Cindy - Column for 9/14

My first emotional retreat is usually to humor.

Some people go to anger. There's an awful lot of that about lately, and there's likely to be more. I'm even a little envious. I'd love to be able to direct my feelings into good old-fashioned hostility, but while I think violence is occasionally necessary, I think it's nearly always regrettable. Following an act of horror with an act of horror just increases the pain in the world. It may help prevent still worse things from happening and ultimately turn out to be the correct choice, but nothing is mystically cancelled out.

Humor isn't really a place I can go this time. At least not for a while. If memory serves, it took about two weeks after the Challenger blew up before I heard the Needs Another Seven Astronauts jokes. And Tuesday's events feel a lot more maleficent than half a dozen people dying from an accidental malfunction. There's some irony here and there in reactions across the country, but mostly it feels like the wrong week to poke fun at anyone's inability to cope rationally with the news.

Thing is, I've always been very cynical about plane crashes, and the amount of attention they generate. I start a lot of comments with the words "odds are..." or "if I had to put money down...", convincing myself that while these things happen, they're not really anything to worry about. Getting from point A to point B always entails a certain amount of risk, right? I'd be upset if someone close to me died, but if it's no one I know I have a hard time getting any more worked up about it than I am about the other hundred people who died that day in random car crashes.

Even when there's a destructive intelligence at work, like in a murder or a bank robbery turned bloody, I can chalk that up to the various random factors that shape the human psyche. Most people turn out good, some people turn out indifferent, a few get rubbed just the wrong way at just the wrong time and react in horrible ways.

But there's nothing even remotely random about this one.

The hardest thing about this whole incident, though, is that no one seems to understand exactly why it happened. No one's ever done anything quite like it, so it's hard to process. Everyone's looking for the appropriate metaphor, something to compare it to. They want to call it an act of war, another Pearl Harbor. But it's hard to have a war when the enemy doesn't even have a country. Pearl Harbor was at least a military target. Horrific, but you could at least say "Oh, they wanted to sink all our ships. That makes a certain strategic sense." The goals here are completely foggy. At least at the time of this writing, no one's even taken responsibility. I was always taught that terrorism, at its heart, is an act of theater, a way of getting people's attention so you can send them a message. Well, part one of your mission is accomplished. We're paying attention. What exactly is your message?

This is more like watching someone punch a beehive in slow motion. Because they were stung by a bee. Just unthinking, irrational, and ultimately self destructive. It can't be beneficial to any cause. But it's hard to reconcile irrationality with so many people working together in such a coordinated fashion. People who knew how to fly planes. People who knew just how and where to hit a building to make it collapse. People who knew how to work with dozens of other people while keeping everything secret. Sometimes, it takes a lot of carefully applied intelligence to do something really stupid.

Maybe next week I'll have something funny to say, or maybe I'll even be angry. Right now, the only real solace I have from this horror is that it while it took years for someone to assemble, indoctrinate, and train twenty people to die in an act of destruction, it took us only minutes to call up a few hundred people of our own who were willing to run into a burning skyscraper to save whoever they could.

And all we promised them was time and a half hazard pay.

Columns by Cindy