Again the phone call: “Turn on the TV!” Again the logo: BREAKING NEWS.
Again the rush of information and the artificial calm of anchors relaying the unknown. Again the sobbing of survivors and the smoke rising in a cauliflower plume. Again the flames and firefighters, the mayor and the media. Again the closed bridges, the sound of—are they fighter jets?—and the odd quiet in the streets.
At press time, the government was telling us not to fear. There was “no evidence” of an explosion or any other fingerprint of terrorism. But who could be reassured? We saw what had happened to the postal workers who were told not to worry about anthrax. We know that the air over Lower Manhattan after the twin towers fell was more toxic than anyone believed (or was willing to admit). Telling a New Yorker to calm down is futile even in ordinary times. Oy-veying is part of our style. But now every reassurance seems like calling bus exhaust perfume.
The smoke, the firefighters, the sense of déjà vu (Photograph by Susan Lasner)
In the space between an event and its meaning—when no one knows who or what to blame—fantasies take flight. We are free to imagine what it felt like to be in the plane or on the ground when Flight 587 crashed. Walls exploding, floors collapsing, all that is solid melting into air. Reality transformed in an instant. Nostalgia for a breath ago. Even the guilty pleasure of imagining this horror is a kind of empathy, and also an attempt to remind ourselves that we—here, watching TV—have been spared.
Anyone who has flown from a New York airport recently can attest to what a peaceful experience it is. The lines are long, the troops in camo are eerie, and the passengers holding their arms out to be searched seem faintly embarrassed. But all the precautions are oddly comforting, and everyone is so polite. Now we know that these procedures are, at least in part, a soothing ritual. In fact, there are no guarantees.
The odds of dying in a plane may not be higher than they ever were. The chances that one of these aircraft will crash into your kitchen or turn your office into a kiln may be as remote as any other eccentric way of expiring in New York. You’re more likely to be killed by a cabbie, a crazy, or a sinkhole opening on Sixth Avenue. But you don’t have to die to be a victim of terror. It’s the ultimate hate crime because it casts its shadow on the whole community.
New Yorkers wear softened faces these days, or so it seems to a lifer like me. People eyeball each other with more than sex and resentment on their minds. There’s a palpable sense of fragility under the usual funk, as if the sensitivity suppressed by attitude has come to the surface. Now we show what we have always known: that life is precious and uncertain. That we are vulnerable in unimagined ways. That we are all at ground zero. Again.