One month after September 11, ground zero–six blocks from where I live–remains unquiet. Inextinguishable subterranean fires belch smoke into the neighborhood, as if the ruin were an active volcano, spreading a stench whose source we do not care to think about. The global crisis set in motion by the attack has been active, too. In its fourth week, two major eruptions occurred: the beginning of the Anglo-American war on Afghanistan and the outbreak of anthrax in Florida. The latter could turn out to be the more important of the two. Robert Stevens, a photo editor at The Sun, a tabloid paper given to attacking Osama bin Laden in colorful headlines, died of the illness, and a co-worker was exposed. The FBI has made the Sun building a crime scene, and experts on anthrax are at a loss to imagine any way that the outbreak can be attributed to natural causes. If the worst fears are borne out–that the terrorists who carried out the September 11 attacks were responsible–then the world will have crossed a dread verge. Weapons of mass destruction–though perhaps used in this instance in sniper fashion to kill only a few–will have been introduced into the conflict. I of course do not wish to suggest that it is unimportant whether these fears are based on fact or not. But everyone knows that the danger that such weapons will be used is the greatest of those inherent in the situation, and the world will make no mistake if it turns out that a false alarm has inspired it to act to protect itself. We might even count ourselves fortunate that we were prompted to respond by an event that was either nonexistent or on a small scale. Action taken under conditions of mass attack is unlikely to be as rational or as carefully considered.
The two events were reflected in the divided mood of the American public. On the one hand, public support for the war was strong. On the other hand, a profound, unmistakable unease was palpable in the land. Fear of weapons of mass destruction was part of it. A sheriff in the small town of Pendleton, Oregon, told a New York Times reporter, "What I realize now for the first time is that we can be big and bad and still be got." But fear was not the only note struck. There were expressions of worry that the Afghans would now suffer what Americans–not used to this sort of thing–had suffered. While the public found the assault in Afghanistan "inescapable and just," the Washington Post reported, "the jingoistic call for annihilation was heard less often than the hope that the death of innocents might be kept to a minimum." There were signs that awareness of a common peril had created a feeling of common humanity.
The two currents of reaction have in fact been present since the very first second of the crisis. When the attacks occurred, the thought that flashed spontaneously into millions of minds was that our world had changed forever. But what, exactly, was the change that everyone felt, and why did awareness of it come so quickly? It was, I suggest, an immediate, bone-deep recognition of the utter perishability of all human works and all human beings in the face of human destructive powers. The change was felt immediately because it was the recognition of something already known, if rarely thought about–known since 1945, when Hiroshima was destroyed by an atomic bomb. The twin towers of the World Trade Center were the most massive objects in the City of New York, perhaps in all America. If, without any warning, they could evaporate in the blink of eye, what was safe?
The peril of further terrorist attacks was of course uppermost in people's thoughts, but in the background were the still existing, though strangely missionless, nuclear arsenals currently in the hands of eight nations. These, too, soon obtruded onto the scene. The conceivable overthrow of the military dictatorship in Pakistan by extreme Muslim forces angry that their nation had been coerced by the United States into a supporting role in the attack on Afghanistan raised the specter that Pakistan's nuclear weapons might fall into the hands of a Taliban-like regime. Here in the United States, Billy Graham's son, the Rev. Franklin Graham, called for their use against America's enemies. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, asked whether the United States was contemplating the use of nuclear weapons, twice declined to rule it out. On the second occasion, he even upped the ante, pointing out that during the cold war the United States had refused to rule out the "first use" of nuclear weapons. That is still US policy, notably in the event of the use of chemical or biological weapons.