[Easy Chair] Death Valley, By Hari Kunzru | Harper's Magazine

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[Easy Chair]

Death Valley

Adjust

On the morning of September 11, 2001, I was asleep in my room at the Beverly Laurel Motor Hotel near West Hollywood. I’d just come to the end of a six-week road trip down the West Coast, intended partly as research, but mainly as a gift to myself. After years of work, I’d sold a novel for a lot of money. I’d rented a ridiculous little Japanese convertible; it had seemed cool at first but its novelty had worn off. It was cramped and uncomfortable and attracted cops, and now it was sitting in the motel lot, coated with freeway dirt. I’d been in L.A. for a week or so, hanging out with some friends of friends, and I’d had a good time, but I was ready to go back to London.

The phone rang. It was one of my new L.A. friends. She told me to turn on the TV.

Twenty years is a long time, and the images have been repeated so often that I’m suspicious of my memory. What did I see and know then, and what did I find out later? I remember the North Tower burning, the anchors speculating about a commercial airliner gone accidentally off course. Then, as I watched, the second plane hit the South Tower. It must have been early in Los Angeles; 9:03 am New York time means it was 6:03 am for me. Maybe what I saw was a replay. I don’t remember how long we stayed on the phone. I know that a couple of hours later I went to the diner downstairs and ate breakfast. By then, I’d watched the South Tower collapse. People were jumping from the North Tower. The anchors didn’t know how to talk about it. The news reports were relentless, disorienting. A plane hit the Pentagon. Another crashed in a field. Lower Manhattan was being evacuated. Then the North Tower too collapsed.

I sat at the counter, spooning something into my mouth, and listened to a group of men speculate about what had happened. The diner was popular with Hollywood hipsters, which in 2001 meant trucker hats, Hawaiian shirts, and orange-tinted sunglasses—ironic sartorial nods to the cocaine Seventies. It was obvious, apparently, that we would be next. If they hit New York, they were definitely going to hit L.A. But where? No one could think of a target. The Hollywood sign? The Getty Museum? They decided the most likely spot was the Capitol Records Building.

Years later, I would sit in a cinema in Santa Monica and watch as an enormous CGI tsunami hit the beach just outside, destroying everything, including the building I was in, the real and the virtual fusing in a single heady moment. There was something similarly disturbing about the tone of the discussion at the diner, a thirst for the images on the screen above the counter to come down and occupy our reality. It was as if a big movie were in production, and once again these out-of-work actors hadn’t been cast.

I went back to my room and sat on hold with the airline. American airspace had been closed indefinitely. Eight days at the earliest, sir, the woman told me. Probably longer than that. I phoned the rental company. I would still need to give the car back in the morning, or go in and sign another agreement.

I have little memory of how I spent the rest of the day. I know I drove to a newsstand on Sunset to buy a paper, only to find it sold out. People were displaying American flags, trailing them out of car windows, waving them on street corners. I had the car radio tuned to a rock station. “This one goes out to all you ragheads!” screamed the host, cueing the stomping opening drum break of Queen’s “We Will Rock You.” The anger was palpable, and already there was a consensus about who was responsible.

The next morning I drove to the airport to give back the convertible. Police cars were blocking the freeway on-ramps, but I had a foldout paper map, and I figured I could find my way on surface streets. I must have made a wrong turn, though, because I hit the airport far away from the terminals. I could see aircraft parked behind a chain-link fence, but I wasn’t sure which way to go. This is how, on one of the tensest days in American history, a dark-skinned young man with a full beard came to be driving a dirty white convertible with out-of-state plates very slowly around the perimeter of LAX.

It’s hard to think back to those first few days after the attacks, that particular hair-trigger psychological state we existed in. The only thing anyone could agree on was that the world had changed: 9/11 was an epistemological event. At a stroke it removed all certainty, and people reacted in all the ways people do when that happens.

As soon as they’d pulled me over, the two police officers got out of the car. I noticed, with the dissociation that comes when something is happening in reality that you’ve seen many times onscreen, that they had their weapons drawn. I sat very still, my hands on the wheel. They kept a wide space between them as they approached.

