History

“What Damnable Horror!”

Two great minds of American theater process 9/11 in real time.

Wreckage of the World Trade Center after Sept. 11.
Eric Feferberg/AFP via Getty Images

On Sept. 10, 2001, New Yorker theater critic John Lahr and Pulitzer-winning playwright August Wilson began what was expected to be a weeklong, wide-ranging dialogue in Slate, mostly about theater. In the earlier entries (collected here), they chatted across the Atlantic—Lahr was in London; Wilson in the United States—about artists selling out (Lahr: “How can you think against society and be owned by it at the same time?”); the movie Iris (Lahr recommended it); and the United States’ recent decision to pull out of the United Nations’ World Conference Against Racism (Wilson: “I suspect the idea of reparations is going to be very much a part of our national discourse for years to come”).

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Then, the attacks came, and the conversation changed. Below is the rest of their dialogue, which is a remarkable artifact of that week: fearful, grieving, and most of all, remarkably prescient. “This tragedy has opened a chasm of vulnerability and our national response, as well as our personal response, will define the character and conscience of our nation for years to come,” wrote Wilson. “Yesterday was a different world, and I am mourning for it.” —Rebecca Onion

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Forever Changed

Sept. 11, 2001, 8:06 a.m.

Dear August:

You’ll be awake in about an hour, and you’ll see the nightmare pictures I’ve just been watching: the World Trade Center up in smoke, the imprint of the stolen small plane smudging the remaining tower. The Pentagon has been hit. The White House, the U.N., the stock market has been closed down. As I write, the TV is talking of a fourth plane heading for Washington. A moment of infamy but an image which even before the story unfolds marks the change of something. We don’t know the hidden political agendas behind so many of the events that have shaped our modern life—Pearl Harbor, the death of Kennedy and King, the Vietnam “conflict.” I had two twin boys who died at birth, and I know in an existential sense that life can change on a dime; I feel now like I did then–something has instantly and inexorably changed in American life. And there is no going back. What is being lost even as the BBC TV reporters try to reach America on the phone lines that have been closed down is—not an innocence (that’s long lost) but a sense of containment and invincibility. Fear will now be our daily bread; and hatred has been given new license. I fear the hysteria and the distortions and the violence which will soon be acted out in all quarters.

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John

“Yesterday Was a Different World, and I Am Mourning for It”

Sept. 11, 2001, 11:54 a.m.

Dear John,

I am numbed by this nightmare. What damnable horror! All words seem inadequate. You say hatred will be given new license. I’m afraid you’re right, though God knows it’s had more than enough authority already. This tragedy has opened a chasm of vulnerability and our national response, as well as our personal response, will define the character and conscience of our nation for years to come. Yesterday was a different world, and I am mourning for it.

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August

Rush to Thought, Not Judgment

Sept. 11, 2001, 2:08 p.m.

Dear August,

This is the single greatest terrorist disaster in modern history, but is it, as a Republican representative has just now been quoted, “The second Pearl Harbor”? I hope it won’t be, but you can see how it could easily escalate. I fear the American media-whispering gallery. I fear the hysteria in the American character, which splits so easily into good and bad, which rushes to judgment rather than to thought. The terrorists have taken aim at the American government and American capitalism and brought them both—symbolically at least—down. America, from the point of view of the terrorists, has been humiliated and brutalized as they feel they have felt humiliated and brutalized by America. I remember the day Kennedy was shot, when I was at Oxford. I was having dinner in the Oxford Union, and a group of Young Communists came in and were literally dancing with glee. I couldn’t believe my eyes. I rushed from the room. There are millions of people who will not be sickened by today’s outrage but thrilled by it. Here, Tony Blair has named terrorism “the new evil” and pointed out that “this is not just a battle between America and world terrorism, but the free and democratic countries of the Western World against world terrorism.” Of course, he’s right; but all the short stopgap efforts to restore calm–change of flight paths, cancellation of flights, all small planes grounded–are gestures to give the illusion that these events can be controlled. But you can’t defend yourself, really, against a suicide bomber, any more than an unproven $8.5 million defense shield that Bush is proposing could have. Among the many things that this event changes in the American landscape (the sense of safety and invincibility), I think, is our sense of freedom; we are going to have to trade some of our personal freedoms for personal safety.

