Harry Potter and the Psychic Serpent



Six Months After 9/11

It's been exactly six months since September 11, 2001. On September 4, 2001, I posted the epilogue of Harry Potter and the Psychic Serpent, a work of fanfiction which contains terrorism and people coping with the aftermath of terrorism. A week later, all of us were living a nightmare that made terrorism more of a reality and less of a theoretical event that most people would only ever encounter in the pages of a novel or while reading a fanfic online. More than a few people wrote to me after 9/11 to say how impacted they felt by reading about the Westminster Tube Station attack, and some people actually read it ON 9/11, adding to the impact. I hope no one felt unduly traumatized by this. In the six months since the attacks in New York City and Washington, DC, I've had many thoughts about writing about terrorism in such an uncertain time.

First, I want to say that for me, as for many people who have formed friendships online, the connections I developed both across the country and across the world were invaluable to my coping with something no one should ever have to cope with. At 9:14 am, the first post asking New Yorkers to check in was posted on the Off-Topic Chatter list of Harry Potter for Grownups. My first post on this list (after the attacks) appeared at 1:43 pm:

I wanted to get online as soon as possible to find out if the folks in NYC and DC are all right. I hope the phone line problems that might be preventing those folks from getting online are resolved soon. On the news here in Philadelphia they are telling people not to try to phone NY or DC, but there is a Red Cross phone number you can call to try to locate family members in NY.

I'm simply in shock. I probably haven't been this shocked since Oklahoma City. I was at the dentist's when the news came about the two towers collapsing—they had the radio on there. Then I found out that the Philadelphia schools were being dismissed at noon. The school tried to call me, but of course, I wasn't home. They called my husband and he couldn't remember our dentist's name. His brain froze in the shock of the situation. So he called his dad, who ALSO could not remember the dentist's name (he has the same dentist). So he walked over to the office and told me what I already knew and gave me some cab fare since I was originally planning to go home by bus. Well, I wound up running 23 blocks to the kids' school because of the total gridlock downtown. The sidewalks are full of people too, half of them shell-shocked, half of them with cell-phones glued to their heads getting more news.

We don't know what to tell our kids. How do you explain the unexplainable? How to you explain people insane enough to kill themselves and thousands of other people for—what? What ARE they doing it for? I just hope the missing planes land soon. The stories I've been hearing about Pittsburgh are conflicting and harrowing; I think I'm just going to go back to watching television until I can't stand it any more. I already went through a box of tissues watching for half an hour before I got online and I can barely see my monitor.

Everyone in New York and Washington, please take care and know that people around the world are praying for and thinking about you.

Mine was, of course, not the only message like this. One response was from a list member in Israel, where one has to worry about terrorism every day. This was so bad, even those who live with terrorism daily were shaken. As more and more people related where they were and what they were doing when the buildings fell, I knew I was seeing a phenomenon that had never before occurred: people miles and miles apart, whom had never met in person, and people in other countries as well, were pulling together to support each other emotionally during an unthinkable crisis. For people born before I was (I was born in 1964) the seminal event of their lives was the assassination of JFK. Everyone remembers where they were and what they were doing when they learned the president was murdered. Until September 11, I never understood the power of that kind of crisis to bind together a people, a world, even. When I was in college, the Challenger crash brought about a kind of loss of innocence, but it wasn't quite the same. Many friends at school were utterly crushed by that event, losing confidence in technology and science in a way they hadn't thought possible (some of them were physics students). But we had only each other to lean on at that time, fewer than a dozen people from the ages of 17 to about 25 huddled around a radio in the lounge for the Honors Program, people sniffling and blowing their noses as we thought about the kind of bravery necessary to go into space. In contrast to that small circle of mourners, the worldwide network of friends that I have now that has been developed through a love of the Harry Potter books became an amazing worldwide support group as post after compassionate post appeared on lists normally dedicated to discussing topics like "Doesn't Snape know how to concoct shampoo?" I remain amazed at the wisdom and clarity with which some writers infused their posts, and also the heart-wrenching emotions that people were not afraid to expose to public scrutiny.

It was approximately 10:05 am (either Eastern or Central time, I'm not sure which) when the first post appeared on the "main" Harry Potter for Grownups list asking New York City residents to confirm that they were all right. Twenty-eight out of the following thirty posts were in reference to this (a total of about six and a quarter hours had passed). Although many of us were glued to our televisions watching in horror as the towers fell, over and over, and people jumped to their deaths and police and firefighters were crushed under the falling towers, there were many people trying to reach the friends they'd made online to ascertain that they were healthy and alive, even if shaken to the core.

