The WTC Attack, Sep 11 2001

Commentary and Analysis

Robin Morgan, NYC Resident, reports on her own experience

Dear Sisters and Friends,

Forgive the mass emailing of this letter, but in this situation it seems more important to get some personal, basic lower-Manhattan news/impressions to you all than take the time to reply one-on-one to each of your many, many, moving emails. I've received emails and phone calls from women in 18 different countries over the last 24 hours--from South Africa to Jordan, Malaysia to Brazil, Nepal to Canada, Australia to the Caribbean, The Philippines to Peru, all across Europe and the USA--and from West Bank and the Gaza Strip. I also know that many of you tried to telephone all day yesterday but couldn't get through--although email seems to be working even when the land-phone lines are clogged; cell-phones have been working only erratically.

First, thank you from my heart for all your thoughts, concerns, invitations to come stay with you, expressions of sadness, solidarity, and political anxiety. So many, many of you have astonishingly cited my book The Demon Lover as the essential expression/analysis of what has just happened (as well as the background and underlying conflicts) that even in the midst of deep sorrow and grief you have renewed my belief that art, an attempted clarity of thought, and a stubborn politics of transformation do make a contribution, make a difference. But so far, as we know all too hideously, not enough.

I am well and safe, as are those dearest to me. (I've also been in touch with dear friends who were in transit around the US, who are safe, though some stranded in hotels and airports.) Here in Greenwich Village we are, as many of your worried, in lower Manhattan, but north--about a mile and a half--of the catastrophic area. We have electric power, water, the basics. Friends who live(d) much closer to it staggered here yesterday morning, covered with ash, shaking with fear, and spent the day and last night here. It is bizarre that my city garden is untouched by all this: late summer roses blossoming, finches singing, vegetables ready to harvest. But you can hear fighter jets overhead now and then. From my street corner, looking south down 7th avenue, I had a clear view of both towers; I went out yesterday morning and saw the first tower burning--and actually stood there watching while the second plane hit the second tower; later on, I stood and watched the first tower collapse with my own eyes. It strikes one as totally surreal--as if Hollywood had produced yet another special-effects blockbuster. This morning early I went for a walk, looked down 7th avenue and saw nothing but massive billows of smoke--no towers anymore.

The city is holding together superbly; New Yorkers rise to such an occasion like the British did during the blitz. I live only one and a half blocks from St. Vincent's Hospital--which is the closest triage center to the disaster--so all day yesterday and last night the ambulances have been wailing; that and the planes overhead remind me of the sounds of Beirut at the height of the war there. All streets and avenues below 14th street (for those of you who know NYC) have been cleared of all traffic, but evacuation has been enforced only for those below Canal St. (Both Ms. Magazine and the Ms. Foundation for Women have offices below Canal, not far from the site itself--and were evacuated with all hands now accounted for; thanks to those of you who expressed concern for them.

As for me, I live below 14th but above Canal.) You can walk right down the middle of major lower Manhattan avenues with only emergency vehicles whizzing by now and then. People are volunteering all over the city, very touchingly; those of us near St. Vincent's hospital have brought homemade food and coffee and cold drinks to the workers and the people milling about hoping for news of lost relatives. There's a doctors' conference in town, by fortunate coincidence--so a great many MDs have responded to hospitals' calls for help, even more have shown up apparently than the emergency rooms can use; same with nurses. Yesterday and last night I tried to give blood but there were by formal count over 1000 people lined up ahead of me, with an estimated 7-hour wait, so I decided to try again in a day or two. The infrastructure of the city is holding extraordinarily well: subways and busses are already running again (though not south, near the site itself); there was a brief run on the banks and food stores but that seems to have passed. (Personally, I'm supplied enough even to be able to help others; have garden vegetables growing plus leftover Y2K water, candles, and canned goods--but that seems probably unnecessary.)

No food shortages have been felt--yet--but since many bridges and tunnels and other approaches to Manhattan are closed or limited except for emergency vehicles, that may change. Still, people are calm, helping one another, not panicking--though they're clearly in a state of disbelief. I personally know three people who apparently have lost friends or family--ordinary folks, secretaries, working in the twin towers. It's the stories about people hunkered down at the back of the hijacked planes, whispering into their cell phones "I love you" one last time, that bring tears. It's the children who will lose/have lost parents who especially crack one's heart.

The hospitals are now announcing that they are concerned--had expected thousands of emergency cases but are treating only hundreds--which means more fatalities than injuries. Emergency morgues are now being set up in 10 locations around Manhattan. Already known dead approaches 1000--mostly firefighters, emergency personnel, and police. Apparently 800 died in the Pentagon attack, and the passenger manifests of the four planes adds another almost 300. It appears that there will be massive fatalities, easily topping Pearl Harbor's 2500.

The site itself has rubble as deep as 100 feet high, with breakaway fires still burning, some underground, making rescue of those trapped even more difficult, especially since the twin towers foundation went down 70 feet below ground and, apparently, people are still trapped there, calling out on cell phones. It sears the brain just to think about it. Good news: six firefighters have just been pulled from the rubble . . .

