Following the recent 20th anniversary of 9/11, I thought it would be apposite to revisit a piece I wrote in the aftermath of having witnessed on television, the attacks on the World Trade Centre and the Pentagon.
The article, entitled 'Humanness and Horror' was the first in a series of columns I wrote for a genre website called Alien Online a site that evolved out of an earlier site--At The World's End--established by Mark Chadbourn, and that featured contributions from many now much more familar genre names, including Tim Lebbon, Jeff Vandermeer, Justina Robson and Adam Roberts.
I can't remember when Alien Online ceased to exist, or why, or what became of the site owner/editor, Ariel. Subsequently, the column found a temporary home in the pages of Interzone, morphing into my column Night's Plutonian Shore, before transferring to Black Static where it ran until 2012. I'm posting it here exactly as it first appeared in October 2001 on Ariel's site.
HUMANNESS AND HORROR
This is a column whose remit is the discussion of Horror in all its manifestations. Notice I didn’t say ‘Horror genre’. I had intended to but then it struck me that life cannot be categorised in the way that books or films might be. Life doesn’t constitute a genre - well not unless you’re caught up in a particularly vivid fantasy of your own making, say Woody Allen’s adoption of the private dick schtick in Play it Again, Sam. Most of us are blessed with the ability to distinguish between fantasy and reality, barring the intervention of chemicals, insanity, or the unbearable sadness of obsession.
And then a time and a place and the unfurling of a terrible sequence of events impact on the meta-consciousness of the wired world and suddenly I can’t tell what it is I’m watching on my TV. This is New York, on the morning of 11 September 2001. This is Washington DC. This is a TV newsroom and here is the anchorman or woman. These are the live newscasts coming in from downtown Manhattan. This is a replay of some footage recorded just a few moments ago. That is a jet airplane crashing into a very tall building. These are the opinions of a bunch of hastily assembled experts, speculating about the things that are happening right now, right here in my home, on my TV. They offer explanations, reasons, theories, all of them inadequate, all of them seeming to my adrenalized brain, somewhat wide of the mark. I don’t want an explanation right now; I don’t need the soothing words of some expert who, at this precise moment, has no more idea of the what or the who or the why than I have myself. What I want, what I really fucking want, is someone to tell me this is not real. What I need is someone to confirm what I already know - that this is Horror, but I need to hear them say this is not life, this is a movie.
No one spoke those words. As the minutes passed, as the scene changed to the Pentagon and then back to New York in time for the collapse of the South tower of the World Trade Centre, the awful certainty that what I was watching was real, finally undermined the fantasy I’d unconsciously constructed. We call these ‘defence mechanisms’ or ‘coping strategies’, the psychic manoeuvres we employ to get us through moments of great stress or pain or fear. The unconscious - or maybe even conscious - retreat from a reality that has become - suddenly, shockingly, without warning - too terrible to bear.
But here’s the thing - though I have been to New York, though I have sat on the upper deck of an open-topped double-decker bus as it drove through the streets beneath the Twin Towers - I knew no one there, no family, no friends who were at risk at that moment, in that place. These people who were dying - were they dying? Nobody had said, nobody yet would commit to the dead - they were strangers to me. Yet here I was, stuck to the television like some news junkie, waiting for my next fix, another replay of that plane hitting the South Tower, only maybe this time could they show it from another angle, or perhaps they could get some footage of the first crash into the North Tower? Or maybe the second tower would fall? I got all this and more. I sat staring at the screen through into the early hours, and as I did my mind began trying to rationalise the horror of what I was watching. Except that ‘watching’ wasn’t the right word. What I was doing was ‘bearing witness’ to something that, just the day before, had seemed impossible and incomprehensible. One day such a thing is the climax to the Summer’s big Event Movie; the next it’s real. But there was a crucial difference: movies show us everything; they spare no details; they give it to us in close-up, their creed has become ‘imagination not required.’ We see everything and yet we - some of us? Most of us? I don’t know - feel nothing. We have become inoculated against the feeling of horror and react only to the spectacle. Reality shows us a plane crashing into a building, huge fireballs exploding into the careless blue sky over Manhattan, two giant towers crumbling to rubble and dust, and despite the fact that we see no bodies, we are horrified, we are appalled, we are numbed. Because, while all this sensory input is stupefying our brains, preventing us from thinking too much, or too deeply, our imaginations have kicked in and it registers that inside these planes, inside these towers, are people. Real people, dying out of view. I did not know them but the unconscious process of imagining told me they were real, not actors playing out some expensive spectacle for purposes of entertainment. Real people with husbands and wives, children and parents and friends, the ones whose pain I did not want to imagine but of which some humanness caused me to feel a shadowy trace.
We call this empathy. I think maybe it’s part of what it means to be human. But what I found hard to understand was that I could simultaneously feel two such contradictory emotions. Even while I was grieving the deaths of people I didn’t know, another part of me was wanting to see more, know more, imagine more. I knew I wasn’t watching a film, but some detached and ghoulish aspect of who I was compelled me to react as if it was. And even when I became aware of this, I kept watching, glued to CNN until some time after two on the morning of 12 September, GMT. And when I went to bed I slept soundly, untroubled by any bad dreams.
Over the next few days, I was struck by the number of people who had experienced the kind of reaction I had felt, that they were watching a film and that it took a while for it to dawn that this was real life, real death. Die Hard was mentioned half a dozen times, the assumption being that it was something common to our experience, our film-watching experience. We could make sense of the reality only through the fiction, for we had experienced no reality like it. We sat and watched and translated the horror into something that we could comprehend. Understanding, or thinking we understood, we were maybe a little less afraid. We still felt shock and anger and sorrow, but the horror had been recognised and catalogued, and the catharsis we had experienced was already wearing off.
I guess this might sound glib or callous but it is the truth - just over a week after that terrible day, the feeling of horror is gone. I have returned to my normal routine. I am getting on with my life. I realise this is no comfort at all to those who can’t say the same, who lost friends and loved ones, who will never forget that day. My horror was a small thing next to theirs. I have new concerns, new fears. I’m hearing words and phrases like ‘will not stand’, ‘fight fire with fire’, ‘whose side are you on’, ‘holy war’, revenge and these words seem to be drowning out ones like calm, evidence, peace, tolerance, understanding. I wish there was something more to say, some noble sentiments to offer. But the truth is, after hearing all this talk and losing track of what it all means, after trying for eight or nine days to understand why I felt the things I did and reconcile them with what I hope is my humanness, I’m finding it hard right now to put my faith in words.