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Over the decades, I’ve become instinctively skeptical about the events that have burned themselves into our consciousness as watermarks of the era. We still don’t really know who killed Kennedy or Martin Luther King; it took us a long time to find out the hidden agenda to the Cuban Missile Crisis and the Gulf of Tonkin “incident,” which tipped us into Vietnam and a war we should never have fought. Perhaps it’s eerie serendipity, perhaps it’s my paranoia, but an acid thought keeps plaguing me. Isn’t it odd that on the day—the DAY—that the Democrats launched their most blistering attack on “the absolute lunacy” of Bush’s unproven missile-defense system, which “threatens to pull the trigger on the arms race,” what Sen. Biden calls today in the Guardian, his “theological” belief in “rogue nations,” that the rogue nation should suddenly become such a terrifying reality. The fact that I could even think such a thought says more to me about the bankruptcy and moral exhaustion of our leaders even in the face of a disaster where any action, in the current nightmare, will seem like heroism. But I do smell destabilizing violence in the wings. In fear, the nation, to my mind, has always proved mean-spirited and violent.

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Over to you,

John

The Bombs Flying Our Skies

Sept. 11, 2001, 5:43 p.m.

Dear John,

I was so stunned by today’s events that I never reached the excited stage where panic and fear take over and you begin to strike out in the dark only to realize there’s nobody there but you. From what I know we do not have conclusive proof of the perpetrators of this dastardly act. Yet Henry Kissinger, and others, are talking about “organizations” (read: Bin Laden) and the report that the U.S. is “90 percent sure” it was Bin Laden coupled with former Defense Secretary William Cohen’s assertion that “speculative evidence” is sufficient in picking a target for a response, leaves no doubt in my mind at whom a response will be directed, warranted or not. That there are many officials who feel that the U.S. response to the bombing of the USS Cole was insufficient and purchased today’s tragedy, gives an indication as to what kind of response it will be.

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My day started with me dropping my daughter off at preschool, and several hours later I went to pick her up. I kept thinking of all those kids in New York whose parents dropped them off at school and won’t be picking them up. The thought is overwhelming. That, coupled with the sudden disclosure of our vulnerability, and the idea that every day in our skies we have hundreds of “bombs” which have only to be guided to their target, makes me fearful that the response can be directed at anybody. It has only to be large enough, and devastating enough, to say to the world, “Don’t f**k with us.” And that, at this moment, is what I think the American people want more than anything.

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Until tomorrow,

August

The Horror Comes Home

Sept. 12, 2001, 10:41 a.m.

Dear August,

In London, the front pages this morning are forgoing words and going with the moment of devastation blown up the size of the paper—“Apocalypse,” “Act of “War,” “Nightmare.” There’s no need for words, really; there’s nothing to say. We went to bed with only a sense that the casualties would be large, and this morning figures are starting to emerge. By the time you wake up, they should be in the thousands.

I’m sitting looking into my leafy garden; the eucalyptus tree is swaying in the breeze, but the air is full of cries. From the radio, a reporter is saying that Bin Laden “praised the courage of the terrorists.” Iraqi TV is reported speaking of the events as “the fruits of America’s crimes against humanity.” George Bush is promising a firestorm, that “America will make no distinction between the terrorists and those who harbored them.” The difficulty for America will not be reprisal, but taking proportionate action. If Bush makes the wrong decision, the consequences could be as bad as the crime.

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I don’t know about you, but even though I’ve seen the events with my own eyes, I’m finding it hard to get my mind around the dimensions of the devastation. It’s as if the soundtrack to this horror movie was too loud to hear the human cries, nothing but the oohs and aahs of the crowd watching cataclysm from a distance. This morning, I lay in bed trying to remember walking amidst the towers—their behemoth proportions. I tried to reconstruct a sense of their size and weight in order to put this devastation into some comprehensible proportion. Does that make sense to you? I couldn’t find it for a long time. Finally, my mind seized on a remembered image of someone, hardly visible, trapped high in the building, looking out a broken window and straddling the sill, then dropping down, down, down the sheets of glass, his shadow caught by the camera like just another falling piece of debris. I kept thinking how many flights he was conscious in free-fall. Then the horror came home.

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I keep longing for things to get back to normal—we’re a tough resilient people, and we will, of course—it’s just that our notion of normal will now have to be permanently revised, and trepidation will be part of it.

Speak soon.

John

A Redemptive Act

Sept. 12, 2001, 1:19 p.m.

Dear John,

I awoke this morning and attacked my play with a vengeance. A stabbing need to create something out of this madness. To stand Art up in the face of it. Maybe it’s a redemptive act. Maybe it’s this belief in the power of art to construct, to inform us of the nobility of our humanity, to bring us closer to our kinship with the gods, and, armed and armored thus, through will and daring, bring about an increase in our humanity. Anyway I’m half a league onward and trying to maintain a semblance of normality through this roller coaster of emotions.

