Awe and Anxiety
Mark C. Taylor

Crossing the police barricade at Canal Street and walking past the courthouses and city hall toward Ground Zero, you enter an uncanny world that is both completely familiar and totally strange. Though street signs and landmarks remain unchanged, axes of orientation no longer line up as they once did. It is not just the absence of people and traffic or the haunting silence; something else, something palpable yet far more difficult to articulate is loose on the streets.

I crossed that barrier with my son, Aaron, who had been in the World Financial Center at the time of the attack. He was not injured but while escaping had images seared in his mind that will change him forever. I felt it was important for him to return to the scene of terror and knew he should not go alone the first time.

As we turned the corner on Broadway at St. Paul’s Chapel, we caught our first glimpse of the American Express Building through the lingering smoke. We both froze instantly. Standing but a stone’s throw away, the floors where Aaron had been working looked like they had suffered repeated mortar attacks. Between us and the WFC, the twin towers once stood. Now their absence had become an overwhelming presence.

A few blocks farther on, there was an opening through which we could see the true scope of the devastation. With dusk falling, bright lights illuminated a scene that was both profoundly unsettling and disturbingly sublime—like an otherworldly sculpture by some unknown artist. A small crowd had gathered and was gazing at the ruins in stunned silence.

We have repeatedly heard that TV cannot do justice to the scene and that is right. It is not merely that our screens are too small and camera angles too limited; rather, the reality confronting us is not only visual but, more importantly, visceral. There is only one word I know to describe the response to what we saw: awe. A strange religious atmosphere pervades Ground Zero. There has been much talk about the role of religion in this conflict but very little understanding of what religion—either our own or the religions of others—involves. There are, of course, many gods and many faces of gods believed to be one. While religion often gives people a sense of meaning and purpose in times of personal and social crisis, its symbols, stories and rituals also carry people to the edge of life where unmasterable power always threatens to erupt. Religion is associated as much with terror and anxiety as with love and peace. For a few brief moments on September 11th, the veneer of security was torn to reveal a primordial vulnerability that neither defense departments nor advanced technologies can overcome. The encounter with this awesome power is a religious experience that leaves nothing unchanged.

I don’t know how long we lingered—in this realm, time stands still. Eventually, we roamed up Broadway past Trinity Church, whose graveyard is more haunting than ever, to the Wall Street subway station. Descending underground, awe gave way to anxiety. For over a century, philosophers have been telling us that anxiety is more distressing than fear. In contrast to fear, whose object is always specific and thus manageable, anxiety is provoked by something so indeterminate that it cannot be precisely defined or located. Anxiety is a response to what is there but not there, everywhere but nowhere—precisely like the webs and networks of terror, which now hold us in their grip. Individually and collectively we sense the danger of things slipping out of control and are not sure how or where to respond. Waiting for the train in silence, anxiety settled as thick as the dust enveloping us.

The anxiety circulating above and below ground in New York brings into focus an unease that has been growing as we find ourselves increasingly entangled in complex technological and financial networks that make global terrorism possible. With information and money racing around the world at the speed of light, we are no longer sure who—if anyone—is in control. The terrorists’ networks shadow and mime the structure and operation of the World Wide Web as well as global communications and financial systems. They have been more effective in turning our technologies against us than we have been in using our technologies against them. We will not be able to cope with terrorist networks until we better understand the logic and operation of our own networks. In these tangled webs and networks, the boundary between us and them, inside and outside, for and against is neither fixed nor secure but remains forever fluid, mobile and shifty.

In this moment of unprecedented complexity when things are changing faster than our ability to comprehend them, we must resist the temptation of resorting to simple answers. The very networks that have led to our military and economic superiority during the past decade render us vulnerable. Our strength has become our weakness. The eruption of the aweful power to which we have been exposed forces us to face an unavoidable question: Can we now humbly accept our vulnerability by opening ourselves to help from others—both within and beyond borders we now know are insecure—without whom we cannot survive? If any hope remains, it is that our weakness might become a source of strength.

As we ascended from the subway to the growing darkness of uptown, I realized that our pilgrimage had not erased Aaron’s scars; nothing ever will. In this difficult time, we must not seek premature closure, but should linger with the wound to learn the profound lessons it harbors.

Mark C. Taylor is Professor of Religion at Williams College and author of Grave Matters (Reaktion, 2002), The Moment of Complexity: Emerging Network Culture (University of Chicago Press, 2002), and About Religion: Economies of Faith in Virtual Culture (University of Chicago Press, 1999). This essay first appeared in somewhat different form in the Los Angeles Times on September 28, 2001.


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Return to The Days After, essays written in the aftermath of September 11, 2001, from the University of Chicago Press.