Since terrorists hijacked four planes last week, leaving in their wake a ruinous landscape of jagged steel and crumpled bodies, there has been much talk of how America has lost its innocence.
But, against the backdrop of Columbine, gang violence and disintegrating family values, "innocence" does not seem the correct term.
More appropriate, I think, is that America's sense of decadence has been shattered. Gone is that warm unreality of being shielded by the sheer fact of our "superpower."
In short, we have been made to feel like the rest of the world. This is not a good feeling.
My eyes now snap open every time an ambulance screams by the window of my D.C. apartment building.
Yesterday, I spotted a throng of people hurrying through the streets. Another bomb threat? My eyes darted over them. They are carrying programs. OK, the opera just let out. Last night, my entire body tensed when I was awakened by a low-level mechanical hum. I immediately thought it to be a single-engine aircraft - the sort that crashed onto the White House lawn in 1994 or similar to one that a 19-year-old German man landed in the center of Red Square in 1987. After a moment, I realized it was just a moped zipping by on the sidewalk.
Life has ceased to be neat, plausible and regular. And so there is no neat, plausible way to gain perspective. How do we understand the sudden death of thousands? All encompassing phrases like "the healing process" seem horribly disconnected.
This is my only perspective: a feeling so intolerably somber that it is felt physically. I have not been to the gym since the attack. My flesh feels weighty and sagging. It can be difficult to get out of bed, to, in effect, detach and move forward. Yet, I cannot stop scanning the papers, absorbing the stories. Compulsively I come back, like a child learning the concept of death, then arriving at the stunning revelation - but I want to live.
I want my way of life back. I want to be able to feel the lightness of my being again. I want to go to the gym or tell jokes and not feel ashamed for laughing too loud.
I want revenge.
At the same time, though, I worry about the people of Afghanistan - the poor farmers trying to work through another drought, unsure or unaware of the enormity of what just happened. These people are ruled over by a small group of fanatics. They have no freedom of press. I recall a recent report on NPR, in which an Afghan farmer explained that he knew only that a building had fallen in New York, and that now the United States has targeted his country for military strikes. The farmer's voice quivered with fear.
I feel sad that countless lives may now be blotted out - "collateral damage" it is being called - as the United States targets the Taliban, a small ruling faction in Afghanistan that has aided and sheltered terrorist.
I am further saddened by the dark knowledge that our country helped empower these terrorists, feeding them weapons and money so that they could stave off Russian invasion. Like Saddam Hussein, the Shah of Iran and Manuel Noreiga, Osama bin Laden was trained and assisted by the United States. The policy is called "triangulation," or making friends with the most plausible threat to your enemy.
The short-term benefits have been to help topple threatening governments. The long-term implications have been to empower radical groups that share none of our own cultural values.
Once again, the United States is poised to prop up a rebel alliance in Afghanistan. The immediate hope is that they can overthrow the Taliban.
This will no doubt bring us comfort. However, if we are to prevent future attacks by fanatics so hateful of western values that they are willing to exchange their own lives for ours, we must remain deeply sensible about the long-term implications.