back to the Black Table

Friday night was a late one for me, so I crawled out of bed about noon Saturday to a beeping phone. My mother was on the voice mail. “Will, I wanted to see if you were watching CNN. Have you seen it? It’s terrible, Will, just terrible.”

We have all been waiting for a call like that. Any time any of us – particularly those of us in New York – are out of contact for any period of time, that fear is always in the back of the brain: What if they’ve blown it all up while I was gone? Last July 4, I left to visit the Midwest. I found myself saying goodbye to my friends with more emotion than perhaps a one-week trip would necessitate; who knows what could happen while I was away. It’s a thought that never leaves -- not anymore.

So when I heard my mom’s message, her voice a mixture of horror and anger, it was impossible not only to fear the worst, but to expect it. It was only a matter of which scenario. Was Times Square on fire? Did they knock down the Sears Tower? Was a 747 shot out of the air? It’s a dirty bomb on the Washington Mall, has to be.

I walked to the den and picked up the television remote control. I stared into the blank screen, my reflection staring back, afraid to push the power button. How different would the world be after I pressed that button than it was right now?

The first thing I saw was the now-familiar image of streaking, breaking light across the sky. Oh my God, it’s a missile, they’ve fired a missile at us. The newscaster said, “There were obviously no survivors.” Jesus, it was a nuke. Someone dropped a nuke on us. It was a Saturday, our defenses were down, no matter what we claim, we weren’t ready. My God, where did it hit? Los Angeles? DC? My God, what if it hit downtown and I’m breathing in radiation right now? The BREAKING NEWS graphic, which has replaced the shadowy figure in an alleyway as our collective societal bogeyman, flashed words quickly, and I couldn’t quite comprehend them.

Then I noticed it: “NASA.” My mind reeled. That flight. The one with the Israeli soldier on it. Was that still going on? Jesus, they’ve shot it down. They’ve broken into NASA and now they’re destroying our space shuttles. The newscaster piped in again: “Terrorism is not believed to be a factor.” Math figures whirled around my head. Shuttle breaking apart, and crashing into sparsely populated Texas. Seven people dead.

The facts and figures poured in, and my brain added, subtracted, calculated and spat out an involuntary and inevitable conclusion: Shuttle explosion. Seven people dead. That’s all. Just seven. It’s not as horrible as you thought. Life can continue.

I then ordered lunch.

What happened Saturday morning was a tragedy, seven lives senselessly rubbed out in a split second. Background information on the astronauts filtered in, and your heart ached for the families of those who were lost. But you couldn’t help but feel, well … underwhelmed. Seven astronauts have perished, but compared to 2,800 civilians, the news seemed almost like a relief.

Several reasons exist for the quietly callous reaction many have had to the disaster. For anyone over the age of 23, the memories of the 1986 Challenger explosion are still fresh. Like many schoolchildren at the time, I watched live in my fifth-grade classroom as the heroic Christa McAuliffe – a teacher, just like Mrs. Lawyer and Mrs. McRoberts – was set to cross that threshold, show that anyone could go into space, break through to that whole other world above. When that closeup shot of the Challenger – with its small spark before the actual explosion, a millisecond of hey, what was that? -- revealed the detonation into oblivion, it scarred us all forever. A world shared in pain and shock; it had happened to all of us, at once.

Saturday provided our television culture less catharsis. Most of the country wasn’t watching the reentry live. Space travel isn’t as exciting as it once was; trips to the international space station have become routine, at least in the public consciousness. We’re preoccupied with matters on earth. And the few images we were provided of the shuttle ripping apart through the Texas skies weren’t the most compelling anyway; in this age, we need extreme closeup to even feel anything. If we can even do that.

To be honest, most people probably didn’t even know we had a shuttle in space in the first place. And what are we doing in space anyway? What are we hoping to find? With all the troubles we have on our on turf, discovering whether or not Neptune has a sixth moon seems rather inconsequential. NASA has become an afterthought. Kids don’t grow up today wanting to be astronauts; they grow up wanting to be celebrities. When’s the last time you saw a movie about an astronaut that wasn’t either based in the future or in the ‘50s?

If anything, Saturday showed that no matter how on alert we claim to be, we are incapable of not being shocked by any national tragedy. This is why the whole color-levels-of-alert is total bunk. When something horrible happens, we are stunned. We cannot prepare ourselves for it. We cannot somehow lessen it. It simply is, and we are reminded once again that the world is cruel, and completely out of our control.

And when it is out of control, after September 11, we just pray that the death tolls are kept low. What more can we do? It is a catastrophe. We grieve for those lost. But what more can we do than take comfort that it was not worse? We have suffered through the worst; everything else can only remind us of how we felt that day.

In November 2001, an American Airlines flight out of New York to the Dominican Republic crashed in the Rockaway section of Queens, killing all 265 people on board. So soon after that horrible day in September, everyone’s thoughts inexorably turned to terrorism. Details came out confirming simple mechanical failure, and people were comforted that the plane hadn’t fallen in, say, Times Square. My father called me that night.

“Dad, it’s unbelievable. I mean, I actually caught myself watching television and saying, ‘Thank god only 265 people were killed today.’”
“Seriously. What has the world come to?”

And he was right. What have we come to?