Two weeks ago terrorists exploded four bombs in the London subways and aboard a doubledecker bus. Over 50 people were killed and more than 700 were injured. The bombers’ motives remain, at this writing, still not entirely clear, but the evidence mostly suggests the same ever-shifting mix of grudges and delusions now typical of Al Qaeda and the various bands of murderous fabulists who have taken the group as inspiration. Some four years ago, with smoke and debris still issuing from a hole in the ground in Lower Manhattan, a gaggle of pundits, politicians and talking heads of all sorts raced to tell us that, on that day, “everything had changed.” This recent tragedy in London, one supposes, is the sort of future that they had in mind.
There was more to this sentiment, though, than the simple acknowledgement that taking the subway had become a potentially hazardous enterprise. Implied was the notion that, in addition to our circumstances, we ourselves had changed. Those given to making such statements proclaimed that a new age of seriousness was upon us, that the country had been irrevocably stripped of its innocence. A few went so far as to declare that irony, which, in the last century alone has survived famine, genocide, a pair of World Wars, and several decades of an international order based upon an idea entitled Mutually Assured Destruction, had died when the Trade Center fell (precisely how does a person go about killing a literary device, anyway?). These were different times, and suddenly, somehow, we were different people. And there was a certain strange comfort to be taken from these notions, a power that they afforded. They allowed us, in a way, to distance ourselves from the horror of that day, to push it into the past, to imagine that we might protect ourselves by remaking ourselves out of sturdier, sterner stuff. Around this time the right Reverend Jerry Falwell cut loose with one of his grand idiot howls, asserting that we’d brought this misfortune down upon our own heads, having earned God’s wrath by letting the “feminists and the gays and the lesbians” run our country amuck. And while the Rev was/is quite clearly insane, he was groping at an idea, albeit in his own grotesque way, that much of the country was toying with, as well. Not that our Sodomite ways had led us to tragedy, but the broader notion, the underlying idea that we were in a way responsible. And not in the sense of “chickens coming home to roost,” (to steal a phrase from everyone’s favorite Professor of Ethnic Studies) but simply that we had lived outside of history for too long. Soft, frivolous, selfabsorbed. Now, though, everything had changed, and this everything necessarily included us. We had been transformed. We were harder, stronger, more sober-minded.
Except that, really, four years after the fact, we aren’t. Or, if we are, it’s awfully hard to tell. Certainly for some, the victims’ families in particular, 9/11 did change “everything.” For most of us though, July 2005 looks very much as substanceless as July 2000. People still outsells Foreign Affairs. Bobby Brown has become a reality TV star. Atop the box office sits a movie that demands we accept Jessica Alba as a genetics PhD. A soap opera starlet just defeated an ex-heavyweight champion and an erstwhile boy band performer in a nationally televised dance competition. Millions remain under the misapprehension that Coldplay is actually a good band. An even cursory glance at the day’s scene suggests that our much-discussed gravitas never quite arrived. There are among us serious persons, but as a people our seriousness comes still only in starts and fits. From some we ought have a more consistent effort — at least, anyway, while they’re on the job. Congress, for example. A month ago the Senate voted to cut money for mass transit security by a third, reducing next year’s grants to state and local
government by $50 million. Now, in London’s aftermath, the funds are slated to be restored, and, in fact, quite possibly doubled. Fine. But what exactly does this mean? Was the country’s mass transit made somehow less secure by an attack in London? Are there suddenly specific threats against our buses and subways? We are told no, but how then were we apparently spending too much money to secure them a month ago, but too little to secure them now? Did we really need so bloody a reminder of their vulnerability? And what about Madrid? Or can we only take our object lessons from other Anglophones? Have we still so little in the way of imagination? This is not a plan, it is reactionary incoherence. And it makes a person want to bang their head against a wall.
But then there is the flip side. It has been said so often as to now rank as cliché, that what terrorism seeks to do at its most fundamental level, is force us to change our ways of life. Who ever would have suspected what a tall order this actually is? In one of the more memorably uninspired examples of Presidential oratory, President Bush suggested that the public might face down the 9/11 attacks by setting aside a bit of time to go shopping. The plea was clumsily put, but the idea behind it resonated even as we mocked it. More than perhaps anything, we seek normalcy. It is not a noble-sounding quest, particularly, but there you are. We may try to cling to our grief and shock and fear, but even as we do, with each day our grasp on them loosens. Even as the bodies are still being counted, we begin to feel our way back to the places where we had been before — slowly, blindly, but inevitably. We are champions of forgetfulness. There’s weakness in this, but also a sort of strength.
Before this is all through, there will almost certainly be other days to forget. One expects this even while being unable to imagine it. Londoners, however, presently have little need for imagination. The holes in their city no doubt still carry with them a visceral weight. Sympathy from across an ocean must almost necessarily ring a bit hollow, but one offers it anyway. And beneath the speeches, the grieving, the bluster, the talk of “stiff upper lips”, it begins again, the quiet, almost imperceptible business of getting on with things.