On Christmas morning, I walked down to Eighth Avenue to buy the paper. The sky was gray, at once gloomy and beautiful. Although already past 10 a.m., the streets were nearly deserted and the few people in sight moved quickly and quietly about their business as if trying to attract as little attention as possible.
It reminded me of a similar walk I had taken four years earlier, on the last day of 1999. It was being heralded as “the end of the millennium,” though technically that would not occur for another year. Then, as now, the news was full of terrorist warnings, and people hurried through their shopping and end-of-the-year errands as if hoping to get off the streets before disaster struck. Our minds, still relatively innocent, danced with visions of catastrophes imported from other places (poison gas, suicide bombers) or wholly theoretical (Y2K meltdowns, exploding nuclear suitcases).
Nothing happened. We had to wait another 20 months before September 11 would introduce us to the particulars of terror and, perhaps as important, expand our stock of dread: smallpox on subways, planes crashing into power plants, dirty bombs. Like the Egyptians before the plagues, we hadn’t realized how much there was to fear.
But, as with Pharaoh — who no sooner saw the vermin depart than his heart hardened again — once the death smell was gone, the rubble hauled away, the downtown restaurants doing business again and the architectural competition underway, the shock of the event began to fade. And that startling window through which we’d briefly seen our lives in new ways and asked questions never previously considered was drawn firmly shut. The imperative, it seemed, was to deny any profound revelations and get back as quickly as possible to life as it had been on September 10.
Gradually we began to live again as normal people, i.e. not necessarily selected for suffering and spectacular death. Yet clearly there was a difference between New Year’s Eve 1999 and Christmas Day 2003. At the time of the former, we were still a bit like the Jews of Goshen when the hail struck the Egyptians and not them. In fact, we were far safer than that. We were not slaves in any obvious way, except perhaps to our comforts and to the sense that, as Americans, fortune was ever on our side.
Today we are Egyptians, still sweeping up, mourning the dead and waiting for the next plague. By this Christmas of the Orange Alert, we were fearful, uncertain, hearing always the faint beat of dread behind the clouds yet clinging to the hope that if we were quick, inconspicuous and, above all, lucky enough, the next catastrophe might somehow miss us and kill someone else instead.
So far it has. Californians were swept away by floodwaters. Iranians were crushed in an earthquake. And we made it through the holidays virtually unscathed. The other day, the terror was officially downgraded from orange to yellow.
The trouble, of course, is that catastrophe is always coming, and all Goshens are temporary. The Israelites who were spared the hail were not spared 40 years in the desert, the destruction of the Temples or Auschwitz. Yet who among us can keep from running toward what he hopes is Goshen? We know that in the end the odds will catch up, the blood, the frogs, the darkness; one day it will be our firstborn in the towers. (For is any of us more innocent than an ancient Egyptian or a trader at Cantor Fitzgerald?) We only ask for another day, or a minute, or at least a breath. …
Yet behind these fears and hopes slumbers a strange thought: Is there a part of us that longs for this disaster we are forever trying to escape? In some mysterious, unarticulated place, have we always envied the Egyptians their destruction, and are we therefore grateful for our own September 11, as if only after the shoe has dropped and catastrophe befallen us can we finally put aside both terror (that last plague stuck in Pandora’s box) and hope and simply live our lives? If so, then maybe it is time to go back to the wonder we felt when the disaster was fresh, to the questions we’d just begun to ask. We dropped all that to return to normal, but even then we knew that the old normal was gone forever. Now it’s time to discuss what a new normal might be.
Henry Bean is a writer and film director. His new film, “The Rectifier,” will, he hopes, be shot this summer.