Year Zero

I Didn't See Terror

by Jonathan Wallace

September 24, 2001

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First an explanation, perhaps an apology. In almost every essay, I reiterate "I was there!" until it sounds boastful. Am I working it? I think the opposite: it is working me. Primo Levi said there were two types of Holocaust survivors, those who are silent and those who can't stop talking. I would have been one of the chattering ones.

The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language, Fourth Edition, defines terror as "intense, overpowering fear". But under the World Trade Center on that Tuesday morning, I didn't see any of that.

When I came up the subway stairs to Church Street, I saw one of the towers burning. A few people were running, but probably most of the crowd was doing what I was doing: staring in astonishment. A moment later--it was probably less than a minute--there was another explosion, and most of the rest of us started to run.

A few women were crying, but it was calm and reflective crying, the kind that doesn't stop you from functioning. That crowd of people was not a mob. I heard no screaming. No-one fell down and thrashed, or ran into walls, or trampled anyone else.

I think that everyone I saw was doing what I did: trying to assimilate information and formulate a response. From the moment I walked up the subway stairs, my thought process was something like this: the World Trade Center is burning; it must be terrorism, they came back and finished the job they failed to do in '93; that was an explosion, there are incoming missiles or mortar rounds, I'd better get out of here; I want to stay above-ground; I'm going to head for the Brooklyn Bridge. During those crucial minutes, I was frightened, but constantly making decisions: to stay in the middle of the street, in case there was falling masonry; not to go down into a subway entrance, though other people were. We also know that during those minutes, hundreds or thousands of people helped others, called loved ones to communicate something important, and did a lot of other things reflecting calm choices rather than loss of control and unreasoning terror.

On a beautiful Spring day in June, 1979, I was in a post office in the rue Lourmel, Paris, sending a telegram to my parents, when six ski-masked men with semiautomatic weapons entered, to take the pension money which had just been delivered. They may have been terrorists--we never found out who they were--but that time also there was no terror; we all moved across the room to the far wall, squatted and turned our bodies at an angle to the gunmen, to present the smallest possible target. Afterwards, I asked myself, how did I know to do that? Was it innate? Did I figure it out on the spot? Did I see someone else do it and imitate him? I don't know the answer, any more than I understand the process by which I decided to run for the Brooklyn Bridge, stay in the middle of the street, and avoid the Municipal Building.

I have a theory, though. We spent millions of years living on the plains and in caves, alert for predators animal and human, constantly evaluating every landscape for threats and opportunities. We have spent a few hundred years, at most, with a sustained illusion of safety. I wouldn't go back in the subway, and I stayed in the middle of Chambers Street, because I am a plains animal, and don't feel safe in confined areas or up against walls.

I think what I learned in the rue Lourmel post office helped at the World Trade Center. I analyzed public spaces for ways to retreat and places to hide. I never expected an incident so big that lower Manhattan would be the room I wanted to escape, but the methodology learned in the post office scaled nicely to the experience of Tuesday morning, September 11.

The biology of fear, and its place in our evolutionary background, is well understood. In moments of terrible threat, flooded by adrenaline and cortisol, we become highly functional self-preservation machines. Fear helps us counter threats, while terror disables us, interfering with survival. Running down Chambers Street, I was very scared but very clear, and so was everyone I saw.

It is possible that terror sets in only when there is an absence of choices. But the poignant evidence we acquired that Tuesday morning contradicts even this. According to psychologists who have studied human behavior in extremis, people with raging flames at their back jumped from the towers, not because they were seized by blind panic, but because they had the opportunity to make a final choice, to curve away into the crystalline air, to breathe and fly free for a moment, rather than burning up. I believe I would do the same.

Cell phones allowed people on the planes and in the towers to report their own impending deaths. Information that otherwise would have been lost was communicated from beyond the event horizon of the black hole the terrorists created. And the calls reported to us were largely sad but calm. People called their wives, siblings and parents to say goodbye, to tell them to take care of other loved ones, to tell them where the will was.

For a long time I imagined that most humans are cowards. But the image of people cowering and begging for their lives, or writhing on the floor in panic, is lifted not from life but from the movies, and in fact from movies of a particularly sadistic tinge, movies shot from the killer's viewpoint, and in which he is the only one who has control. Life is more slippery in most respects than we anticipate, and even terrorists are prey to the law of unintended consequences. The name "terrorism" is a form of marketing, but the product doesn't work as advertised.