Richard Reeves

Losing Our Innocence Again

SAG HARBOR, N.Y. -- "New York is a ghost town," said my wife on the phone early on Wednesday. "I've never seen anything like this. There is nothing; no one is moving out there."

I wouldn't know. I was 100 miles away on a glorious September day near the sea. Alone. I was cleaning the house, doing dishes, laundry. I am not good at those things. I was doing it because it took enough concentration to keep my mind off the horror. I turned the radio off, never turned on the television, ignored the papers.

I had spent nine hours on the road Tuesday trying to get into the city, finally turning back when insanity seemed to be riding next to me. I was on Northern Boulevard in Manhasset, a Long Island town 15 miles or so from the city. The cell phone was dead after hours of trying to get a real dial tone. I had made less than five miles in the 2 1/2 hours since police had pushed me off the Long Island Expressway and then the Northern Parkway. Only emergency equipment was allowed on the big roads.

I knew that, and I knew that no cars were being allowed on the bridges or in the tunnels to the island of Manhattan. The police were letting cars out, but not in. But I had figured that I could get into Queens, park somewhere, and then walk across the 59th Street Bridge to our place on East 57th Street.

Obviously I never made it. I was frantic, though my fears and frustrations were nothing compared with people doing the real work of rescue, and those who did not know where their husbands or wives or children were. My wife, who was at the United Nations, which seemed a likely target to me, had managed to get a fax out here within an hour or so of the first attack on Manhattan. I guess the magic of modern communications does alleviate some pains of helplessness -- God, the people calling 911 from crashing airliners! -- but you get used to having everyone a button away, and when that breaks down, it takes you to another level of personal craziness.

The idea that we should know everything instantaneously is a drug and a delusion. We are addicted, and now a lot of us are in withdrawal. The car radio probably made it worse with the usual professorial and authoritative talk of the loss of innocence. I am tired of losing my innocence. I thought we lost it with the assassination of John F. Kennedy -- or was it Pearl Harbor? Or the first bombing of the World Trade Center eight years ago? American innocence was really never more profound than the width of the oceans, which made it difficult for enemies to reach us with great deadly force. Now they can and have.

Actually it was the people killing us who were innocent at first, not knowing how to push the buttons of modernity. We dealt with that ignorance by giving them Stinger missiles in Afghanistan, which quickly ended up in Pakistan and Iran. We taught them how to use them, and how to fly jets, and all the tricks they needed to kill Russians for us. Our modernity, it is turning out, is not a defense but a target.

I had always thought what goes around would come around when a terrorist would put a heat-seeking Stinger up the exhaust hole of a big jet somewhere in the United States. But terrorism has evolved beyond that now, hasn't it? The modernity-haters have learned enough not only to take down ancient statues of a giant Buddha in the desert but also to take down our equivalent monuments on the Hudson River.

"Things will never be the same," was the commentary line I heard over and over again when I was trapped in my little foxhole on wheels on Tuesday. Usually the voices of authority and experience were going on about increased airport security, identification badges and other necessary police-state tactics -- we have no choice now, do we? -- or about the unbelievable change in the Manhattan skyline.

I'm afraid we will soon realize -- lose innocence again -- that the change really began with the Crusades when the spiritually "modernizing" Christians decided that God was commanding them to make Muslims and other heathens more like us. Some of them, the more zealous, did not want to be like the Europeans and then the Americans, and so they turned the weapons and tactics of technological modernity against us.

It is change that changed everything -- and more and more will die horribly on both sides of that divide for a long time to come.

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