding thousands of lives: some of them supported Israel, some Palestine. Some loved scampi, some dim sum. Some read Reader's Digest, some The Village Voice. Some loved their work; some dreamed of five o'clock. Some aspired to write rock operas; some were probably content burping their babies. And all of them are now forever melded with collapsed concrete and steel in the biggest single heap of misery since World War II.

Even if our leaders paint a sufficiently large target to rack up a numerically equivalent retribution—raining on the farmer who loves falafel and another mother who finds joy in burping her infant—that would just up the ante for the next terrorist attack.

Why, at this tragic moment, would I even think of writing an article critical of our country? Because we are the only factor here we can change. We can't kill all the terrorists or shield ourselves against them.

Eternal vigilance is the price of freedom. As we're finding this week, there's little protection in the vigilance we direct outward toward perceived enemies, "rogue states" or "terrorist nations." Rather, if anything protects us, it will be the vigilance we apply to our own souls and the institutions that should be representing us. Martin Luther King Jr. asserted that injustice anywhere was a threat to justice everywhere. This is not a liberal homily or something to put off while watching "reality" TV; it may be the only equation we have for making this world survive. Look to South Africa, where the horrors and injustices have been as great as any in the world; yet with their reconciliation committees, they're replacing vengeance with understanding because it is the only way to go on.

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