The Villain

SEP 23, 2001

In 1993, I wrote a New York Times Op-Ed article about the bombing of the World Trade Center that occurred that year. Writing then, I offered the readers the mind’s eye of an anonymous conspirator watching from a safe house in Queens or New Jersey, praying for the explosion, knowing it was God’s will. Those towers thrusting so immodestly more than a thousand feet in the air, I wrote, must have mocked his passionate intensity.

I was thinking of ‘‘The Second Coming,’’ by Yeats, the chilling prophetic dream of ‘‘mere anarchy’’ loosed on the world. ‘‘The best lack all conviction,’’ Yeats wrote, ‘‘while the worst are filled with passionate intensity.’’

A dozen or so individuals as human as we fly planes full of doomed, terrified people into the Pentagon and the World Trade Center, a teeming city in the air. Are they moral monsters? Are they really the worst, driven by sheer evil?

Though we are being judged, despite our grief and loss, we cannot really judge. We are steeped in relativism, as confined by our narrative as the murderers are confined by theirs. History is a story we have accepted; our lives are the stories we tell ourselves about the experience of life.

In the Middle East, where the gods were born, the ancient narratives are glorified again. After the 1967 war, for example, Jewish settlers awaiting the Messiah founded settlements among their ancestral stones, risking their lives, ready to kill and to die in the name of a sacred narrative, soon to be vindicated.

So in the Muslim world the sacred historical destiny of Islam is reasserted. The will of God is to be done on earth. One narrative contained in the Koran speaks of the people of Ad. ‘‘Their sin is arrogance,’’ the book says. The people of Ad rely on their power and their material wealth to prevail in the world. ‘‘They will be brought low.’’

The unreality we experienced on Sept. 11 was of something fictive. We witnessed, in the elemental horror that our conscious minds denied, the violent assault of one narrative system upon another. People deeply enclosed in their sanctified worldviews were carrying out what they experienced as a sacred command to annihilate the Other.

The expressions from Washington are nothing surprising — assurances of ‘‘resolve’’ and retribution. But in various ways, our internal narrative, our social and political foundations, circumscribe our capacity for revenge. The internal narrative of our enemies, their absolute ruthless devotion to an invisible world, makes them strong. Our system, too, is a state of mind. We need to find in it the elements that will serve our actual survival.

The power of narrative is shattering, overwhelming. We are the stories we believe; we are who we believe we are. All the reasoning of the world cannot set us free from our mythic systems. We live and die by them.

Copyright 2001 The New York Times Company