Howard Jacobson: Our lost world

Beyond the hyperbole and hysteria, a stark truth remains: the atrocities of 11 September destroyed much more than the lives of their immediate victims.
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September, 1915. "Our cosmos has burst," writes DH Lawrence to Ottoline Morrell, seeing the Zeppelin over London, the shells exploding, the splashes of fire, feeling the earth shake: "It is the end – our world is gone, and we are like dust in the air."

Eighty-six Septembers later, our cosmos is burst again, this time by an act of such bewilderingly pure destruction that we describe it simply by its date – 11 September – as though we accept that language must always faint before its enormity. Never mind the twin towers of the World Trade Centre, the Pentagon, the field where the fourth plane came down – these are merely the accidents of history – it's the day that has come to count, marking the calendar divide between innocence and experience, our coming of age, after which, as commentators fell over one another to tell us, nothing was ever going to be the same again.

It had to be a clear-blue, pristine morning, didn't it? That's the impression you take away from Goodbye to All That and Memoirs of a Fox-Hunting Man – the Great War bursting in on a succession of lovely, drowsy English afternoons. We mark our innocence by weather. Is this what we mean when we say nothing will ever be the same again – that henceforth the sun won't shine, our shadows won't lengthen, and we will lose the smell of early evening? Is our imagination of apocalypse in fact a memory of our expulsion from Eden, an angel brandishing a flaming sword, barring us for ever from the lazy, incensed breezes of the Garden?

In some part of ourselves we seem to welcome the very thing we dread. Apocalypse At Last! Not, I think, because we yearn for oblivion, but because we want to own up to ingratitude. Until now, we never realised how blessed we were, how much we were enjoying lives more carefree than we could possibly deserve. And because we are creatures burdened with seriousness, not natural hedonists at all, we feel obliged to do penance for our good fortune. That might have been why so many otherwise unvengeful people – as well as those to whom intemperate language comes easily – were quick to say we had it coming. Terrible, terrible, but... In the days that followed, we measured the worth of people by the speed and alacrity of those demurrals. An atrocity, of course, but... I have my own list of them, those who said "but" too soon for decency, those who couldn't wait to get it out.

They are always with us, the harpies of vicarious vengeance, men and women who believe there is no smoke without fire, no act of violence we do not bring upon ourselves, preachers of primordial blood-feuds dressed up as history, reminding us that we – "we" always being the West – reap only what we have sown. But the speed of their appearance on the scene, this time, took the breath away. Americans of my acquaintance still scratch their heads over this. "Who had any idea that so many people hated us?" they still ask. "Who could have thought the anti-American rhetoric ran so deep?" Myself, I think even that bafflement is too rational. Better to think about vultures circling the dying.

It was the perfect last day of innocence in London, balmy with a hint in the air of the Indian summer to come. So I have chosen to remember it, anyway. I was lunching with a woman friend at her club, idly, for no reason, just because we could. Kiss, kiss, how well you look, no, how well you look, shall we drink red or shall we drink white, why don't we just have a bottle of each. Such are the freedoms won for us from tyranny by our fathers and our fathers' fathers. Only as we were leaving – kiss, kiss, thank you that was lovely, no, no, thank you – did we get wind, from an over-excited waiter, and then from the club's televisions, of what had happened. I went out into the street to switch on my mobile phone and ring my partner, but she had already left me a message. We both thought the same, that we should be home, together, in each other's arms at least, if this was the beginning of the end of the world. When it happens you want to be with those you love. The excruciating cruelty of what did happen, for so many, was that the mobile phone was as close as they could get. Kiss, kiss, I love you, and then the line going dead. Very quickly, those unbearable telephoned goodbyes became part of the tragedy. This was a disaster built out of our greatest technological triumphs – planes, skyscrapers, television, cell phones. We were dying of our own devices, among them the electronic means to see and hear one another burn.