This was my first post on that list on September 11, at 2:00 pm:

This is Barb, also in Philly. [I was responding to someone else who'd posted who lives in Philadelphia.] It's good to hear that some folks in NY are okay; hopefully we'll find out about more later. The roads downtown here are in gridlock, what with City Hall and all of the tallest downtown buildings being evacuated and the bus service is running on a rush-hour schedule. The park service has also closed down Independence National Park (where Independence Hall and the Liberty Bell are located) as well as the William Green Federal Building. I've been listening to coverage of the Pittsburgh crash. They're saying no survivors. Evidently a man called someone from the plane's bathroom on his cellphone, saying that they'd been hijacked. That's the only reason anyone knows it wasn't an accident, but probably part of the overall evil plan. The schools here in Philly are all closed and our church, like many others, is having a prayer vigil tonight.

My sister lives in Oklahoma City and has told me horrific stories about waiting in long lines to donate blood after the bombing there, as well as the general shell-shocked state of the entire city for a long time afterward. Now it feels like the entire country is in this state, like we're all being held hostage.

Virtually every list I know of (certainly all of the lists I was on at the time) abandoned all pretense at there being a set of on-topic and off-topic things to discuss. It was all 9/11 all the time. We vented, we ranted, we comforted. We heard horrible eyewitness accounts (one person was able to see the Pentagon burning from home, another saw the twin towers falling from her place of work, across the river in one of the outlying burroughs) as well as uplifting stories about NYC cabbies (who have surely gotten a bad rap over the years) driving people miles and miles to their homes without the meters running. As other stories about the heroes of Flight 93 emerged, as well as other vignettes from New York about the way humans can truly band together in times of crisis, I felt torn by despair on the one hand (that humans could cold-bloodedly plan and execute such an evil plan) and hope that the vast majority of humankind seemed determined not to let a handful of zealots define us.

The next day, at 11:18 am, I posted this to the Harry Potter for Grownups list (Message #26005):

My husband Chris and I tried to explain yesterday's events to our son and daughter after we ate dinner. We don't know how much they really comprehended. After they were in bed, I was cleaning up the kitchen, going back and forth between that room and the dining room, when I noticed a baby picture of my daughter that I'd left lying on the dresser. I just stood there staring at it and crying, as though she were one of the victims in New York or Washington or on the plane that went down near Pittsburgh.

I thought about the fact that at one point, everyone who died in this horrible tragedy had been someone's baby. Each of them had a mother who gazed every morning into that innocent little face, thinking she was the luckiest woman in the world to have this little person, and that goes for the terrorists who did this too. They were once someone's babies as well. I just stared at my daughter's picture wondering what their mothers must be feeling right now. Were they devastated that their children had been responsible for so many deaths? Did they agree with their motivations?

Chris and I stayed up late watching coverage on ABC. He couldn't stomach the idea of watching Fox specifically because they had been using a really garish logo and a SOUNDTRACK. Now, we had also been appalled by many networks having given the Gulf War what amounted to a soundtrack, but this took the cake. I love music, but this is real-life tragedy, not a movie. It's not entertainment. Much of the time earlier in the evening we were watching PBS, which was doing an extended version of the Jim Lehrer Newshour with talking heads from all over opining on the situation in between reporters checking in from New York and Washington and south of Pittsburgh. While that was better (no garish logos, no dramatic music) Chris still couldn't help noticing that these people who were getting "face-time" seemed inordinately pleased with themselves for doing so.

I was particular disturbed, however, by folks bringing up Pearl Harbor and the US response to it. The talking head in question seemed very eager for the US to make a similar response now. I was very scared by this because one of the responses the US made to Pearl Harbor was to put all American residents—citizens or not—of Japanese descent into internment camps. I dread the backlash which is likely to come against Moslem and/or Arabic people in the US.

My niece is married to a man of Morrocan descent whom she met in France, where he had lived most of his life. He considers himself to be more French than Morrocan, and certainly Morroco has long been a US ally. But he is also Moslem, and he looks middle-Eastern. Before someone attacks him, will they think to check his passport and birth certificate, to see that he is a French citizen of Morrocan birth who now has a green card to live in the US? What kind of rift in the fabric of our culture is coming as a result of these events?

We must have watched coverage of the two large towers and the one smaller tower falling twenty times. Maybe more. I'm studying architecture, and I said to Chris, watching them fall, "It looks like they're not made of anything more than paper." He pointed out that it wasn't much more than that, that they were made of glass. I reminded him that the glass was merely a sheath; they were made of STEEL. Tons and tons of steel girders, securely bolted together, welded, anchored in a huge amount of concrete at the base...When I think of how buildings like this are constructed, and the way these COLLAPSED, I'm even more shocked. It's like they changed the orbit of the moon by hitting it really hard. These weren't houses of cards they destroyed. They were man-made mountains.

