When Crazy Is Normal

Portrait of a Grieving City

These are questions that have cropped up in previous wars, though we may never have felt them so deeply before. "You always think you're outside of history," says Eric Stover, professor of public health at the University of California at Berkeley. "What happened with the towers being hit is, the train of history slowed down and we were looking into those gaping holes." Not only does that force a sense of community in the present, according to Stover, it sensitizes us to past collective traumas: "The bombing of Dresden, Hiroshima, and Nagasaki all of a sudden become that much more real."

Ironically, though, the vast significance can sometimes only be felt by bringing loss down to a more comprehensible scale. Steve Auerbach, a physician who works for the Health and Human Services department, was at his office on Duane Street when the first plane hit. He witnessed the impact close up—an image that later looped in his head. And when he was providing medical services at the collapse site, he saw dismembered parts, an experience he says is "emotionally different" from handling corpses as a doctor.

Illustration by Max Grafe

In the midst of the crisis, he learned that a coworker, a 71-year-old woman named Naomi, had died of unrelated causes. "I didn't cry about any of it until I was on the phone with Naomi's son," says Auerbach. He worries that her family is not receiving due attention because of the greater picture. But to Auerbach, marking the loss of Naomi, whom he describes as "everyone's grandmother," is a path to sanity in an insane situation. "Life goes on," he says, "and death goes on."

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