SEPTEMBER 19, 2001
-- Jeremy G. Mallory
I was on the phone when I saw the huge plume of black smoke rising over the building that stands between my apartment and the Pentagon, barely a quarter-mile away. When I saw it, I was still staring open-mouthed at the pictures of the second plane slamming into the World Trade Center.
It's funny how quickly we invent stories to explain the things we don't want to see. I convinced myself that the plume was coming from construction that had been taking place on the roof of the building, and kept my focus on the television.
But the black plume didn't go away. It kept rising. And then a call came: "They just hit the Pentagon. You need to get out of there." The soundproofing on the apartment, which we had often joked about, had prevented me from hearing anything. Minutes later, I heard about a second plane twenty miles away from Washington.
I drove south through Alexandria, convinced that more was still coming. I even ignored the fellow who rear-ended me. Once outside the Beltway, feeling marginally safe, I stopped at a hotel. But I was still on edge. I was worried about chemical warfare. I smelled the smoke on the way to my car, so I knew I would have been exposed to anything virulent or poisonous on the plane. Anthrax wouldn't show up for three days, at which point it would be too late. Only once or twice did any news station mention tests for such agents. Thankfully, they were all negative.
Theologians often speak of "ruptures in history," breaks in the "normal" chain of cause, effect, and free will that are so overwhelming that some greater reality rushes in through the cracks. Often this is used to refer to the Kingdom. Arthur Cohen uses this concept, which he calls "tremendum," to refer to the Shoah. Whatever the nature of that reality that fills the spaces where our assumptions used to be, it overturns "business as usual" in a decisive, radical, and permanent way.
The debate over whether such a rupture occurred on 11 September 2001 does not trump the more pressing concerns of formulating a national response, sifting through the rubble, and coping with our losses. But it is an issue we cannot avoid facing both individually and collectively. Even as more people begin to return to daily life, I can't escape the idea that, in a very concrete sense, life will not be the same for any of us, even once we get back on our feet.
There have been snipers on the building that stands between my apartment and the Pentagon for the past week, and Secret Service agents all over the area. They have finally left, but it is also clear that most of the office space in the building is now vacant. Driving up 395, I still cannot help gaping at the hole in the side of the Pentagon. Without the polite frames of television screens or cropped photos, it's size is shocking. I also see people hugging in the streets every so often. More people greet each other on the sidewalk, and take a genuine interest in the answer to "How are you?" People are shutting off the news for a little bit and going outside.
I was not alone in being chased out of my soundproof apartment last Tuesday. Many eyes are now directed upward toward God, or outward toward others. Many people are having trouble finding a place for their comparatively small affairs in the context of such an immense thing.
As many have pointed out, there comes a time to pick up and start going again. I feel, though, that it is imperative that we not try to convince ourselves that the world is the same as it was when we woke up last Tuesday. We could tell ourselves all sorts of stories to explain away the horrible things we have seen, but that would not change what we are seeing. Something in the world has indeed changed decisively, even if it is only the perspective we have on the world outside of our soundproof apartments.
-- Jeremy Mallory is a Ph.D. candidate in ethics at the University of Chicago Divinity School. He makes his home in the Washington, D.C. area.