The kids are home from school today (Philadelphia schools are closed) and I'm missing my architecture classes, although I called my profs and I'm completely excused. Even if I'd gotten my in-laws to take the kids and gone to class, probably no one would have talked about anything but this anyway. I'd rather be home, where I can break down crying and go give my kids hugs and kisses whenever I like. Looking at various lists last night, I was struck by the fact that the list I'm on which has the highest proportion of people under 18 was the one list where folks were talking about being worried about being at war.

I sincerely hope that we are not at war, but I know that hoping doesn't do much good at times like this. My heart goes out to everyone in New York and Washington, especially the families of victims (and all those courageous firefighters and police who lost their lives as well) and also to the people on the flight that went down in Somerset County here in Pennsylvania. By all accounts, the people on board that flight were heroes, working to bring down their own plane in an area where people on the ground would not be hurt. I know that many, many people will be counted heroes of these events before long, but I find myself incredibly moved to think of what they did and the thought and care they had for others even while facing their own deaths.

Subsequent messages from other people contained amazing things like an offer to put people stranded in San Antonio or San Diego in touch with someone who could help them (since all planes were grounded) and numerous stories about fantastic New Yorkers or prayers for those affected. We also heard from a firefighter who asked us to pray for her brothers and sisters (fellow firefighters in New York) who lost their lives or who were still involved in the rescue effort, as well as a girl on Long Island whose father is a police officer and whose family friends are mostly police officers and firefighters. The messages flying fast and furiously made it possible to put ourselves into others' shoes. They engendered an empathy that would probably not be possible with any other medium. We were also able to wish happy birthdays to list members whose special days coincided with or came right after the tragedy, sending them the hope that they wouldn't forever associate what should be a happy day with a day of tragedy and mourning. Wishing friends "Happy Birthday!" helped us to remember what is really important in life.

A few days later, we were all able to see the footage of "The Star-Spangled Banner" being played at the changing of the guard at Buckingham Palace, sending many of us into crying fits again. The compassion and good wishes coming from around the globe was just incredible and humbling. Someone said, "This morning, we are all Americans." That got me going again, especially since, online, the thing that had been binding us together was the fact that we were all Harry Potter fans. Perhaps we truly are approaching a time when national boundaries will mean less and humans will be able to connect on a more basic level, making war a thing of the past. Of course, as we come closer to that becoming a reality, there will also be those for whom this is the most threatening development of all, those who will give their lives to try to prevent its happening. I say "try" because I believe that it is inevitable, and these terrorists are tilting at windmills. One might as well try to get the entire industrialized world to go back to using candles or oil lamps for lighting instead of electricity. The toothpaste is well out of that tube. Unfortunately, that doesn't mean people won't continue to die because of these delusional fools. But I firmly believe that we must push on, that we cannot be held prisoner in our homes and in our imaginations as we think about what dangers lurk in the outside world. If we let ourselves be paralyzed by fear, the delusional fools have won.

A very interesting post that Heidi Tandy put on the Harry Potter for Grownups list on 9/12/2001 follows:

And you'd planned out seven entire books, where terrorism, random attacks, mass murders and violence were - not a subplot, not a theme - an overarching Thing in the background, and then THIS happened - this horrible, unpredictable, but not unimaginable THING happened - would you consider changing any plot points that came too close to what really happened?

Would it make a difference if those plot points were scheduled for Book 5 or Book 7?

Or would you consider it more of a reason to remind people to remember, if the time should come when you have to make a choice between what is right and what is easy, remember what happened to planeloads and offices full of people who were good, and kind, and brave, because they strayed across the path of terrorists? Or would you reiterate that we are only as strong as we are united, as weak as we are divided? Or would you force yourself into things you normally do, because you could do with a few laughs, you know that we could all do with a few laughs, and you have a feeling we're going to need them more than usual before long?

If you were the writer, what would you do?

This, I think, brought us back to why we were an online community, and to what about the Harry Potter books binds us together. As fantasy, they are remarkable for still having a foot firmly in the real world. I believe this is a strength, not a weakness, of the books. I posted this reply to Heidi's query:

Well, as you know, Heidi, I did write a fic with terrorism and murder in it. I thought of that as I watched the coverage of the rescue efforts. I also saw an interview with Tom Clancy on one of the networks (I forget which one). The interviewer pointed out to Clancy that he had written a book about someone deliberately crashing a plane into the White House. Clancy has written many books about terrorism and acts of war and the way people respond to high-stress situations. Clancy did not train the terrorists to fly (that evidently happened at a flight school in Florida). It is even possible that the terrorists did not get the idea for this from his or anyone else's novel. One could legitimately say, I think, that Clancy pointed out that this was a danger, something we should think about when working out national defense strategies.

