"A plane just hit the World Trade Center," announced an alarmed account executive when she arrived at our mutual place of employment. Probably no big deal, I thought. Didn't a plane once also strike the Empire State Building?
I later learned that when an unarmed B-25 bomber crashed into it in 1945, 14 were killed. (Funny how the Empire State Building, despite how slender it is, only shuddered.) Most likely, I thought, today's incident involved a Cessna or some other lightweight aircraft.
Nevertheless, I ventured out and walked one block east on 28th Street to 6th Avenue. One of Manhattan's broadest boulevards, the Avenue of the Americas is a fine vantage point from which to view downtown. Sure enough, one of the twin towers (the North) was engulfed in smoke. Others, as mystified as I, gazed too. What was the point of standing there? I returned to work and soon found out hell was breaking loose.
The enormity of the disaster, which surprised even bin Laden -- hey, who was he to look a gift horse in the mouth? -- made it hard to process. Like most, the office in which I worked closed for the day. But since a subway station was damaged by the fallen WTC, the whole system was shut down.
To leave Manhattan, commuters were forced to either walk across the Brooklyn Bridge or to the train stations, though, if I remember correctly, the trains out of Penn Station and Grand Central were also shut down, however briefly. Soon hordes of working people trekked uptown while a constant flow of ambulances, fire trucks and police cars, sirens sounding, streaked downtown. Now, you thought, you knew what life was like in a war zone.
When a co-worker and I passed through Times Square, an outsized TV monitor usually used for advertising showed a tape of the towers crashing -- the first I saw of it. The sublimity of that mild, sunny fall day did nothing to alleviate the "does not compute" factor.
Approaching my co-worker's place on Manhattan's Upper West Side, we stopped at a market. It was full of people stocking up as if they thought a war, with its attendant food shortages, was imminent. Though, in fact, ATM machines were down for a day. (Word to the wise: In the event of a nuclear disaster, make an ATM machine your next stop after picking up your children at school.)
In my co-worker's treetop apartment, which cried out for the cliché "sprawling," with its view of the Hudson River, we settled in to watch the news. Her husband, a prominent neurologist, soon arrived. He was in a merry mood and though I'd never met him before, it struck me that was his usual state of mind.
My first impression was that his demeanor was inappropriate for the occasion. But I soon realized that doctors, especially one like him who deals with mortality on a regular basis, automatically hold life and death at a remove. In fact, I think he was waiting to see if he'd be called to the hospital should survivors require his services. The all-or-nothing nature of the disaster, of course, left hospital emergency room staffs twiddling their thumbs.
I didn't realize it at the time, but the curiosity with which I viewed the doctor's reaction came to dominate my consciousness in the years since. What is the nature of Americans' relationship with the world outside friends, family, work and entertainment? More to the point, does one exist?
For many, 9/11 was like a debutante's ball for our concern with politics and foreign affairs (even if the Bush administration's response to it was like being groped afterwards). But to the public at large, 9/11 proved to be a temporary spike in its news monitoring. Soon politics and foreign affairs slipped back under its radar.
Consequently, when not following politics and foreign affairs, I spend much of my time puzzling over the public's lack of attention to the predatory policies of both the administration and corporations. Even in Manhattan, outside of one's circle, not on the trains, nor in the street, nor during breaks at work will you hear talk of the world at large.
Apparently polite to a fault, those Americans with political views tend to be as loath to talk about them in public as they are their sex lives or religion. Others feel frightened by or helpless about events that have been transpiring in the world. Most, however, have no interest whatsoever in "current events" or its poor relation "civics." These remain boring school subjects best left to wonks with a degree in political science.
But it seems as if people expend more psychic energy avoiding issues than facing them (we're all familiar with the image of the 800-pound gorilla). Actually, I'm probably projecting, because most people aren't even aware that, between the economy, Iraq and an impending attack on Iran, we're in dire straits. It's not so much that the mass media fails to cover these issues, it's that it fails to infuse them with urgency.
A case can be made that ignoring the world's problems is a statement that one chooses to live as normal a life as possible in the face of a world gone made. But, after a while, every human activity outside of job or money-making endeavors begins to seem like an excuse to avoid the world's problems. Worse, one can't help drawing the conclusion that if those who indulge in violent entertainment paid any attention to war and terrorism in real life, their appetite for carnage would be too sated to seek out more in movies, TV or video games.
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