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Beyond Belief
© Ian McEwan, 2001

These were the kind of events that Hollywood has been imagining these past decades in the worst of its movies. But American reality always outstrips the imagination. And even the best minds, the best or darkest dreamers of disaster on a gigantic scale, from Tolstoy and Wells to Don DeLillo, could not have delivered us into the nightmare available on television news channels yesterday afternoon. For most of us, at a certain point, the day froze, the work and all other obligations were left behind, the screen became the only reality. We entered a dreamlike state. We had seen this before, with giant budgets and special effects, but so badly rehearsed. The colossal explosions, the fierce black and red clouds, the crowds running through the streets, the contradictory, confusing information, had only the feeblest resemblance to the tinny dramas of Skyscraper, Backdraft or Independence Day. Nothing could have prepared us.

Always, it seemed, it was what we could not see that was so frightening. We saw the skyscrapers, the tilting plane, the awful impact, the cumuli of dust engulfing the streets. But we were left to imagine for ourselves the human terror inside the airliner, down the corridors and elevator lobbies of the stricken buildings, or in the streets below as the towers collapsed on to rescue workers and morning crowds. Eyewitnesses told us of office workers jumping from awesome heights, but we did not see them. The screaming, the heroism and reasonable panic, the fumbling in semi-darkness for mobile phones - it was our safe distance from it all that was so horrifying. No blood, no screams. The Greeks, in their tragedies, wisely kept these worst of moments off stage, out of the scene. Hence the word: obscene. This was an obscenity. We were watching death on an unbelievable scale, but we saw no one die. The nightmare was in this gulf of imagining. The horror was in the distance.

Only television could bring this. Our set in the corner is mostly unwatched. Now my son and I surfed - hungrily, ghoulishly - between CNN, CBC and BBC24. As soon as an expert was called in to pronounce on the politics or the symbolism, we moved on. We only wanted to know what was happening. Numbed, and in a state of sickened wonderment, we wanted only information, new developments - not opinion, analysis, or noble sentiments; not yet. We had to know: was it two planes or three that hit the Twin Towers? Was the White House now under attack? Where was the plane the airforce was supposed to be tracking? An information junkie inside me was silently instructing the cameras: go round that tower and show me that aeroplane again; get down in the street; take me on to the roof. Never had those words, flashed by all the channels - Breaking News - meant so much. And so much, so many people, were breaking. Only briefly, in this orgy of "fresh" developments, was there time to reflect on the misery to come for all those who would learn the news of a loved one lost, a parent or a child. There was barely time to contemplate the cruelty of the human hearts that could unleash this. Were they watching with us now, equally hungry to know the worst? The thought covered me in shame.

About that time, the news networks began to steady themselves. They had, understandably, fumbled as the wires choked with news. Anchormen, at first, had not seemed to believe the events they were presenting. The pictures obliterated the commentary. Now the operation was becoming smoother. Professionalism was surpassing sentiment. Was this a kind of acceptance? Or avoidance? Dozens of affiliated television stations began to feed in. Cameras, at last, were everywhere, just as I was sickening of this surfeit and horrified at myself for wanting it. Now it was punishment to watch, and see replayed from new angles, the imploding towers, 102 storeys enfolding into their own dust. Or see the conflagration at the "exit hole" of the second tower. Or see two women cowering in terror behind a car.

From the vantage point of the Brooklyn Heights, we saw Lower Manhattan disappear into dust. New York, and therefore all cities, looked fragile and vulnerable. The technology that was bringing us these scenes has wired us closely together into a febrile, mutual dependency. Our way of life, centralised and machine-dependent, has made us frail. Our civilisation, it suddenly seemed, our way of life, is easy to wreck when there are sufficient resources and cruel intent. No missile defence system can protect us.

Yesterday afternoon, for a dreamlike, immeasurable period, the appearance was of total war, and of the world's mightiest empire in ruins. That sense of denial which accompanies all catastrophes kept nagging away: this surely isn't happening. I'll blink and it will be gone. Like millions, perhaps billions around the world, we knew we were living through a time that we would never be able to forget. We also knew, though it was too soon to wonder how or why, that the world would never be the same. We knew only that it would be worse.

This piece was published in The Guardian on 12 September 2001 and is republished by permission of the author.
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