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The political will of this country is without precedent, at least in modern times. You would, I guess, have to go back to the Roman or British empires to find its equal. It is a will that is well-earned and exercised to maintain a climate of prosperity and provide Americans with the freedoms to pursue their own individual happiness. It is not faultless. And it was not shattered by yesterday’s devastation. I believe it became stronger by its encounter with outrage. What concerns me now is its most immediate expression and that it not proceed from the point of outrage. I want to look back 10 years hence and see an America we can all be proud of. I suggest we forgo any military action against a handful of elusive and destructive terrorists and use our resources, and the unconquerable will of the American people, to rebuild the World Trade Center on the exact spot (Phoenix rising from the ashes) as a testament to the resiliency of the American spirit. This, to my mind, would be the truly heroic thing to do.

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(Am I correct that Britain rebuilt Parliament during World War II?)

I’m here.

August

“Something Stronger Is Going to Emerge From These Ashes”

Sept. 12, 2001, 8:15 p.m.

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.

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Over to you.

Warm regards,

John

Pointless? No, Political

Sept. 13, 2001, 1:45 a.m.

Dear John,

A lot of the news coverage makes reference to this horrible attack as an “act of war,” with some comparing it to Pearl Harbor. The comparison doesn’t stand for long—the most obvious difference being, in this instance, we don’t know who our enemy is. That all of the signs point to radical Islamic militants puts us as fundamental odds with a significant portion of the world’s population. It is important, I feel, to keep in mind the word radical, so as not to broadly indict all Islamic people. I don’t think we can afford to lose sight that this was a political act. What we view as an insane, dastardly, nightmarish, pointless act of terrorism for terrorism’s sake is actually to the enemy a successful political act. To understand the politics we need to look at the origins of the war and understand that it is not a war driven by territorial disputes and fought by standing armies but hatred for our arrogant display of power and our seeming callous indifference to the rest of the word’s humanity. Then I think we can, as you say, begin to address “the deeper problems that made for this fanatic hate.” In order for something stronger to emerge from the ashes it is going to take a greater understanding of what was there in the first place.

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Yours,

August

What Now?

Sept. 13, 2001, 10:45 a.m.

Dear August,

What does the iconography of this terrorism—the collapsed towers, the blasted Pentagon—say to the world? It says, “You will not live in your dream, you will live in ours.” The terrorist gesture thrusts back onto America the profound psychic humiliation of being colonized by another’s fiction. “It is when a country has become to its population a fiction that wars begin,” Elaine Scarry writes in The Body in Pain, “however intensely beloved that fiction is.” You say in your last dispatch, “To understand the war, we need to look at the origins … of hatred for our arrogant display of power and our seeming callous indifference to the rest of the world’s humanity.” That interests me not only because I agree but because your habit of mind is already adjusting the historical lens on Them and Us, already looking beyond the fiction of nationhood at some more complex reality. This, I hope, is what our leaders, even in their righteous momentary fervor, will be working toward. We now, all of us, must embrace an ambiguity that is hard to live with and given the boilerplate optimism which has kept us in denial for so long, even hard to comprehend: We must both ardently seek a solution to this horror and at the same time accept the fact that no solution may be possible.

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I mentioned yesterday that terrorism attacks thought; you could see it on the TV screens and in the newspapers and in our own dispatches to each other: In the face of atrocity the public is numb, beyond words, incapable of registering anything but the most banal observations in a curiously rudimentary idiom. Now, in this morning’s papers, we are beginning to tell stories—“The Final Moments,” “The Scale of Catastrophe Begins To Sink In,” “The Stream of Calls To Say I Love You”; I see something promising and redemptive in this. America, which has created a technology of enchantment and built denial almost into a lifestyle, has been jolted into thought. As a professional storyteller, you know that we think through stories, which allows us both to release feelings and to examine them. Every morning on the way to work, I stop to have breakfast with my two mates—one a political columnist, the other a shrink. Today, the shrink said, “The more pain we’re in, the more we’re driven to narrate.” The events of the last few days, which have brought with them such a complex sense of loss, will require a much deeper collective reverie to release them. The stories we tell ourselves about our life and our nation need now to be revised. We are experiencing that in our own psyches, I think; and, if I’m right, even as the righteous outrage of our leaders takes on amperage, a new story about the nation and the geo-political balance of the Middle East is taking shape. If this balanced sense of national and personal identity comes to pass, the thousands of souls lost in this attack–whose deaths seem so arbitrary and so pointless–will have given a great gift to the living.

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Over to you.

Regards,

John

Destruction and Reconstruction

Sept. 13, 2001, 6:13 p.m.

Dear August,

I agree with you. To mourn innocent victims and then in reprisal to make even more, would be a grave political error. True, it was “an act of war,” but I hope Bush’s use of the word—never very exact—is metaphorical and not actual. The new coalition to fight terrorism has attracted even neutral Sweden and Pakistan (!) (where nonetheless you can still buy video discs recruiting terrorists for Osama bin Laden). If America will collaborate and not dictate, there’s every hope this will work.