Ghoulishly, because I wanted to be among people, because I sought collusion in horror, I didn't take a taxi but hurried home, through the West End, on foot. There was almost, but not quite, that atmosphere of carnival catastrophe on the streets which my parents used to describe when telling me about life under the doodlebugs in the Forties, that devil-may-care lightness born of fear. There seemed to be more police cars about, but I could have imagined that. And I thought people were looking up at the sky more than they usually do, but I could have imagined that as well. Did everybody know yet? Was it incumbent on me to tell anyone who didn't? A queer self-importance takes possession of you in situations like this – a twisted sense of privileged excitement such as you feel when you are the first at the scene of an accident. It is awful to confess, but destruction can put a spring in your step. Again and again, I succeeded in meeting the eyes of strangers initiate in the same black knowledge – "Fucking hell!", our eyes said, "Bloody fucking hell!" – and that must have contributed to the sensation of intense aliveness I remember experiencing, an exhilaration, not exactly of purpose but, if you like, of revelation. God knows what anything meant, but today, somehow, as Manhattan melted, it was hard not to feel like the elect on Judgement Day, knowing that soon everything was about to be explained to us at last.

Well, television makes us all the elect. If you didn't catch the thing live, you caught it later. And because it had been specially made for television – a 10-hour, day-time spectacular complete with carefully constructed climaxes, like a firework display, and pauses for advertisers – you could tune in whenever you got home and pick up the plot. The one thing we now know about one another is that we all watched it and watched it and watched it. There's consolation in that. The consolation of togetherness. For the first time in years we were all glued to the same programme, a community again, of a single mind in the matter of what was important and what was not. Already I'm missing that. Another golden age of innocence, when the days were long and the sun shone and we all sat in watching the world end on telly, and not one of us gave a thought to Madonna or Robbie Williams.


This may be wishful thinking, but I'm inclined to believe we still haven't quite got back to the trivia-and-celebrity culture of 10 September and before. When that deadly homophobic bomb went off in the Admiral Duncan in Soho two years ago, the press were immediately on the phone to the Groucho Club, just round the corner, to see if any famous person had been injured, upset, put off his tea, or in any other way incommoded by the blast. For unless something happened to a celebrity, there was a sense in which it hadn't happened at all. The eleventh of September again saw some early trawling through passenger lists and rumour for famous fatalities, but that soon felt inappropriate, and by the next day America was re-discovering not only the pathos but also the virtues of lives lived away from the spotlight of fame. As those heartbreaking pictures of the missing started to go up on walls and lampposts in Manhattan, and obituaries of the obscure dead began to appear in the pages of The New York Times, so the rich varieties of what we insultingly call ordinariness – the flowers born to blush unseen, the undiscovered gems of purest ray serene – became increasingly vivid to Americans, like stories of a forgotten people, told for the first time. Maybe it is just a blip in the callous progress of celebrity-driven capitalism, but for the moment not to be anybody much, not to have exceeded the common in looks or musicality or fortune – though many who sought and found fortune died that day – feels all right again. "Far from the madding Crowd's ignoble strife,/Their sober Wishes never learn'd to stray;/Along the cool sequester'd Vale of Life/They kept the noiseless Tenor of their Way." Not exactly a description of downtown Manhattan, I grant you, but you know what I'm driving at. Slowly, another map of the richest city on earth is being drawn. And with it, another map of ourselves – I mean us, the English, who discovered we could be more sorry for Americans and more caught up in their tragedies than we realised. Call it a map of democracy, if you like, though that might be pushing it. But it's the case, I think, that even over here we have started to look at firemen differently.

There is an alternative, more dismal reading of it, of course. Simply that reality television has been taken to new heights. And we have found another way of going from being nobody to somebody in an instant.

I am still not sure why, after getting home and watching the inferno on television all afternoon, we decided to walk to Grosvenor Square that first evening and stand outside the American Embassy. I have never done such a thing in my life. I am not a flower layer by nature. I am not a crowd- or procession-joiner. Furthermore, I am not a devotee of the American way of life. Culturally, America can go to hell, especially Hollywood, McDonald's, back-to-front baseball caps, oil millionaires, Clinton's dick, Britney Spears and the self-regardingness of American prose – that more or less gets my position. Yet here I was, keeping vigil outside the embassy, clutching my partner's hand and having trouble holding back my tears.

Tears breed tears. It might be the only thing that will save us in the end, that we are touched into grief by the grief of others. Had there been large crowds outside (and I was curiously disappointed there were not), the effect might have been different. But only a scattering of people had turned up, mostly American; a ludicrously modest gathering given what had happened, a couple of dozen mourners at most, the more fragile for being so few, each holding a candle. I refused to hold a candle myself. It didn't seem right. I'd supped on horrors that weren't exactly mine all afternoon; enough was enough – I didn't want to be muscling in on other people's sorrows as well. Except to cry for them. Only I wasn't crying, exactly. It was more like gasping, being unable to get my breath. Disasters we know about; we see them on television all the time. But this wasn't a disaster comparable to others I had watched, different only by virtue of its scale. No, this was unbelievable. Fucking hell! Distressing in ways one couldn't begin to count. And the straggle of vigilants holding flickering candles, as tenuous as flower stalks, made it more distressing still. We measure by our own size. We are awed and frightened by New York precisely because it dwarfs us, making a mockery of our littleness. And now that the giant had itself been belittled, where did that leave us?

