Unmade in the USA

Stars & Bars

The Untold Story

Sound Judgment

Who, US?

Wartime Unrealities


"We are Americans. We don't have to walk around terrified."--Secretary of State Colin Powell, September 12, 2001

Secretary Powell, that was then, as they say, and this is now.

Welcome to Seattle, where we live in fear of both mayors and lunatics. What has happened in Seattle in the last two years has been a precursor to our new national state of mind, the belief that any of us may be gruesomely brutalized at any time, and the results will be televised. Nothing that's happened in Seattle is anywhere near as titanic as what happened on the East Coast last week. But unlike the 1993 bombing of the World Trade Center, or the bombing in Oklahoma City, this new terrorist attack seems oddly immediate to people in Seattle, and directly life-threatening.

And strangely expected.

In 1995, Oklahoma City was about Oklahoma City. Seattle's Federal Building shut down, but places like the Science Center stayed open and tourists could still enjoy the panoramic views from the Space Needle. It just didn't seem possible that terrorists would notice us. We were in Seattle, for Christ's sake. Not only were we not worth bothering, but you had to cart your bomb farther to blow us up. Why waste the money on gas?

Just six years later, an attack more than 3,000 miles away prompted Seattle to close its tallest skyscrapers and lock the doors on its shopping centers, because not only did we know it could happen here, we believed it would. L.A. evacuated LAX, Chicago closed the Sears Tower, Minneapolis closed the Mall of America. Like the rest of the country, Seattle took the attack personally. But I believe we reacted with a heightened sense of urgency because we had a fire drill on December 31, 1999.

No longer could we pretend that we mattered so little to the rest of the world that no one would bother to hijack a Boeing 737 and fly it into the Columbia Tower. So the Space Needle was shut down. Instead of the chuckle this would have elicited in 1988, the reaction has been, "Yep, shut it down." Seattle closed malls and office towers and canceled public events, because in Seattle people understand the new state of mind. We've been living it for two years now. After all, this isn't the first time terrorists shut the Space Needle down.

Seattle was once protected behind a shell of monoculture and economic bombast. We were isolated in the upper edge of an already isolated country. But then a steady stream of events began to happen in this no-place where nothing ever happens. A small software company became the software company, which laid the foundation for the dot-com boom. In the margins of this already marginal place, an independent record label managed to spearhead a cultural assault from Seattle. Suddenly Nirvana, Pearl Jam, and Soundgarden happened. Seattle colonized this nation's department stores and superstores of America with compact discs, books, and Genuine Seattle Coffee carts.

By the early 1990s, Seattle had become a place with so many easily recognizable elements that a TV show like Frasier could be set here. (One of Frasier's creators, David Angell, was on board the first plane that crashed into the World Trade Center.) Seattle had become someplace. The richest man in the world lived (and still lives) in Redmond. Rumors of spectacular money being squandered swept the city. Seattle was important enough that President Clinton swept through town on a regular basis. Seattle was a good place, and it was a rich place.

And then bad things began to happen in this good place. The police department, the mayor, and the baristas at the Pine Street Starbucks didn't really think much about the World Trade Organization until people started breaking that coffee shop's windows. Police in riot gear fired rubber bullets at mobs. Clouds of tear gas poured down neighborhood streets. Thwarted terrorists were caught in Port Angeles shortly before New Year's Eve 2000, carting explosives we believed were intended for the Space Needle. A man shot his co-workers in Fremont.

A madman shot a Metro bus driver and then himself, and a bus full of terrified passengers plunged off the Aurora Bridge. As quickly as the dot-com boom filled crumbling, half-empty office buildings with sparkling new computers and expensive office furniture, the dot-com bust showered the city with bitter, unemployed slackers who had too much gray in their goatees and too much fat to ride skateboards anymore. Suburban kids were beaten and killed at Fat Tuesday parties. There was an earthquake. Angry commuters shouted a suicidal woman off the I-5 Bridge.

And all of it made national and international news.

When a stunned George W. Bush used words like faceless and cowardly to describe the terrorists who shut down New York City and Washington, D.C. last week, he recalled the cluelessness of a stunned Paul Schell stumbling though interviews on CNN about the anti-WTO demonstrations that shut down this city. But the terrorists had faces, and bodies, too, and they came from somewhere. People in Seattle, already living in the new state of mind, know where terrorists come from. In our globalized world, we all live in the same neighborhood, and Americans make very tempting targets with our stainless-steel coffee mugs, cell phones, and sport utes. The Palestinians on the Left Bank cheering the carnage have their reasons. And post-globalization, their actions and my actions are linked in this global economic machine. We are afraid because we had the illusion of safety, and they are cheering because they have no illusions.

The mass of flag-waving U.S. citizens have asked our leaders to bomb our enemies, whoever they may be, back to the Stone Age, and return us to a sense of comfortable consumer safety. Our enemies, in turn, are trying to bomb us all back to the 14th century. Many of the anarchists at the WTO demonstrations want to collapse the corporate state and release us into an idyllic post-industrial world, while the terrorists who struck the U.S. last week would like to return things to a pre-industrial universe, presumably slower, more secure, more faithful. But, strangely, the riots and the bombings don't seem to make anyone feel any safer or more secure.

Before Boeing's Seattle was transformed into Frasier's Seattle, residents had a sense that where they were at in America was not where it was at. No one was going to bother blowing us up to make some political point for some fringe, radical extremist group. That was about as likely as a meteor falling out of the sky and braining you while you stood on Broadway and Pine. For a long time in Seattle, too, it was unlikely you'd strike it rich. The hallmark of economic success in Seattle up until the mid-1980s was to get on at Boeing. But then people started to get rich and the world started to notice us, and now we've got the sense that something big is going to happen in Seattle, something big and terrible. And when it does, people will watch it on the news, from several different camera angles.

And some people will cheer.