On my drive I had frequently been reminded of my English accent. People, particularly rural people, often pointed it out, and sometimes asked me to repeat words, just for fun. “What seems to be the trouble, officer?” I asked now, trying to infuse my voice with as much Jeeves-and-Wooster charm as I could. Almost at once, the cops lowered their weapons. I didn’t talk like an Arab. I wasn’t a threat, just a fool, a clueless tourist who didn’t have the common sense not to screw around near an airport during a national emergency.

The magic power of my accent would last only a few more months. That December, a young English plane passenger would try to detonate a bomb built into the sole of one of his hiking boots. Ever since then, we have shuffled through airports in our socks, and the U.K. has produced enough jihadis that English accents no longer protect brown-skinned men from extra scrutiny by law enforcement and immigration officials. But in September 2001, my voice sounded the old way, the quaint way. The police officers gave me directions and I drove off. I swapped the dirty convertible for a sensible, anonymous sedan, and tried not to think about how close I’d come to getting shot.

After that, I didn’t want to be in L.A. any longer. This was less because of the encounter with the police than the mood of the people around me, the sense of intense unfocused anger looking for an outlet. I didn’t feel angry so much as horrified and numb. I needed to be on my own, so I drove out into the Mojave Desert. I have always found deserts clarifying—their harshness, their simplicity, their inhuman scale. Driving to Death Valley was, I understand, an overly literal response to what had happened, but it did me good to be away from rolling news, from the same images repeated over and over, the plane entering the right of the frame, the orange burst of its impact, the people jumping, falling against the vertical stripes of the building’s facade.

Later I would see documentary footage of firefighters in the lobby of the North Tower. They flinched at irregular crashing sounds, heavy weights falling onto the canopy outside. It was the sound that would haunt me for a while after that, the thump of bodies hitting the canopy. Whenever I imagine the horror of being in the World Trade Center on that morning, these awful sounds are part of it. This is another way memory plays tricks on us. At the time, there was so little information about what had happened. There was nothing visceral, nothing concrete, just images of dazed people covered in pale-gray dust, walking uptown. I think it took years for me to piece together a narrative. At the time, all I knew was that there had been a huge loss of life, and now there would be war.

I walked across a salt flat and picked my way around the ruins of a ghost town, one of many dead white places defined by the absence of people. I hiked through sand dunes, ripples perfectly sculpted by the wind, crisscrossed by rattlesnake tracks, until my brain began to feel as if it were cooking inside my skull. I remember only one encounter from my time in the desert. I was drinking a beer, watching the towers falling on a screen above a bar. A man sitting a couple of stools down offered the unsolicited opinion that the Jews were behind it. The whole thing was cooked up, he said. I told him I didn’t think that was true, and we argued. He asked me if I was a Jew.

By the time I moved to New York in 2008, 9/11 conspiracy theories had blossomed. The internet was riddled with discussions of controlled demolitions and holograms and whether jet fuel could melt steel beams. On the seventh anniversary of the attacks, I went down to what was now known as Ground Zero and watched people who were now known as 9/11 Truthers arguing with other New Yorkers. A man with a placard got into a shouting match with a man in a firefighter’s dress uniform who was almost weeping with rage. In 2011, I went there again, on the night President Obama announced that Osama bin Laden had been killed. The atmosphere was confused and brittle. Some people stood with candles, praying for the dead. Others partied and waved flags. I took a photograph of some young men who had climbed a lamppost and were spraying the crowd with champagne.

In 2001, four days after the attacks, I drove to Las Vegas, covered in sand. I had sand in my shoes, in my pockets, in the turnups of my trousers. The signage on the Strip displayed patriotic messages: caesars palace: one nation under god, next to a billboard advertising Siegfried and Roy at the Mirage. Vegas had remade itself from the swinging Ocean’s 11 city into a sort of microcosm of the world, or at least its picture-postcard essence. You could ride a monorail or stand on a moving walkway and travel from Paris to the Caribbean, or back in time to ancient Egypt. On one side of the strip stood the New York–New York casino, its frontage styled to look like the Manhattan skyline. It had become a site of mourning. People had attached things to the railings: fireman’s helmets, flowers, children’s paintings and poetry. Across the street was the Aladdin, where the slots were arranged under a giant golden oil lamp, and you could shop at the Desert Passage mall, an Arabian Nights–themed souk lined with restaurants and rug shops. It was completely empty.

