I stare. Outside the window above my computer screen, rose hips on thorny stems are barely moving, making tiny anticipatory nods to a soft morning breeze. My wife calls down for me to come right away, something terrible at the edge of her voice. On the way up the stairs, I hear an awful sob and then crying. Just as I enter the bedroom, the network is replaying videotape of the World Trade Center towers collapsing into the ground, and I want to collapse with them, broken at the knees.
Our son, who was sick and stayed home from school, appears in the doorway, 10 feet tall and shirtless, almost 15. In a motion practiced since infancy, he flings himself on our bed to watch what we are watching. My first clear thought is selfish: I look at him stretched the length of the bed and say to myself, “Whatever this is, it's still going to be going on when he is 18.”
They will take him for the war and kill him. I have to push these thoughts away. We don't have any idea how this day will end, let alone our lives. Who knows what sacrifice will be demanded of any of us?
While we listen and watch, my wife and I start guessing. Osama Bin Laden. The Middle East. The Arabs. What about Oklahoma City? But these were suicides. American terrorists are not suicides. This is of a different order. There's a book I need to find. Can't remember the title.
The Dallas Observer calls. They're killing my column for tomorrow. I don't know why. Maybe it's obscene to carp at City Hall on a day like this. They just tell me to write another one. I need to go downtown.
But the car is almost on empty. The police scanner is busy: The police are informing each other of all of the downtown office towers that are evacuating, causing gridlock at some intersections. Will a tower suddenly buckle to its knees here, too?
I wonder if people will jam the service stations trying to fill up their cars. I'm stuck at a light, and the thought crosses my mind that I should drive through it. But I look at the somber faces of the people parked next to me, and I know that they will see and know right away what makes me disobey the traffic light.
Nervous greed. Don't take my son. I need gas. I don't have time for the red light. I have to take care of my own. It's a visual virus: By seeing it in me, they are invaded. Best to wait. Plenty of time for panic later. The book was something about a “history of God.” I read it a couple of years ago. I bet my wife has given it away to the library. She reads so many books she has to box them up and push them out the door before they push us out.
The truckers are beginning their chorus on my CB radio: “I want some Arab ass.” “We're too friendly with those damn people.” “That's right. We give them people billions of dollars in economic aid, and they say, “Yankee, go home!'”
Downtown is already calm by the time I get there. City Hall is silent, protected by a few strategically parked police cars. On one side of the building, television trucks stand in place, a caravan at rest, poles extended and satellite dishes cupped to catch the word from on high.
A History of God. That's what it was called. I drive back to the house and check out her office. Sure enough, it's gone. I get back in the car and drive north in search of a bookstore. Maybe the bookstores will be jammed with panicked book-buyers.
It was published in 1993. The author is Karen Armstrong. But I don't know why I'm looking for this book instead of going where reporters are supposed to go, to police headquarters or out to the airport, at least to a day-care center so that I can interview the panicked parents picking up their kids:
“Your son is 2 years old. Do you feel that he is in any danger of getting drafted? He's too young? The hell with you, then. What about me, what about my son?”
It matters who did this. The president is right. We have to find them. But in another sense, it doesn't matter. No matter who did it, the Muslims in America will take the lash. The pain of this loss will flower into anger, and the anger will make us thirst for revenge.
All my life I had certain impressions of Islam, based on what, I cannot imagine. Television news reports? The people who make television news reports know less than I do, and I know nothing. Or I knew nothing until I read Armstrong's book. A former nun, she brings the clarity of good journalism and the grace of poetry to the otherwise daunting business of comparative theology. Otherwise I wouldn't have read her book.
She traces the evolution of the idea of a single all-powerful God, an uncaused cause, the prime mover, through the histories of the three major monotheistic religions, Judaism, Christianity and Islam.
It's almost as if I have seen only two things today. I saw the rose hips barely vibrating in the breeze. And now I see the World Trade Center collapsing to the ground again and again. Life goes on outside my car window. The homeless people are making their way to the shelters downtown, not because of the terrorist attack but because they have to get to the shelters by noon or go hungry for the night. The picture of life is still before me, but the frame is broken.
Today I remember three things that struck me in Armstrong's discussion of the God of Islam. The first, which I should be embarrassed not to have known, was the considerable amount of scriptural belief and teaching that Islam shares with both Judaism and Christianity. Another eye-opener was the relatively enlightened intellectual energy of early Islam, when compared with the Judaism and Christianity of the era of Muhammad in the 7th Century.
Islam, which values intellectual exploration and doesn't pretend to know the details of God's nature, was never at odds with the Enlightenment in the way the other two were, especially Christianity.
But the big shocker for me, the one element that distinguishes Islam more than any other from the other two monotheistic religions, was Muhammad's preaching of religious tolerance. The Koran teaches that God has revealed himself in different ways to different people all over the earth and that all of these faces of God are sacred:
“Do not argue with the followers of earlier revelation otherwise than in the most kindly manner–unless it be such of them as are set on evil doing–and say, “We believe in that which has been bestowed upon us, as well as that which has been bestowed upon you: for our God and your God is one and the same, and it is unto him that we all surrender ourselves.”
Every time I leave the house, I have to consider that my world could crumble into the ground exactly the same way the world of those people in New York and Washington did today, the people on the planes that crashed, all of them: We are no safer here, no more worthy of protection or survival than they were. I don't know what will happen. At one point during the morning, I review with my son how to load the shotgun and take off the safety. He already knows. This is my bow to pragmatism. Death is not at the door, but it's down the street.
When I get home with my book, my wife has left to take flowers to the church for a memorial service. Propped against the door, waiting for me to go out on the roof and put it up, is our somewhat bedraggled American flag, gray with the dust of at least 20 Fourths of July.
I want to know something about the patriotism of the days ahead: Huge swaths of suburban Dallas are occupied by Islamic immigrants, from the Middle East, Eastern Europe and Africa. They work hard, run businesses, pay taxes, send kids to school. They bring seriousness of purpose and the dignity of cherished traditions to our messy space station on the prairie. So does the patriotism have to mean we turn on them, make them the other, cloak them in our darkest superstitions?
Like all religions, Islam has taken turns and twists since the time of its principal prophet. People tend to warp religious beliefs in ways that suit their self-interests. I hear on National Public Radio that Arabs in Palestine are greeting the news of the bombings with joy and handing out candy to children in celebration. That doesn't mean it's true or that this is by any means the whole story, even if NPR says it is. That's an easy story to tell on this day.
But if there is someone somewhere who believes that Muhammad would have approved of this carnage, then that person has deformed the entire Koran into a collection of truly satanic verses. But that person and that mental deformity are the enemy. Not Islam.
We're at war. War exacts an awful pragmatism. It wants our freedoms and our luxuries. It wants our sons and daughters. It may want our lives. And the burden of reality is that the American way of life is worth all of those sacrifices and more.
But war doesn't have to make us small or mean. It doesn't have to turn us into bigots. We can hate evil without becoming hateful. To fight evil, we don't have to be evil.