The Breakfast Table

“Something stronger is going to emerge from these ashes.’

Dear August,

In answer to your question, Parliament was partially bombed in 1941 by the Nazis and in 1994 by the IRA. In Europe, we’ve learned to live with terrorism. (Even European insurance policies have a terrorist exclusion clause, something American policies no doubt will soon contain.) The English have learned to expect to have their world turned upside down every generation or so; the national character–the stiff upper lip, the love of irony–are forms of gallantry that have their origins in great human suffering. Courage wants to laugh. One English commentator today invoked Samuel Pepys’ account of life in the mid-17th century as a model for meeting nightmares with courage; Pepys and his generation had to survive the Great Plague, the Great Fire, violent political upheaval, Dutch bombardment of the English fleet within earshot of the city. When I hear Mayor Giuliani saying, “We’re not going to be afraid,” I hear intimations of this spirit—a refusal in the midst of suffering to capitulate to it–taking root in our land.

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Terrorism is an attack both on hope and on thought. The fact that you turned back to your play “with a vengeance” interested me enormously—a gesture which renews both those attacked properties. I ask myself how can this horror be turned into good, how can it be made to mean something valuable for the nation so the terrible loss–the most war deaths on American soil since the Civil War–will mean something positive? Of course, I agree, the towers, in time, must be rebuilt as a memorial. But the nation must also make something new. To me, the great creative, redemptive possibility lies in abandoning isolationism and in addressing the deeper problems that made for this fanatic hate. (I’m astonished that Americans were “shocked”—what planet are they fondly on?–at the dancing for joy in some parts of the Middle East.) In answer to whether there will be another Gulf War, I heard the former Secretary of Defense Strobe Talbot tonight say on the BBC, “We cannot rule out that that will be required.” I’m all for taking appropriate reprisals, but the nation and its leaders must somehow find a way to mend the split between the Arab world and the Western world and to understand the sources of hate that have brought us to this impasse. In our daily life, too, this terrible act has imposed at a stroke, I feel, a mutation in the American psyche. We no longer can live in quite the same optimistic bubble; we have entered an era of ambivalence. From now on we will be living each day with a sense of danger and safety, loss and hope, fury and forgiveness; in other words, our boilerplate optimism has been shattered–and I would argue–what will emerge is a more mature skepticism. “Faith is nice,” the pundit Wilson Mizner once said. “But doubt gets you an education.” I would like to think the lessons we’ve learned from this are more than strategic military ones. Tomorrow morning’s Independent has a full-page picture of the towers’ carnage and the headline: AMERICAN DREAM IN RUINS. That’s pitching it a bit high, don’t you think? On the contrary, we have been barbarously shown that we are not invincible and that America can’t have its own way all the time. It would be nice to think that out of this horror and the havoc of the revenge that will ensue, the culture itself could move beyond its eternal adolescence to maturity. My bet, and I think yours, too, is that something stronger is going to emerge from these ashes.

Over to you.

Warm regards,
John

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