Maybe we are equipped, imaginatively, to take these knocks. We adjust to each new reshaping of catastrophe, shipwreck, earthquake, holocaust, correcting the old medieval cosmologies of heaven and hell, adding another monstrousness to the list of what's possible. The eleventh of September has tested us to the limit, though, partly because we were privy to every sadistic turn in its unfolding – witnesses who could be called on in a court of law; partly because it seemed the fulfilment of an ancient presentiment (while others talked of its resemblance to movies, to me, a long-time dreamer of planes coming, crashing in on fire through open windows – "What is that sound high in the air/Murmur of maternal lamentation" – it was the enactment of prophetic nightmare); and partly because there was absolutely no mistaking its malevolent intent. This was not a case of accidental disproportionateness, of something going horribly wrong, or of punishment exacted more in sorrow than in anger; this was intent in the arms of execution, an exercise in the ice-cold aesthetics of ferocity – as exemplified by the unhesitating, balletic flourish of that second plane – before which all our available models of evil pale into insignificance.

Which means that now we know the worst. That there isn't anything so vile but someone somewhere won't hesitate to have a go at doing it, we always knew. The world is full of madmen. That we have developed the means to destroy life on a hitherto unimaginable scale we also knew. But at least, we thought, our consciences have kept pace with our inventions: we can kill faster, but we think twice. As long as those madmen who did not think at all could be kept from getting their hands on the machines, we would be all right. Well, you won't find anyone who believes that any more. Whether or not bin Laden has nuclear weapons or the wherewithal to dust crop the planet with sarin is now beside the point. If he doesn't, the next one will.


Men have hated science almost as much as they have loved it. The great fear has always been that we will lag morally behind our technological advances. Hence our dread of Dr Frankenstein, passing on the lethal sophistication of science to an unformed brute. Fantastical of us, was it, to worry about that? I don't know anybody who thinks so now. We'll go on catching planes because we have to. And we'll go on funding new research and, with increased determination you can be sure, new forms of warfare. But the genie is out of the bottle. Those who argued that ingenuity and know-how don't necessarily make us human were right all along. The monster knows his way about the laboratory, and he will turn our science on us the next opportunity he gets.

Complete safety, of course, no one has ever been able to promise us, and the transience of empires was something we read poetry about at school. But you can smell a new uncertainty even on the least poetical of people, and all our talk is laced with greater forebodings of disaster than we would ever have voiced three months ago. Visually, even, the world is less secure. We saw that skyline alter before our eyes and now no skyline looks permanent. For weeks, after 11 September, I would walk out on to my balcony and stare across at St Paul's and the NatWest Building and the Barbican, fully expecting to see them gone or going, sucked down into themselves in a whirlwind of smoke and fire. Baseless they now seemed, like Prospero's cloud-capped towers and gorgeous palaces, insubstantial as a faded pageant.

I still check them out each morning, with increasing confidence that I will find them, though I wouldn't bet on it. Like everybody else, I have less money to bet on anything. The pageantry of our system also took a dent when those towers came down. Although that must be encouraging to whoever fancies taking a pot shot at capitalism's symbols next time, it is not the root cause of our instability, which is more cosmic than economic. If we can't count on the material world being there when we next open our eyes, what can we count on? Similarly other people. We seek safety in numbers. Go where the crowd goes, we believed, and you'll be all right. But thousands can be blown away now, as easily as the buildings that house them. There was a time when you would look at the variety of people boarding a plane, count their occupations, imagine the networks of intimacy and dependency of which they were the centre, and it was unimaginable that a plane bearing so much of the world's substance could ever come down. Tell me about the world's substance now. Tell me that you will ever again feel safe because you are knitted into the precious lives of other people.

