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The Problem Of Pain, 9/11 Aftereffects Edition

The post-9/11 chattering class has nothing on my friend Yvonne.


I knew my friend Yvonne hated flying, but I didn’t know why until I asked her husband, whose presence is the only reason she can get through her in-flight panic attacks. She starts breathing fast, he says, like she’s having a baby, and she even cries. This is a bold New Yorker who takes nothing from nobody.

“Has she always been afraid of flying, or did it start later in life?” I asked.

“She was in the city during 9/11, and she helped people out from under the Twin Towers,” he said, looking me in the eyes. Yvonne walked away streaked with other people’s blood. Ever since, he said, she’s been unable to fly in planes without hyperventilating.

People who have experienced tragedy often don’t have words to explain what it has changed, except everything. Some events touch us so deeply we have no words to grasp them, because our minds cannot grasp them, and perhaps never will. Reactions like calling for war or more anti-terrorism efforts or monuments all seem somewhat hollow when overlaid an interaction with something sacred, something terrifying. For some things, this mortal life holds no lasting answers, nothing to truly fill the void. Even a husband’s gentle touch cannot alleviate some pains. We can only endure.

When terrorists hit the Twin Towers, I watched, 1,500 miles away in Wisconsin, through the rarely-used family TV. The events seem as long ago now as they were then, in another dimension; yet there’s still something arresting for every American about what happened that day. In the days and weeks following, the most astonishing thing to a young and uncynical me was the wave of prescriptions that followed from politicians and pundits, as if there is some solution to evil. In the years since, as my life encountered its own few tragedies, my disgust at people who think something could have prevented or solved X situation has only grown. It seems an insult to pretend it would have been possible or simple for this all to never have happened. And it doesn’t matter, anyway: It has happened.

None of this is to say that wearing a helmet can’t prevent brain injuries, or that screening suspicious characters is a bad idea; of course some specific bad events can be prevented with reasonable precautions. But to take a certain tragedy, and use the pain people feel while enduring its aftereffects for some political end or personal gain, is a sort of rape of another person’s soul.

Far better, like Yvonne’s husband, to silently hold the hand of the suffering. Or, like Yvonne, to know you may never ride a plane comfortably again, but grit your teeth, bring tissues and a compassionate husband, and continue to fly.