This is PJ O’Rourke’s account of his day in Washington when the planes came down and the world changed.

Of course that was absurd, as if the terrorists had thought: “Trade towers, Pentagon, and the nice address on Connecticut Avenue with the quiet two bedrooms in the back.” But by noon all the children in the building had been gathered home from school or daycare and were playing in the empty half-oval. Daddies and mummies hovered.

The barricaded driveway was absurd if you could keep from misting up. “Better to do something,” said Debbie.

Damon unlocked the door to the building’s roof. We could see the Pentagon on fire across the Potomac. “It makes me angry, scared, sad all at once,” said Damon. According to the theory of terrorism, it was supposed to make him paralysed with terror.

The traffic on Connecticut Avenue was coming from downtown as if it were the evening rush hour. But there was none of the accustomed honking at the District of Columbia’s unsequenced and haphazardly-placed stoplights.

Downtown the cars were gone and the stores were closed. Police officers stood in ones and twos. At the corner of 14th and Constitution a policeman set out flares to block the street. He took the plastic caps off and tossed them aside with a decisive gesture of suspending minor public mores in a crisis.

A young man on a bicycle stopped at the kerb and said to me: “At least the grocery stores are open, but the trucks can’t get to the stores. If it’s going to be a big international war, I’ll just fast.”

The grass expanse in the middle of Washington’s Mall was deserted except for the homeless. Like everyone, they seemed subdued, although the next day I would see a ragged man in the middle of the street, shouting: “I’ll kill all of you people.” No one, including the soldiers who were by then everywhere in Washington, paid attention.

Michele Lieber, a Congressional lobbyist who lives in my building, had come downtown with me. For the first time in 13 years in Washington I saw no protesters. They didn’t come back on Wednesday.

A reopened Lafayette Park, across from the White House, would exhibit only an old woman who has been holding a “White House Anti-Nuclear Peace Vigil since 1981” and a middle-aged hippie on a similar anti-nuclear sleep-out “since 1984”. The old woman was talking mostly to herself. “They provoked what happened,” she said. The hippie was discussing his pet squirrel with two adolescent girls.

Michele, on her mobile phone, was trying to call friends in New York. She kept getting a recorded message: “Due to the tornado your call cannot go through.”

Michele and I walked across Capitol Hill. On Massachusetts we met a Senate staffer whom Michele knew. He was jogging. “It was a little hairy when they told us to evacuate,” he said. “Then I saw our F16s fly over.”

A staffer from the Republican National Committee said: “We just have to quit being Americans for a little while. Forget about carrying our Constitution to people who don’t give a rat’s ass.”

We met another Senate staffer, trying to get his car out of a parking lot inside the police cordon around the Capitol. The four of us walked to the Dubliner bar on North Capitol.

“The Congressional leadership,” said the second staffer, “has been whisked off to ‘an undisclosed location’. As far as I’m concerned they can keep most of them there,” which touches on another theory of terrorism, that the organisation of society can be attacked by striking organisations; that we can’t organise things ourselves.

“Four Guinnesses,” said the first senate staffer to the bartender. “Time to take sides,” said the second staffer. “Time to turn sand into glass,” said the first.

From the Dubliner we took a cab to the Palm restaurant on 19th Street. The bar and the dining room were full. President Bush came on television at 8.30. Everyone has seen, in movies, a restaurant go quiet.

I had never before, in reality, heard all noise from plates and silverware cease. The customers and staff applauded when the President said: “We will make no distinction between the people who committed these acts and the people who harbour them.”

Jocelyn Zarr, the Palm’s assistant general manager, said: “As I was driving in to open for lunch, all the traffic was going the other way. Ten minutes after the Pentagon was hit I was getting reservations. I’m thinking: ‘Aren’t these people watching the news?’

But they were. They just wanted to be with other people. I told the staff that if anyone wanted to go home, just go. No one did. People were streaming in. Everyone wanted to come and sit at the bar and talk. A friend called and said: ‘You shouldn’t be working when 12,000 people died.’ But what else am I going to do?”

On Monday night, I had finished a magazine article on international political follies of one kind and another. On Tuesday I didn’t want to publish it. The article wasn’t serious enough. I was thinking that after today things will never be the same. Lines from W. H. Auden’s poem “September 1, 1939” kept coming to mind:

Waves of anger and fear

Circulate over the bright

And darkened lands of the earth,

By Wednesday, I realised I’d never known what Auden was getting at with that poem, except, perhaps, in: “As the clever hopes expire / Of a low dishonest decade.” Apt enough, but . . .

Where blind skyscrapers use

Their full height to proclaim

The strength of Collective Man,

What’s that crap? Or this:

Ironic points of light

Flash out whenever the Just

Exchange their messages

Anyway, Auden went on to repudiate the poem, mostly because of the fatuous line: “We must love one another or die.” Or just die. And neither agape nor eros is a propitiate response to the fanaticism of the terrorist Osama bin Laden. Also, Auden was the Englishman who, when the Second World War loomed, acted as Adolf Hitler would have Englishmen act and ran to America and stayed there.

Peter Fray

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