This morning the National Guard arrived--and on my dawn walk I could just as well have been walking through a military state: police, state troopers, and emergency personnel on every corner below 14th St., with trucks filled with Guardsmen, rifles bayoneted and at ready, beginning to roll through the streets. Since this area is uptown from the site itself, you can imagine how tight security is closer to the WT Center. We must be calm but truly vigilant, since in such a time of crisis, the danger of a turn to the extreme Right is genuinely real. The press continues to roll, though no newspapers could be delivered below 14th St.

Where I am, we've been fortunate, in that the winds have been prevailing to blow the dense smoke southeast out to sea--so although we could see the smoke plumes, there has been no stench or fallout of concrete or contaminants in my immediate vicinity. But just now the wind changed, and a smell like burning rubber or electrical wire pervades Greenwich Village.

Media coverage has been nonstop, and relatively cautious to avoid rumors (especially in the wake of misreporting the election results last year). As of this morning (first day "after") the expectable patriotic blabber and religious jargon had started, along with pundits and politicians issuing media cliches about "beginning the healing process" and seeking "closure." Maddeningly, there have been frequently repeated airings of film clips of some Palestinian men in West Bank celebrating the attack with laughter, dancing, and v-signs--but unfortunately there have NOT been as frequently repeated press airings of Palestinian leaders, Arab leaders, and leaders of the Arab American community deploring it; equal time has NOT been given; only once in 24 hours have I heard major media announce the official statement of the Muslim community in the US that heatedly denounced the attack. But there HAS been heartening journalistic comment--including from the mayor of NYC--warning against bigoted responses to this tragedy.

As those of you with whom I've managed to speak know, in fact, that has been one of my great worries, because a few years ago, in the 48 hours after the Oklahoma City bombing (before it was discovered that the perpetrator was a white Christian right-wing male) three Arab Americans were lynched in the Midwest of the US. Already, mosques are being defaced and Internet chatrooms spewing hate against "all Arabs." We (feminists, progressives, etc.) are doing everything we can to avoid this kind of escalating nightmare--and a network of safe houses is already being set up to shelter and help innocent Arab or Muslim civilians who might be persecuted in the wake of this tragedy. This morning I was touched to learn that the Pagan and Wiccan community is doing the same thing, in the name of religious freedom from persecution. We are also trying to organize a press conference of support--but whether that will be covered or not is questionable, given the major news that breaks every hour or so.

Politically--well, it's too early to say, of course. But some things can be hypothesized. It may be heartening that this disaster might deter Bush's star wars anti-missile fantasy--since, as so many of us have said for so long, THIS kind of attack, not missiles, is the real 21st century threat (and it was amazingly "low-tech": ceramic knives, commercial flights, 3 to 5 men ready to die for a cause: simple). Furthermore (despite the expectable "let's all stand together behind our president" rhetoric) general press analysis plus public reaction seems fairly critical of Bush's handling so far, noting 1) Bush's policy of withdrawal from Mideast peace process talks, 2) Bush's administration having ignored warnings 3 weeks ago of a major "unprecedented" attack to come, and 3) Bush being incapable of projecting leadership or even a sense of basic competence. In talking with colleagues in feminist leadership, a number of us have noted that for years we've tried everything to get the US to move forcibly against the Taliban, given the literal attempted genocide of women and girls in today's Afghanistan--and each time we've been impeded by the powerful boys of Big Oil--who care only for their beloved pipelines. Perhaps this may finally make a difference.

As I write this, news breaks that the FBI has picked up possible "suspects" in Florida and in Boston . . . but that kind of story you will hear or read as it evolves, in your own press, or if you can access CNN, where you are.

So I will sign off for now. Feel free to share this communique with your own networks. I trust with all my heart that you will each do all you possibly can in your own countries, cities, and situations to educate people as to WHY this kind of tragedy happens--that it is NOT just "madmen" or "monsters" or "subhuman maniacs" who commit dramatic violence, but that such acts occur in a daily climate of patriarchal violence so epidemic as to be invisible in its normality--and that such tactics as this attack come from a complex set of circumstances, including despair over not being heard any other way; desperation over long-term, even generational, suffering; calcification of sympathy for "the other"; callousing of sensibilities, blatant economic and political injustice, tribal/ethnic hatreds and fears, religious fundamentalisms, and especially the eroticization and elevation of violence as a form of "manhood" and "solution." Violence IS psychosis --but it's a psychoses that contemporary incumbent leaders of most nations share with their insurgent opponents.

Even as we mourn, we somehow must continue to dare audaciously to envision and revision a different way, a way out of this savage age, to a time when our species will look back and gasp, recoiling at its own former barbarism. Even as we weep, we must somehow reorganize to reaffirm our capacity to change the world, each other, and ourselves--to insist, even in the teeth of despair, on a politics that is possible and necessary: a politics not of thanatos and death, but of eros and joy.

I send each of you my gratitude and my deep affection.

Robin Morgan

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