Sometime tomorrow morning, all of London and I presume all of England will come to a standstill and pause for three minutes of silence to honor those who died in this week’s carnage. The images are now an indelible part of our 21st century’s blues. In his song “20th Century Blues,” Noel Coward put the malaise down the speed of the new industrial age and a sense, after a world war, of calling it quits with meaning. “What is there to strive for/love or keep alive for.” I think the challenge for the new century is not indifference, but fervor; instead of refusing to suffer (like Coward—“Say Hey, Hey/Call it a day”) we have to embrace the suffering of others to reach some deeper understanding of them and us. It is not just the ground safety issues Americans should have seen coming. Like the Creole lady who raised me used to say: “The fattinin’ hog ain’t in luck.”

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War, of course, is about destruction; art—or any creative solution to any problem—is about reconstruction. We will grieve. We will bury the dead. We will fight. We will—though it won’t be as easy as we fondly think—win. I pray, like you, that our victory will be something more than a vindictive triumph. Even now, after today’s minutes of silence, we must join the soiled world and begin to remake it with our new, grim knowledge. Colin Powell has urged Americans to “get back to work.” He’s right. Confidence, like faith, is an ember that goes out in isolation and grows in connection with others. Hope is a defining American property; even in terrible times, it must never be seen to dim. There’s a quote I love, a kind of mantra I repeat to myself in the face of great loss, that I’ll leave with you as an envoi to this exchange. It’s from a writer called Andre Dubus, who lost both his legs in a freak car accident; it goes something like this: “We receive and we lose, and in the time that is left to us, we must try with whole hearts to achieve gratitude.” If this horror builds a world coalition against terror, if it takes us out of our habitual isolationism, if it makes us more sensitive to the cultures beyond our boundaries, and if it deepens our own understanding of ourselves and our relationship to the world, then, in time, even this cataclysm will be turned into a force for good.

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Power to your pen, August. Keep in touch, and be well.

John

Combating Grave Tragedy With Grave Beauty

Sept. 13, 2001, 6:21 p.m.

Dear John,

With NATO invoking its defense pact for the first time since its inception, with Russian President Vladimir Putin having already given the U.S. carte blanche to “punish” the perpetrators of this crime against humanity, it seems the U.S. is putting together a coalition that will allow it to defend itself by whatever means it deems necessary. That’s an awful lot of consensual power, and I’m just fearful that as the funerals begin, the grieving, the tally of the dead, its sheer number, will fan the flames of patriotism and the demand for retaliation will make rational decision making that much more elusive, and we will wreak havoc on the Muslim population of the Middle East assuaging our sense of outrage, and producing more innocent victims.

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If, as you say, this act of terrorism says to the world, “You will not live in your dream, you will live in ours,” then it is a reversal of roles. So much of America’s policies and practices, its influence on global politics and economics has resulted in us saying the very same thing to the rest of the world. The terrorists may well be responding to the “profound psychic humiliation” of being colonized by another’s ideas.

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Finally, hats off to the New York Times for running an article in the Living Art Section headlined “The Expression of Grief and the Power of Art,” reflecting on “how art in all its forms has girded us to go on grieving and living.” It is a well-timed and must-needed testament to the power of art to provide us with an understanding of ourselves and the human terrors associated with grief. As Bruce Weber says, “Artists have always combated grave tragedy with grave beauty.”

Until next time.

As ever,

August

A Defining Moment

Sept. 13, 2001, 9:23 p.m.

Dear John,

By all consensus America is no longer the same nation that it was prior to the events of Monday, September 11, 2001. How it had changed we don’t know. Whether, as you hope, it reawakens us to our historical purpose and we continue to aspire to the high ideals of the founding fathers and achieve the gratitude in the face of loss that Andre Dubus speaks of, whether we have learned anything useful from this challenge to the sense of ourselves as an invulnerable and untouchable superpower, will be determined by our conduct in the days ahead. America has always responded with great courage in the face of adversity. Whether we acquire a new sense of morality to guide our technology, whether we shoulder the grave responsibility to the annals of truth and the rigorous vigilance it demands, whether we achieve the cultural or spiritual maturity necessary to turn this evil and despicable act into a force for good, I don’t know. I know that fate has decreed this defining moment to be in our hands and what we make of it will emerge in a baptismal spray that names and defines the kind of world my four-year-old daughter, given her three-score-and-ten, will live in for the next 66 years. Freedom from political tyranny and religious oppression are among the great gifts this country gives to all its citizens. If we add to that our pioneering, trailblazing spirit, that aspect of the American character that forges the new, if we don’t squander our inheritance, that faith in man’s ability to render out of his experience an indelible purpose blazoned with the high ideals of human conduct, then I think we can conquer any thing, person, or idea that would deny us the highest possibility of human life.

Time will tell.

The best of everything,

August

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