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Breaking the Rules

By Austin Kennedy | Posted 9/12/2001

I've been wondering since I arrived in New York City two weeks ago how exactly order is maintained here. Such a thing hardly seems possible among the millions of people, the hundreds of miles of subway and bus routes, all the layers of social and cultural and geographic complexity.

Perhaps it's sheer will power. As long as people believe in It--Order, The Rules--and play along, and there are resources to fuel It, this massive ecosystem can remain essentially predictable. The facade of compliance is imposing, so much so that one rarely questions what lies behind it.

In point of fact, the New York infrastructure is generally more reliable than my own. The morning of Sept. 11 was one of the rare occasions on which I had forced sufficient order into my life to leave my apartment with ample time to arrive at work on time (one of The Rules I don't do well by). After a few subway delays--the celestial control tower perhaps realizing how my punctuality violated the natural order, and endeavoring to straighten things out--I arrived at my stop seconds before 9 a.m.. I huffed up the exit stairs in my stiff office clothes, only to barge intrusively into an eerie tableau. The usual anonymous omnidirectional throng of the square had frozen, necks and fingers craned upwards toward a column of ominously dark smoke.

My immediate reaction was one of relief: I had some excuse, albeit flimsy, for my slight tardiness. I assumed from a cursory examination of the sky that a nearby building was on fire; I felt comforted that it must have started before most people arrived for work.

It seems callous, in retrospect, to have continued in my own selfish haste into my building, but I have always felt that there is a petty disrespect, even a brand of cruelty, in ogling disaster scenes, in simply watching as others suffer pain, fear, or humiliation. Besides, The Rules dictated that be in my chair for the day's first phone calls. Late as usual, I didn't know that today all The Rules had been suspended.

I realized as I rushed into my 17th-story office that I was not the last to arrive, and that my co-workers were not paying attention to me, but glued bug-eyed to their computer screens. Someone immediately threw out the well-traveled office greeting: "Did you hear what happened?" I hadn't. "A plane crashed into the World Trade Center." Before my colleague glowed a static image of a building plumed with smoke.

I am not proud to write that my first reaction was to casually recall a Tom Clancy novel in which a foreign Bad Guy executed a similar maneuver upon the U.S. Capitol. That this might be the enactment of that sinister fantasy did not occur to me. Nor did even a sense of the fact that six blocks away crowds of people were dying.

I suggested a switch from the monitors to the window that afforded a view of the charcoal streak churning over the roof of the building opposite. We pressed against the glass, futilely seeking a better angle. Before us, against a backdrop of plain blue sky, appeared and passed, in a heartbeat, an airliner. It was one of those few moments in a cluttered sensory lifetime that came through in absolute clarity: a dark cutout shape, a point of focus that makes one feel how small everything--the buildings, the city, oneself--is on the scale of Nature.

The deep detonation and the rattle of the glass that followed shook me as if I weighed nothing. The gravity of the world around me, however, seemed impossibly great. The new billows of smoke, sprinkled with flapping sheets of paper, looked as solid as stone and yet moved with the fury of a volcanic eruption.

What I saw struck me more with helplessness than panic. The barrier between me and the cataclysm had been breached; no longer channeled and contained in a television, radio, or computer, it was coming around and through me.

My generation does not know war. We have never learned to cringe at the sound of airplanes overhead or run for shelter. I don't think any of us in that office grasped the unreasonable, uncontrolled force of destruction that had been released before us. Our reaction was to treat it as an event, a news story, and to turn to the familiar sources to understand it: CNN.com, the radio, people who know The Rules. We were effectively getting our information from people who knew less about what was going on than we did, but we trusted their official voices more than our all-too-real impressions. It was a headline: Plane Strikes World Trade Center It didn't occur to us to be afraid.

What came next, however, was an unmistakable cue. Like a movie scene on a muted television, we saw the crowd in the street turn as one and begin to flee. World Trade Center Tower Collapses. Finally, the onset of tangible terror: Like a staged effect, an evil cloud was rushing around the buildings at us, to the accompaniment of heavy rumbling. It was all I could do to cross myself, scribble three quick words on a scrap of paper, and address it to the person I knew I would miss most.

The dust cloud blotted out the sky; the world beyond the window was dark and silent. Everywhere charred paper drifted down and swirled on thick, slow currents. A dry smell trickled through the air vents, and I thought about biological weapons and nuclear winter.

Soon, though, a slant of sunlight stretched itself across the building opposite. The darkness pulled back to reveal a scene like mountaintops after a snowstorm: the breeze lifting the dust gently from roofs into sparkling eddies and plumes; delicate footprints in the powder on the streets. It reminded me of the images of post-apocalyptic Baltimore in Terry Gilliam's Twelve Monkeys.

In Gilliam's films, chaos is normal, and it seems to me that he may be on to something. The leaves of paper fluttering down into the streets and the river had an hour earlier been Official Documents, secured in the offices of Important Institutions. It is against all The Rules that such a thing should happen, that an American city be exposed to forces outside our control.

I have heard continuously since Tuesday morning that a Terrorist Attack against Innocent Civilians is Unacceptable and shall be punished. Someone has stepped over The Line, broken The Rules, and messed with our Order.

Who wrote those rules?

The facade begins to crumble. This tragedy, for all its terrible destruction, could also be our cue to reconsider how we understand ourselves as a nation and how we see the world we live in. It is a fact that we, like everyone, are vulnerable to acts of hatred. It is also a fact that hatred is a self-perpetuating force and that we have done our part to fuel it. The shock and horror felt by New Yorkers on Tuesday is not unfamiliar to inhabitants of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, of Cambodia and Vietnam, of Belgrade and Colombia. The three uncomfortable hours that I walked to get home would not impress generations of Palestinians and East Timorese born in refugee camps.

It sickens me to hear moralizing statements from Ariel Sharon, a man who every day orders attacks on civilian centers, or George W. Bush, a leader who has mandated the execution of hundreds of the citizens of the state he represented. They speak of Terrorism and Innocent Victims. Their hypocrisy is unbelievable.

I pray not only for the souls of the dead and their families, but that we, as a nation, seek to understand the consequences of our actions before we again fan the flames of hatred. There is a reality greater than us and our ideas.

Sadly, I doubt that America will heed the warnings that underlie these attacks. America pays lip service to God but believes only in America. We recognize only Our Rules and Our Rule. We can wave that book as much as we want, but there is a bigger one, and someone has thrown it at us.

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