Learning to bear the unbearable
by Robert Fulford

(The National Post, 10 September 2005)

It's a war we didn't expect, didn't know how to fight, and have never accepted as a part of our destiny. As an idea it's too uncomfortable, too far outside the range of our understanding. Canadians can't begin to think of it as a war we will fight the way we have fought others, with wholehearted passion. Most people in the West, and in fact many Americans, share that reluctance. Why even call it a war? A war has an end as well as a beginning. When and how could this one end?

We do know that the events of Sept. 11, 2001, split the population of the West into two factions, those who believe we are engaged in a war (because the other side declared war) and those who believe we are not. Senator John Kerry, for instance, revealed during the 2004 presidential campaign that he considered terrorism more or less another version of crime, ugly and maybe persistent but certainly containable.

That's an attractive and cheering notion. If we acknowledge instead that this is indeed a war, and begin thinking about why our opponents fight, then we must consider that the struggle could run longer than any previous war of modern times. It could last so long, in fact, that people would be unable to remember what life was like without it. It could run as long as the Hundred Years' War (1337-1453) between England and France, the war of Henry V and Agincourt and Joan of Arc.

The current conflict existed long before 2001, but its significance was muffled. We could still hope it would somehow go away. All that changed with 9/11.

It threw a permanent shadow over many of the major institutions in modern life. After al-Qaeda turned passenger planes into bombs, every airline in the world had to become obsessed with security. Public buildings, power plants, bridges, only recently symbols of accomplishment, turned into potential targets.

Immigration had always been seen as a positive force. I remember that when visiting Hungary during the Soviet period I pitied Budapest for having a population drawn almost entirely from a single ethnic group.

But today, in the Netherlands, a nation that rests like Canada on a belief in its own infinite tolerance, multiculturalism and easygoing immigration have suddenly become suspect. They have brought murder with them, and violence against homosexuals; they may shatter the peace of a country that mainly desires a quiet life. Britain, which genially granted refugee status to endangered newcomers and let them encourage violence, is now wondering whether good-heartedness has become a form of national suicide.

There and elsewhere, Muslims thrown on the defensive have rightly argued that most adherents of their religion abide by the law; and that the Koran, moreover, can be interpreted as a book advocating peace. But so long as the homicide bombings continue (and who really expects to see the end of them?), Islam as a force in the West will continue to arouse suspicions.

Fiction, which eventually registers every twist in society, has begun to take 9/11 into account. Windows on the World, by the French novelist Frederic Beigbeder, depicts a New York real estate man taking his young sons for breakfast on Sept. 11, 2001, at the restaurant on top of the North Tower of the World Trade Center; that story alternates with an account of another man having breakfast a year later to the day on the 56th floor of Paris's tallest building, the Tour Montparnasse.

Jonathan Safran Foer, one of the stars among young American fiction writers, wraps his recent novel, Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close, around a precocious nine-year-old New Yorker, Oskar, who endlessly traverses the city in his yearning to understand the death of his beloved father in the World Trade Center. January will bring The Good Life, by Jay McInerney, about a man who is late for his breakfast meeting at the World Trade Center on the crucial day.

In those novels literature confronts 9/11 head-on. Other books use it, or fairly obvious echoes of it, as a tragic background. Nick McDonell's The Third Brother, out this month, describes an apprentice journalist who comes home from Bangkok and confronts, at roughly the same time, both a monstrous family tragedy and the atrocity of 9/11. Saturday, by Ian McEwan, has been admired more than any other novel related to 9/11. It takes place in London, far from Ground Zero, but baleful memories of New York's tragedy hum beneath the narrative.

McEwan's neurosurgeon hero has achieved happiness by making himself a virtuoso at a surgical art characteristic of the West's most sophisticated scientific progress. For McEwan and the neurosurgeon, terrorist action seems above all a grotesque intrusion on normality.

Novelists in the West now find themselves working through a theme that has occupied Israelis for decades, the side-by-side existence of terror and everyday life. Like the Palestinian suicide bombers in Israel, the 9/11 killers created what seemed an unbearable situation -- which people, astonishingly, soon learned to bear.

These books demonstrate how 9/11 changed the tone of life. What one literary critic called "the submerged uncertainty of life after 9/11" has affected everyone, shaping popular emotion, giving fresh and urgent meanings to the word "security," charging ordinary urban landscapes with dark significance. There are New Yorkers who find it painful to glimpse the Twin Towers in a movie. In Toronto there's a dock, at Queens Quay, that produces pain in me whenever I walk past it. That was where I was to be by 11 o'clock on the morning of Sept. 11, to take a boat tour and write a light-hearted feature. Instead, of course, I spent that day, and many other days, watching television, with a heavy heart.

It's astonishing how much changed because of the bombing -- and how much didn't. The scandal of slow response to the destruction of New Orleans proved that American emergency services remain uncoordinated and paralyzed by bureaucratic turf wars. The Department of Homeland Security, created in response to 9/11, handed out U.S. $6-billion in grants but sent much of it to places no one considers targets, to pacify local politicians. In 2001 emergency services in New York were not equipped to communicate with each other by radio; four years later, that's largely unchanged.

In Canada, of course, we remain relatively indifferent. Or, at least, we are so little moved that the restoration of our military to respectable strength has not yet achieved a significant place on our national agenda.

Meanwhile, al-Qaeda and its friends continue to strike. Again and again, al-Qaeda proves that it's flexible, imaginative, and determined. Its ambitions are unrelenting, its hatred profound. Above all, it remains infinitely patient.

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