I was at work when planes flew into the World Trade Center in New York and another into the Pentagon. Someone plugged in a small television and we watched the unspeakable unfold. Even the office manager, a normally stoic man with a love of beer, began to cry. He dismissed us for the day. I returned home numb and full of fear. In the moment, the events shocked and terrified me and led me to deeply consider whether, if my life were to end soon, I was truly doing what I wanted with it (I wasn’t). Later, the reaction of many also surprised and frustrated me.
As I recall from the aftermath, many people “couldn’t believe” that a plane would crash into those towers, or “never would have considered it.” Perhaps growing up as the daughter of a Holocaust survivor, with a level of vigilance if not paranoia higher than that of the general population, I didn’t experience the world as safe. Dangers lurked everywhere, yet many people either couldn’t see them or refused to consider them. That planes could, in theory, fly into towers seemed obvious to me. Did I want it to happen? Of course not. Yet the general level of disbelief at a threat that anyone could imagine (e.g. a plane crashing into a building seems simpler to conceptualize than, say, the poisoning of the water supply or some other behind-the-scenes nefarious deed) made me wonder if everyone around me was walking around in a bubble of innocence if not obliviousness. That the president at the time ignored an intelligence report warning of this very scenario just reinforced what seemed to be common American attitudes about danger or threat: we’ll figure it out when the time comes.
I often envied those who lived more carefree lives, who didn’t see excessive risk at every turn, who dove into activities without too much anxiety, preparation or planning, confident that help would arrive if they ran into trouble. Being too vigilant or a doomsayer comes at a price. It’s harder to be spontaneous, enjoy the world or take healthy chances when one’s imagination is skewed toward the negative. Yet excessive optimism, shrugging off danger, or deciding to “not go there” in imagining the worst, or ignoring people who are raising red flags, has a cost, too.
On the heels of Hurricane Harvey (and Irma), this anniversary of 9/11 reminds me that the day the towers fell is more than a terror attack that led to a devastating loss of life. It also symbolized to me a failure of imagination. Sadly, I am not sure much has changed since then. As much as my heart goes out to everyone who lost loved ones, property and a sense of security in recent natural disasters, I can’t help but feel outrage and sorrow that common sense precautions to mitigate the damage (in Houston, especially) were not taken when warnings were first sounded. As inspiring and heartwarming as it was to see regular people rescuing each other and engaging in heroic and selfless deeds, I wonder why this culture doesn’t regularly show the same appreciation for folks such as scientists and analysts who, doggedly, quietly and perhaps invisibly, are trying to mitigate risks for everyone. While we need to remember the fallen, we also need to honor and celebrate those who tried to sound the alarm so that, the next time they have something to say, we’ll be more likely to listen.