Among my souvenirs from my twentieth summer at the Daily News is a photograph of a very fat monk in his robes who is swinging at a softball that was taken by one of the paper’s photographers—I don’t know his name. It won a big prize that year and I’ve taken it with me where I’ve lived. It still makes me feel good every time I look at it, and everyone else who visits the bathroom where it hangs. I can’t think of more classic Cartier- Bressons decisive-moment picture. It captures the monk just as he is taking a huge cut at the ball, swinging for Heaven, and missed it. It also captures what I love about New York, the heart that I am talking about.
I stood for half an hour with the people at the doors of Penn Station, who were all undoubtedly struggling privately to come to terms with what had happened. How could anybody hate us so much? I suspect many of them were thinking. What does this mean? Is the world coming apart at the seams, the entire human experiment, the tenuous global social contract that is still being negotiated because it is in no one’s interest that the species annihilates itself and takes everything with it? The growing frequency of outbreaks of massive psychotic violence—the Rwandan genocide, Tulsa, and now this —is certainly ominous.
How did you classify such an attack? It was clearly an act of terrorism, but was it also an act of war, as the president called it later in the day. Bin Laden had declared a jihad against America, so it was. He had come right out and said that he was out to kill Americans. So the deaths in the towers and the planes and at the Pentagon were more than “collateral damage.” Wasn’t this also an act of genocide? Killing people, even just one person, because they belong to a group, with the intent of exterminating the entire group or weakening it beyond the capacity to recover is how genocide is defined by the Geneva Convention. Usually the group is racial or ethnic or religious. “Americans” are a national group that embraces hundreds of ethnic, racial, and religious groups, but in Bin Laden’s eyes we are all infidels– a corrupt, decadent tribe who he feels it is his religious duty to wipe off the face of the earth. So yes, this can be seen as an act of genocide. And what about the killing of ten or fifteen Palestinan civilians a day in Israel since the declaration of the second intifada a year ago? Is this some important day in the Muslim calendar? I asked the woman standing next to me. It’s the anniversary of the Camp David Accord, she told me in a low voice. So maybe the terrorists are Palestinia: suicide bombers taking out a really attention-getting target. Or Bin-Laden’s folks who had chosen this day for their attack as a gesture of sympathy.