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American Studies Today Online
Lenny Quart is Professor of Cinema Studies at COSI and the CUNY Grad. Center, and is a frequent contributor to American Studies Today Online and to the Berkshire Eagle.
Posted 18th September 2001

While I was registering this morning for a tennis class at the NYU gym- about 3/4 of a mile from the World Trade Center - a woman came in shouting about the smoke billowing from the upper floors of the Center's two twin Towers. I thought at first it was an electrical fire, but when I walked out into the street I knew it was something much more grave. I saw stunned people massed on every corner looking, at some distance; at great gaping holes on the Center's top floors, belching out smoke and fire. The black plume of smoke seemed to envelop all of Lower Manhattan, and I felt overwhelmed by what I soon learned was the magnitude of the attack by three hi-jacked planes on major U.S. landmarks. Almost everybody in the street seemed profoundly affected by the situation. Some young women were in tears, others were on cell phones trying to contact friends and family members who work downtown. Suddenly one of the Towers appeared to implode, the building collapsing and showering glass, paper, and debris in its wake. It looked like a scene out of a Hollywood disaster movie like The Towering Inferno.

In the next moment, a couple of young men standing near me, cried out "Let's get the bastards"- the kind of primal response and desire for retribution (intensified by news that some desperate people had jumped off the burning towers to their death) which is understandable if dangerous. Still, what "bastards" are we supposed to punish? (If we go off half-cocked and take revenge on innocents it makes us no different morally than the terrorists.)

So far we don't know who is responsible for all the conscienceless carnage. We do know this was a well-planned, sophisticated attack that demanded the close collaboration of a great many people. Was it committed by Saudi-born guerrilla leader Osama Bin-Laden, or terrorists sponsored by Iran, Libya, or Iraq? Television showed footage of Palestinians smiling and dancing triumphantly in the occupied West Bank, and of gunmen at refugee camps in Lebanon firing into the air to celebrate news of the attacks. This may not be sufficient evidence of guilt, but suicide bombing is a prime Moslem fundamentalist tactic in the Mideast conflict. Some other group could have been responsible, but my bet is on one of the Moslem terrorist groups. The bombing was an assault on civilization, and an act of war. And my city bore the brunt of it. New York Mayor Rudolph Giuliani said there had been a ""tremendous number of lives lost," though the full dimensions of the tragedy are still far from clear. The bombing has created chaos and terror, and overwhelmed the area's hospitals and blood supply. If any grace note exists in the midst of this apocalyptic act, it's the sense of community and concern that ordinary New Yorkers showed for each other in the middle of the devastation. The city will survive, but at the moment, I only feel despair and rage at how tribalism and zealotry can destroy our lives.

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