It's still too early to measure with any accuracy, and I don't know what units to measure in, but by so many soul inches or faith degrees we are metaphysically lonelier now than we were before. Nobody is watching over us. No laws of being or probability, no weight of accustomedness, not even the simple fact of mass, protects us. We are random. Yet at the same time we are more metaphysically at odds with one another than ever. This was not a confrontation of religions or belief systems, our politicians told us. You could have fooled me. Even the most extreme of bin Laden's condemnations of the West appeared to find enthusiastic support, not only in Muslim countries but in our own. Television programmes such as Question Time revealed an England seething with anti-English, never mind anti-American resentments. The sweets of comparative religion – all things bright and beautiful, whoever your God – where had they gone suddenly? If we weren't fighting Islam, it looked pretty much as though Islam was fighting us. Within hours of the first hit, a nice rumour was circulating the Muslim world. No Jews had turned up for work at the World Trade Centre that morning. You want to know why? You want to know what would stop a Jew making money? Inside information! Every Jew had been at the end of a whisper from Mossad, the Israeli Secret Service ("Listen, boychick, do yourself a favour – stay home today!"), for it was Mossad that was bombing America, in order to discredit Islam, Hamas, the PLO, Egyptian Jihad, you name it – a conspiracy theory so insane you could barely bring yourself to answer it, for to enumerate the actual Jewish dead in such a cause would have been to defame them. But similar conspiracy theories once had half of Europe by the ears, and in Arab countries, where you can easily pick up all the Nazi literature your heart desires, they still do the rounds routinely.

Not a war between faiths? Well, most Jews of my acquaintance felt pretty shaky in those first few weeks. You are not necessarily a Zionist if you are Jewish; many Jews don't feel much of a connection with Israel, and of those who do, there are any number who shrink from its present policies. But you worry, all the same, when it is threatened, worry for yourself and your own safety not least. There is an anti-Semitic trickle-down effect from Israel – "that shitty little country" – which we all dread. Not only will there be nowhere to run to if it goes, but we will be blamed, again, for ever having allowed it to be in the first place. So you fall silent and lie low, and whatever else you do, you don't start trading insults with Muslims. I had my own thoughts, though. When bin Laden made one of those video pronouncements, conjuring the "humiliation and distress" that Islam has suffered for "more than 80 years" – a reference, obviously, not just to Israel and Saudi Arabia and Iraq and whatever else is irksome, but to that final dissolution of the Ottoman Empire in 1918 – it was almost more than I could do not to run out on to the streets shouting, "Humiliation? Let me tell you about humiliation!"

It has been argued that Jews have made love to their humiliations over the centuries, and some would say our too-willing submissiveness has often cost us our lives. This is not the place to get into that. But maybe you measure the strength of a faith by how well it survives defeat as well as victory. It was smart of those who devised Judaism, I think, to separate our prophets from our soldiers. Moses gives us our law, but doesn't live to see the bloody mayhem that gives us our country. We needn't therefore win all the time to be ourselves. The great prophet of Islam was a victorious soldier, and in victory Islam has certainly been capable of lordly munificence. But no one tastes victory only, and if every defeat is to be accounted a humiliation for which the world must be made to tremble, what chance do we have of sleeping peacefully in our beds at night?

Nothing is over, that's what it comes to. Terror is a refusal to accept the verdict of history. A defeated people – and sometimes it is just to be defeated – no longer returns to its ploughshares. Now it nurses grievances and makes bombs. That playground adversary you could never shake off, who came back and back for more, no matter how many times you thought you'd settled your differences, no matter how many treaties you'd signed, is now, by the justification of "humiliation" and through the medium of terror, a permanence in our adult lives as well. The eleventh of September did not author him, he authored it: so put yourself in his place – if you had enjoyed such éclat, would you be thinking of calling it quits and going back to your schoolbooks?

We have aged a lot in three months. Maybe we needed to. All those lovely little faith schools we were keen to open? Get real. All those exotic foreigners we gave refuge to? And where do you think you're going, sunshine... So we aren't as nice as we were. That happens when suspicion enters your life and you discover enemies you never knew you had. We aren't as nice and we aren't as safe, and tears are closer to the surface than they used to be. You could say it's a mixed bag. We have experienced unexpected sorrows and bled for perfect strangers. What is more, we are all apparently still spending money. Which must mean we still have hope.

But every few days, that vaporous feeling comes over me again, the skyline begins to totter, buildings vanish from their accustomed place, and when I look at people scurrying up and down Regent Street, they are like dust in the air.