I have had the tragic privilege of living in New York during 9/11 and London during 7/7. The two events are, of course, incomparable, if only because the falling skyscrapers puncutated our lives without warning. I still vividly remember the first night of 9/11, when the stench of melted plastic seeped uptown, and the thousands of dead were still smoldering, and the skyline had been broken. There was still smoke in the air, and the sick smell of it had taken care of my hunger. We knew that everything had changed.
We were right. History pivoted with the hi-jacked planes. The wars that began on that beautiful morning are still raging. Thousands and thousands of people have died because a group of deranged men were able to sneak some boxcutters past the X-ray machine. The world turns on such insignificant things.
And yet, I also remember feeling that not enough changed, that the world persisted in such silly ways. Ob-la-di, Ob-la-da, the Beatles sang, and they were right. Life does go on. I was living 100 blocks north of the falling towers, and just a few subway stops away from London’s underground bombs. And I heard nothing. No screams, no cries, no explosions. Just the ordinary sounds of a civilized morning. The sirens were wailing in the distance. I remember thinking that they sounded so far away.
What I am trying to say? It is easy to talk about our tragedy, our national grief. But pain is painfully local, and we should never forget that the few are always burdened with an unfair share of suffering. I shared an area code with those who died, and yet I heard nothing. I breathed in their dust, and yet I kept on breathing. Auden said it best:
“About suffering they were never wrong,
The Old Masters; how well, they understood
Its human position; how it takes place
While someone else is eating or opening a window or just walking dully along;
How, when the aged are reverently, passionately waiting
For the miraculous birth, there always must be
Children who did not specially want it to happen, skating
On a pond at the edge of the wood:
They never forgot
That even the dreadful martyrdom must run its course
Anyhow in a corner, some untidy spot
Where the dogs go on with their doggy life and the torturer’s horse
Scratches its innocent behind on a tree.
In Breughel’s Icarus, for instance: how everything turns away
Quite leisurely from the disaster; the ploughman may
Have heard the splash, the forsaken cry,
But for him it was not an important failure; the sun shone
As it had to on the white legs disappearing into the green
Water; and the expensive delicate ship that must have seen
Something amazing, a boy falling out of the sky,
had somewhere to get to and sailed calmly on.”