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Burning House Graphic

The world has changed. Things will never be the same.

Right now we are awash in a sea of 9/11 cliché. Nabokov spoke of art and literature as the war against cliché. And Kundera wrote that resistance to cliché is what distinguishes art from life.

I think that what has changed is that a sense of dread has been reawakened in our imaginations, a dread that had dissipated and gone dormant with the dissolution of the Soviet Union and the end of the cold war. That old nuclear dread had become familiar, over the decades, abstract and unreal. Academic. Unimaginable.

This new dread has the sharp tang of reality to it. It is all too imaginable — all too imaginable that a dirty bomb will be exploded some day or year in the near future, and one of the great cities of the West, New York or London or Paris, will be rendered uninhabitable for thousands of years and we will find ourselves living, in Don DeLillo’s memorable phrase, in the “ruins of the future.”

“Today, again, the world narrative belongs to terrorists . . . . We are rich, privileged and strong, but they are willing to die. This is the edge they have, the fire of aggrieved belief. . . . Two forces in the world, past and future. With the end of communism, the ideas and principles of modern democracy were seen clearly to prevail, whatever the inequalities of the system itself. . . . But now there is a global theocratic state, unboundaried and floating and so obsolete it must depend on suicidal fervor to gain its aims. Ideas evolve and devolve, and history is turned on end.” don delillo, “in the ruins of the future”

I imagine, too, that we will learn to live with this dread, that in fact we are already doing so, that this dread will become as familiar to us as the old cold war nuclear dread, at least until the next Event, the one that obliterates 9/11 as the mother of all events, and becomes our new benchmark of terror. Imagining what that event will be, and what the world will be like for my seven-year-old daughter, is what haunts my day dreams and keeps me awake at night.

The world is a burning house, and a door has been opened in that house that will never be closed.

I am a Buddhist. But Buddhism has, alas, no good answer for genocide and mass murder, no self-defense against slaughter but unrequited compassion and acceptance. History is littered with vanished Buddhist kingdoms, put to the sword by (ironically, often Islamic) conquerors, for whom violence was not only a way of life but a divine imperative. History, hell. China has been grinding Tibet to dust for half a century now, and Tibet will be only a memory in another generation or two. Clichés like What goes around comes around, You reap what you sow, An eye for an eye makes the whole world blind, and Love is the most powerful weapon of all are cold comfort to the citizens of Sarajevo suffering under the Serb siege, Tutsis being hacked to death by Hutu machetes, or the victims of 9/11 — and touch the perpetrators not at all.

I am also by temperament a pessimist. War with Iraq is coming. To quote Baudrillard once more: “What the terrorists achieved in the attack on Manhattan . . . provides a good illustration of chaos theory: an initial shock provoking unforeseeable consequences.” The new war will undoubtedly also provide us with another nifty example of chaos theory. What the CIA calls Blowback. And how well we will weather the consequences remains to be seen. It’s been suggested that Saddam already has in place a Dead Man’s Switch: as his regime is destroyed, in his final act, to seal his place in the pantheon of murderers of millions, alongside Hitler, Mao, and Stalin, he finally triggers his weapons of mass destruction, launching bio-chemical missiles at Israel, decimating the Kurds in his own country, and detonating dirty bombs in the West.

There’s psychological evidence that a realistic view of the world and depression are linked; that the depressed tend to be more realistic in their assessment of life — or perhaps, that looking at the world realistically leads inevitably to depression, and that a certain amount of denial is essential to maintaining a positive, optimistic outlook on life. So as we commence World War IV, as we learn to live in the ruins of the future, engaged in a perpetual Orwellian conflict against Islamic fascism, terror, and the wretched of the earth — here’s to denial, the triumph of optimism over the “paranoid” imagination — and the never-ending war against cliché. End of Article

Eric Overmyer ’73 is co-executive producer of the award-winning television show Law & Order. He is also a celebrated New York City–based playwright with Emmy and Writer’s Guild nominations for his work in film, theater, and television. Overmyer spoke about the “Great Nuance Crisis” at Reed’s 1995 commencement

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