9-11: When the Unthinkable Happens

News at Home

Mr. Alger is a freelance writer.

The sinking of the Titanic and the dropping of the atomic bomb on Hiroshima were perhaps the two defining moments of the previous century that altered man's view of the world. And now, the terrorist attack on Washington and New York City becomes a cataclysmic event that will change how the world is viewed in the new century, at least from the American perspective.

As viewers watched the image of the plane slip into the picture on the television screen and disappear into one side of Tower Two of the World Trade Center with a horrific orange explosion of flames appearing seconds later in a fireball coming out the other side, the shock of a new reality penetrated the consciousness of Americans, and others throughout the world. The dramatic realization, the realization that the world, and man’s relationship in it, would never be the same, was similar to that which occurred with the Titanic and Hiroshima, but this time, the catastrophe contained elements of those previous events as the world moved an unprecedented era.

The Titanic was the ship that couldn’t sink, the symbol of man’s ability and ingenuity to conquer the elements. The world view in the weeks before the night of April 14, 1912 was one of invincibility. And then came the iceberg.

The view in the United States prior to Sept. 11 of this year was similar. This was America, such a broad based terrorist attack on the shores of this country was unthinkable, no one could contemplate such an actuality. True, there had been horrific tragedies, the Oklahoma City bombing, but it was an isolated event, not a systematic assault from domestic skies, with passenger airlines acting as the equivalent of a partially submerged iceberg.

Just as news of the sinking of the Titanic was greeted with panic, shock and disbelief, forcing a reevaluation of man’s place in the world, so, too, Americans are now undergoing a similar first reaction. It will take time to sink in, that yes, it really did happen, the World Trade Center is gone.

Historians in the future, looking back, will begin to piece together the mind set of the country at this time. Just as Walter Lord captured the drama and horror, the heroism and the tragedy of the sinking of the Titanic in A Night to Remember, a similar book will be written in the future putting the event, and subsequent events in perspective, long after all the egotistical firsthand accounts of I Was There at Ground Zero are long forgotten.

But, if the Titanic forced civilized man to accept a degree of humility, the explosion of the bomb at Hiroshima brought crashing home the terrifying realization that the world could be destroyed in a flash. The capacity was there, the lingering thread that ran throughout the cold war, mutual assured destruction was possible.

And, yet, through the arms race, and the position of the superpowers and their allies, in terms of international relations, there was always a belief, an acceptance, that nations would act rationally within an irrational system. The belief that the United States and the Soviet Union accepted the rules of the game, and that, at some point in any given hypothetical situation of mounting, escalating tension, one fellow would blink far before the missiles actually started flying.

The attack this week, however, created a whole new dynamic, the idea of death and destruction with no regard for future consequences. A week ago there may have been a realization that the potential was there to destroy the world, but now, the sobering reality has arrived, with the hijacking of four planes which were turned into bombs within the United States, that a new incomprehensible potential for destruction has arrived.

There has been much talk of the global economy, of everyone being interconnected, and now we truly are, the United States has become part of the world, no longer an isolated giant, its borders erased by a terrorist attack just like every other country on the globe.

It's too early to project or predict how people will begin to think and feel, but suffice it to say, that no one in the United States will ever look at the world with the same sense of security, the complacency that what happens to others could never happen here. For now, though, while the country grapples to reconcile conflicting emotions, and the remaining, deep rooted numbing shock in the aftermath of the terrorist attack, we are still very much in a state similar to those seeking understanding and comprehension in the early days after the Titanic was at the bottom of the Atlantic and Hiroshima was no longer standing, reduced to burning rubble.

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