Perhaps their knives were made of stone -- chipped flints, sharpened to a deadly point: the earliest human technology. Perhaps that's how their weapons were smuggled past the sleek security machines, scanning for metal, for iron and steel. Perhaps that's how the guardians of the world's greatest power were defeated by a handful of men.
A handful of men, maybe no more than a dozen or so. Men dedicated to God, willing to die for their cause -- virtues celebrated throughout the civilized world. Old-fashioned men, too: this was not push-button war, there were no guided missiles streaking across vast oceans, no bomb bays opening somewhere above the clouds. This was the real thing, the raw thing, fierce and elemental. They came to kill and they came to die. They killed; they died.
And so the unimaginable has come, at last, to America. Unimaginable, that the innocent could lie dead by the thousands, buried beneath the ruins of ordinary life. Unimaginable, that the destruction that has swept back and forth across the world in great waves, leaving the innocent lying dead by the millions, should have at last spilled over the strong sea-walls that preserved the nation's wealth and tranquility. Unimaginable, that Americans should know what so many, too many, have known before: the sudden, gutting horror of mass-murdering injustice.
How did it happen? America spends $30 billion a year, year after year after year, on "intelligence." Untold trillions have been spent on "defense." The nation bristles with powerful ordnance, it "projects dominance" (as the strategists like to say) all over the globe. And yet its leaders are like blind men, raging like Oedipus, unable to see their attackers or defend their people or understand what is happening to them.
Struck and wounded, they fall back on empty rhetoric: "an attack on democracy" -- as if the suspected plotters, who spent years in a war to the death with the Soviet Union, give a damn what America's political system might be. Then come the metaphysical explanations: "A new evil has come upon us." "This is a war between good and evil."
Well yes, it's evil -- as the killing of every innocent person is -- but it isn't new. It's as old as the hills, as old as any chipped flint dug up from the past. It's religion, tribalism, lust for power and -- let's be painfully honest about it -- a falling-out among former allies, old comrades in undercover war. Each one of these is a powerful engine of hatred -- churning in the dirt of the real world, in the mixed matter of the human brain, in the murk and folly of human history.
Religion: the implacable, impenetrable conviction that absolute truth is in your sole possession. You are good; your enemies are evil. Tribalism (or in civilized terms, nationalism, patriotism): the belief that your country, your people, your grievances, your interests are above all others, that your values are so important that sometimes innocent people have to be sacrificed to them. Lust for power: the burning desire to impose your will on the whole world -- or failing that, to bring the whole world crumbling down around you.
And a falling-out. The White House points the finger of blame at Osama Bin Laden -- a demon made to order, right out of central casting, remorseless, demented, crafty, rich. Like Saddam Hussein -- another sinister figure suspected of collusion in this week's horror -- Bin Laden was first armed and empowered by America itself. The same intelligence services that now stand blind, struck and wounded, cynically embraced these brutal renegades as pawns in the Great Game of geopolitics; embraced them, armed them, paid them, built them up into autonomous powers -- then, like Dr. Frankenstein, lost control of their creatures. The used became the users, and in Iraq, Iran, Kuwait, Afghanistan -- and now, New York and Washington -- they have killed their thousands, and their tens of thousands.
In the name of religion. In the service of patriotism. In the lust for power -- to project their dominance.
This is not a new evil. It's as old as the hills, and is with us always.
But atrocity tends to raze the ground of history. In the aftermath, with the cries of lamentation rising over fresh graves, it is always Zero Hour. "That which happened" -- to borrow the poet Paul Celan's phrase for the Nazi's unspeakable horror -- buries what came before, effaces the paths that led us to this place, strips away the cloak of reason (a thin rag in the best of times), and leaves nothing but the bare, anguished call for revenge.
So the leaders, the blind men, assemble. They call urgently for war -- against someone, somewhere; they cannot say who, because they cannot see. The intelligence services are put to work -- perhaps they will find a new pawn to turn on the one that has turned against them; someone new to embrace, to arm, to pay, to empower. Perhaps the missiles will streak and the bomb bays will open indiscriminately, as before. Or perhaps it will be left to assassins, surgeons of death who will use the terrorist's own treacherous weapons of surprise and deceit to destroy the culprits -- and the inevitable "collaterals."
Blood will have blood; that's certain. But blood will not end it. For murder is fertile: it breeds more death, like a spider laden with a thousand eggs. And who now can break this cycle, which has been going on for generations? Past folly undoes us, but who, in the Zero Hour, can ignore the lamentations? Who can deny the ghosts, these loved ones gone, the red food demanded by the dead?
There is no answer. It will not stop. They say the world has now changed irreversibly, that nothing will ever be the same. But it will be the same. The same engines of hatred, the same murk, the same dirt, the same mixed matter in human brains.
This is not a new evil. It's as old as the hills, and it is with us always. "Even unto the end of the world."