I don’t really gamble, and I wasn’t in the mood for the other kinds of entertainment Las Vegas offers. I spent two days walking around, mostly inside, putting on the miles up and down the Strip, occasionally playing the slots or buying food, but mostly trudging onward, as day turned to night on the simulated skies. People were doing ordinary things. I watched a bride and groom get ferried up and down a stretch of Venetian canal by a singing gondolier. Families posed for pictures, or grazed at the gigantic buffets. I heard that someone had shot dead the Sikh owner of a gas station in Arizona, mistaking him for a Muslim. Somewhere on my journey, I saw a Sikh family—parents, children, and grandparents—hovering uneasily by a concession stand. They were obviously terrified. The grandfather had a flag in his turban and another in his shirt pocket. Each of the children had been given one to carry.

Las Vegas is not designed for seriousness, let alone grief. The very architecture of the Strip—the absence of windows, the accelerated day-night cycle of those cloud-flecked ceilings—is meant to induce forgetting, to help you live in the moment. So there was something awkward about the public displays of patriotism and faith. I spent a long time in front of a Chanel boutique, where an expression of condolence had been printed out and displayed in the luxury brand’s distinctive corporate font, inadvertently giving it the appearance of an advertising slogan: at times like this, we all feel american.

I soon headed back into the desert, sitting on hold with the airline in various cheap motel rooms. A week or so later, I secured a seat on a flight back to London. I made it home, but of course part of the change wrought by 9/11 was that there was no home to go back to, no place sheltered from the consequences of that day. A new normal came down like a giant shutter over the old. We now remember the period between the fall of the Berlin Wall and 9/11 as a time when people (at least people who lived in large global cities, and didn’t pay much attention to the Balkans, or Rwanda) could imagine that they were at the end of history, that all that remained of the age of ideology were a few skirmishes, before the advent of a pure capitalist technocracy. Instead, we had fifteen years of the idiocy of the “Clash of Civilizations,” and a ruthless binary logic reinforced by the Bush Administration’s disastrous decision to go to war in Iraq, almost guaranteeing that the widely supported fight to avenge the victims of 9/11 would turn into a quagmire.

In early November 2001, I flew to New York to start a prepublication book tour. The city was still papered in missing person flyers. On my first evening, I walked downtown from my hotel and stood on a street corner, watching the rubble being cleared from the floodlit World Trade Center site. I saw a single angled shard of one of the towers still standing, the distinctive scorched lattice that has become part of the iconography of 9/11. I was not the only person spending the evening there. Every vantage point was occupied, each observer keeping a discreet distance from the others, all quietly thinking their thoughts. Everyone seemed to have come alone. Nearby, a Chinese woman had set up a stall selling 9/11 commemorative merchandise, the first I had ever seen. I stayed on the corner until I began to shiver in the cold, and then made my way back uptown.

That book tour was grim. Checking in for each flight, I was handed a boarding card printed with a row of S’s, which meant that I had been “randomly selected” for extra screening. The private companies responsible for airport security had yet to hand the job over to the newly created TSA, and nobody knew the protocols. Everyone—passengers, cabin crew, ground staff—was managing high levels of stress. I was sitting at the gate at Dulles, reading a book, when I was surrounded by security staff and taken away, in full view of the other people about to board my flight. After I’d been thoroughly searched, I was delivered back to the plane, just before they closed the doors. The walk down the aisle, the looks of fear and hostility from the other passengers, is seared into my memory.

What happened on 9/11 took place at greater-than-human scale. Each of us has only our single window onto it, through which we peer and try to understand. My unpleasant walk down the aisle is just one in a chain of memories from twenty years of the war on terror. I remember the 7/7 attacks in London, when terrorists blew up tube carriages and a bus, and the police shot dead an innocent Brazilian man at Stockwell station. For weeks afterward, I would make eye contact with other dark-skinned men as I sat on the tube, each of us carrying our possessions in plastic shopping bags rather than backpacks like the bombers had used. I remember marching against the Iraq War, and feeling despair as it went ahead. I remember hearing a motorcycle backfire as I sat on a café terrace in Paris, and instinctively ducking under the table, as did dozens of other people. I remember a beat of silence as we all recovered ourselves, and got back to drinking and conversation. Everyone has such memories, of days haloed by an aura of fear. Everyone has their own version of the phone ringing in my motel room, the voice telling me to turn on the TV.


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