On the September 11 broadcast of NY1 News, an anchorwoman described the wreckage witnessed by rescue workers as "a world they could only imagine in the movies." It was a sentiment recounted throughout the hours and days following the attack: An eyewitness told The New York Times "it was like a movie." Historian David McCullough warned columnist Maureen Dowd, "This isn't the Titanic movie. It's real." As people tried to represent and analyze what had happened, movies became the dominant metaphor.

Part of the reason movies continually come to mind while contemplating this tragedy is that the destruction of skyscrapers and landmarks at the hands of terrorists is part of the modern iconography of the Hollywood action movie--in adaptations of Tom Clancy novels, in the blockbuster Independence Day (although in that case the terrorists are space aliens). The scene of destruction that unfolded last week in Manhattan has unfolded in the collective popular imagination many times. When kids play video games at the arcade, very often they are swooping in and blowing up buildings. When the building blows up, bonus rounds are played--eventually a kid tires of blasting everyone to oblivion and goes to get a hot dog. When the game is reactivated, the building appears whole again, without a scratch.

We have watched these scenes so many times we think we recognize them. The plane speeds toward the tower in the middle of a clear blue day, and we think it must be a trick--something orchestrated for our entertainment. If one lives long enough in a world of terrible stories, when truly terrible reality arrives, at first it looks exactly like fiction. One hopes the credits will start to roll, and some sign will appear that this is only a fantasy born out of a culture that perpetually dreams violent dreams.

What does it mean when, in a paralyzing time of violence, people talk about the world looking like a movie? What kind of alienation is this movie-world a symptom of? When the world appears to be happening on a screen instead of in three dimensions, it means the world has become too much for people. They cannot comprehend the magnitude of these events, they cannot integrate them into their lives, they feel like this is happening in front of them, but not inside them. It is a way of trying to distance oneself from the darkness of the world, to keep it from entering the soul. In this way it's a form of self-defense.

At my house on the evening of September 11, we were finally starting to understand that this had really happened, that it was not going to end, that we were not going to be let out of this story by a flashing "Game Over" sign. My brother-in-law Jonathan came over for dinner. Jonathan's an ex-Navy sailor who now works repairing complicated airplane parts--ruined navigation tools, or bent pieces from the interior of wings. We were drinking wine and standing out in the driveway. He was talking about how what happened in New York was an act of war. I realized as we stood there that I was hearing gulls in a way I had never heard them before: They reeled and screeched overhead, screaming like they had been set free of something. The noises of birds were thrown into relief because air traffic had ceased. We live in a flight path, and the absence of planes was spooky and beautiful. Then we heard a murmur somewhere on the horizon, a motor. I asked Jonathan, what's that? He said, "That's military, that's definitely military." We were thousands of miles from the dead, standing in a driveway, and it seemed like peace. But the sound of peace was really the sound of wartime.