I do not think such a book would be published right now, and possibly not for years to come. It would hit too close to home and cause too much pain. I think that writers who depict harrowing situations of this sort can educate us about ourselves as individuals and collectively, as a society. I personally did not include terrorism in what I wrote as "entertainment." There was a lesson in it. One passage [in chapter 26] was adapted from a speech I gave on hate crimes being akin to terrorism, because those who share the characteristics of the victims are made to feel that they could be next; they are effectively terrorized. Women feel terrorized whenever they hear of a rape; every burning of a church or synagogue that we have heard of in the last ten years has been not just a criminal act against the congregation in question but against all people of faith. Every time someone who is gay or a person of color hears about someone being targeted because they are gay or a person of color, they may wonder if they will be next.

I think that the argument can work in reverse as well. Terrorism is a hate crime. This happened because of hatred against the United States. It is hate that motivated the perpetrators, and no matter how many novels there are depicting different methodologies for carrying out terroristic acts, it is hate which is ultimately to blame for the acts taking place at all.

I suspect that JKR will find a way to treat future atrocities by her villains in such a way that they do not seem sensationalistic and opportunistic. I am also confident that good will triumph in the end, although it may be at a cost. That is only realistic, and although she is writing fantasy, it has a very realistic edge to it. I do not think she will shy away from realistically depicting the cost of such a victory, nor should she. It could be the most valuable education we and our children receive from her books.

As the responses I've received from this work have grown, some of the most poignant ones have been the responses to Chapter 26, to Moody's speech, which always seems to make people think of 9/11 now:

He leaned against the desk. "We're facing dark times. You'll come face to face with evil and you'll have to choose a side. You'll have to get past survivor guilt and fear of dying and being maimed just to get up and go through your daily routine. It won't be easy. But you've got each other," he said, walking over to Ron and putting his hand on his shoulder. "That's the most important weapon you have. I've had you attacking each other with curses and hexes, sure, but when all is said and done, you're all still friends, aren't you? Members of the same house, united."

He came and stood in front of Harry. "That little Flitwick boy is one to watch, isn't he Potter?" Harry looked up at him and nodded, his throat tight. "More balls than all of the Death Eaters put together, in my humble opinion." Earlier in the school year, many of them would have been shocked by his language, but they were used to him now. He definitely was unlike any teacher they'd ever had—even Crouch, when he'd been pretending to be Moody.

"He wasn't afraid to speak his mind and stand up for someone he knew had been falsely accused. We need more people to show that kind of strength of character right now. We need to be united and strong. We'll have losses and scares, sure. And you'll be there for each other, helping each other through the bad times. But don't let it paralyze you or they'll win. Most of all, keep fighting the darkness within you, the urge to say, 'Oh, what the hell. What does it matter?'"

Then his voice became softer, but more adamant. "It matters."

He turned walked to the front of the room again, moving his magical eye over each of them in turn. His voice had become softer. The room was utterly still.

"It's all that matters."

Although I worried after September 11 about whether some people might be unduly traumatized by reading about terrorism in a fanfiction, since then I have come around to the position that events in the outside world make it even more necessary that I not flinch from seeing through my original vision. We all need to keep fighting the darkness within us. We need to be part of the solution, not part of the problem. Six months later, I hope that reading this work has helped some people cope with the knowledge that the world is a dangerous and uncertain place by reminding us that we are stronger than we think, and when it comes to resisting evil, every single person matters. As my pastor said in a sermon after September 11, the twin towers were felled by a box cutter. It wasn't inevitable. But a chain of events did occur that made it possible. We all need to be people dedicated to making this impossible in the future.

On the three-month anniversary of the attacks, we sang this hymn in the morning service at my church. As a student of architecture, I have been brought to tears by these words before; as someone who has lived through September 11, the final line of the second verse now makes me remember that day as nothing else can:

We would be building; temples still undone
o'er crumbling walls their crosses scarcely lift,
waiting till love can raise the broken stone,
and hearts creative bridge the human rift.
We would be building, Architect Devine,
reveal the shape of life in your design.

Teach us to build; upon the solid rock
we set the dream that hardens into deed,
ribbed with fine steel, both time and change to mock,
the unfailing purpose of our noblest creed.
Teach us to build; O Maker, lend us sight
to see the towers gleaming in the light.

(Purd E. Deitz, 1935, alt.; tune: FINLANDIA by Jean Sibelius, 1899;
both from the New Century Hymnal, copyright 1995, The Pilgrim Press)

Six months later, I'm almost done writing the sequel to Psychic Serpent and preparing to start the third part of the trilogy. I have received encouraging words about my inclusion of terrorist acts in my works and I have been unspeakably moved by the stories some of you have told me about your reactions to Chapter 26. I believe that we are all looking forward to the fifth Harry Potter book, even knowing that the series is destined to become darker and still more realistic. I also believe that we will continue to build many things; towers gleaming in the light, families, worldwide networks of friends, works of original fiction and fanfiction that entertain even as they move and educate, and a world that can learn from tragedy instead of being a prisoner of it.

Barb LP

March 11, 2002