All God's Children

When terrorists breed hatred among us, they've already won the war

I stare. Outside the window above my computer screen, rose hips on thorny stems are barely moving, making tiny anticipatory nods to a soft morning breeze. My wife calls down for me to come right away, something terrible at the edge of her voice. On the way up the stairs, I hear an awful sob and then crying. Just as I enter the bedroom, the network is replaying videotape of the World Trade Center towers collapsing into the ground, and I want to collapse with them, broken at the knees.

Our son, who was sick and stayed home from school, appears in the doorway, 10 feet tall and shirtless, almost 15. In a motion practiced since infancy, he flings himself on our bed to watch what we are watching. My first clear thought is selfish: I look at him stretched the length of the bed and say to myself, "Whatever this is, it's still going to be going on when he is 18."

They will take him for the war and kill him. I have to push these thoughts away. We don't have any idea how this day will end, let alone our lives. Who knows what sacrifice will be demanded of any of us?

It begins: Smoke billows from the World Trade Center towers.
It begins: Smoke billows from the World Trade Center towers.

While we listen and watch, my wife and I start guessing. Osama Bin Laden. The Middle East. The Arabs. What about Oklahoma City? But these were suicides. American terrorists are not suicides. This is of a different order. There's a book I need to find. Can't remember the title.

The Dallas Observer calls. They're killing my column for tomorrow. I don't know why. Maybe it's obscene to carp at City Hall on a day like this. They just tell me to write another one. I need to go downtown.

But the car is almost on empty. The police scanner is busy: The police are informing each other of all of the downtown office towers that are evacuating, causing gridlock at some intersections. Will a tower suddenly buckle to its knees here, too?

I wonder if people will jam the service stations trying to fill up their cars. I'm stuck at a light, and the thought crosses my mind that I should drive through it. But I look at the somber faces of the people parked next to me, and I know that they will see and know right away what makes me disobey the traffic light.

Nervous greed. Don't take my son. I need gas. I don't have time for the red light. I have to take care of my own. It's a visual virus: By seeing it in me, they are invaded. Best to wait. Plenty of time for panic later. The book was something about a "history of God." I read it a couple of years ago. I bet my wife has given it away to the library. She reads so many books she has to box them up and push them out the door before they push us out.

The truckers are beginning their chorus on my CB radio: "I want some Arab ass." "We're too friendly with those damn people." "That's right. We give them people billions of dollars in economic aid, and they say, 'Yankee, go home!'"

Downtown is already calm by the time I get there. City Hall is silent, protected by a few strategically parked police cars. On one side of the building, television trucks stand in place, a caravan at rest, poles extended and satellite dishes cupped to catch the word from on high.

A History of God. That's what it was called. I drive back to the house and check out her office. Sure enough, it's gone. I get back in the car and drive north in search of a bookstore. Maybe the bookstores will be jammed with panicked book-buyers.

It was published in 1993. The author is Karen Armstrong. But I don't know why I'm looking for this book instead of going where reporters are supposed to go, to police headquarters or out to the airport, at least to a day-care center so that I can interview the panicked parents picking up their kids:

"Your son is 2 years old. Do you feel that he is in any danger of getting drafted? He's too young? The hell with you, then. What about me, what about my son?"

It matters who did this. The president is right. We have to find them. But in another sense, it doesn't matter. No matter who did it, the Muslims in America will take the lash. The pain of this loss will flower into anger, and the anger will make us thirst for revenge.

All my life I had certain impressions of Islam, based on what, I cannot imagine. Television news reports? The people who make television news reports know less than I do, and I know nothing. Or I knew nothing until I read Armstrong's book. A former nun, she brings the clarity of good journalism and the grace of poetry to the otherwise daunting business of comparative theology. Otherwise I wouldn't have read her book.

She traces the evolution of the idea of a single all-powerful God, an uncaused cause, the prime mover, through the histories of the three major monotheistic religions, Judaism, Christianity and Islam.

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