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GLINT


3.19.04

Here's a little ditty I wrote at work today. Can't decide what to think of it.

All The Livelong Day: Work In The Terrorist Age

The memorial to the Oklahoma City bombing is located in the open space previously occupied by the Murrah Federal Building. Two edifices flank a central walkway, which frames a rectangular pool so shallow its depth is no more than a few centimeters of water. As you enter, to your left are the sculpted bronze chairs representing the 168 people who died following the destruction of the building on April 19, 1995. They sit as a sepulchral empty audience to the tourists and sightseers who roam the site. To your right is the tree that grows just outside the office building’s foundation, formerly scorched entirely on the side that faced the conflagration of simple making—a truck, ammonium nitrate fertilizer, and fuel oil. The lone elm stands as a stark reminder of how the ordinary may be turned symbolic by virtue of one brutal moment. It is just a tree that carries evidence of fire within its ringed record of years.

I visited the memorial the summer before the loss of 168 office workers became dwarfed by thousands. At the time, this sense of the mundane turned forever meaningful was somewhat new to me; it was subtle. It took a minute for it to fully lodge in my mind. Literally, a minute. As you walk into the space through the central entrance, you face the back wall, a blank, black expanse broken only by the 9:03 etched dead center near the top black edge that meets the blue western sky behind it. Turning, you can see that on the wall you just passed through, directly opposite, the time 9:01 is carved. You realize that you stand in 9:02.

More powerfully than the two massive walls that rise behind and before you, those two recorded minutes define the experience of the space held between them. Somehow one brief minute stretches uncomfortably long. Sixty seconds strain at the limits of things that remain abstract and little understood to us: time, death, hate, our capacity for grief. They strain to encompass what surrounds you—the abruptly ended lives of the people who worked and died here. That amount of time seems too flimsy for the task, and too transient. Yet, I stood transfixed by its immutability and force, held there between two fixed (and now long past) points of time.

To emerge from the entirely open-air memorial onto the street is truly deliverance back into the present. I walked to my car past other office buildings, seemingly empty behind reflecting window glass and the quiet of another workday afternoon.

The Oklahoma City Bombing and September 11th are without doubt more different than similar, yet they share one commonality: they targeted the worker at work. For me, part of struggle to absorb these events, a 9:02 or 9/11, is that they occurred at such innocuous times in such harmless places, occurring as they did, in the morning in office buildings. And strangely, when we learned of these events so many of us were in our own offices, or on our way there, reviving our own morning rituals from the morning before. In both cases, it was too easy to intimate the sickening whiplash shift in routine that was perhaps someone’s last awareness.

On the morning of March 11th, the Madrid train bombings were reported. True, this time they were a continent away, but the hour and circumstances were enough to faintly call up former sensation—like a ghost limb—of our own bright morning, churning panic, dread. I have friends living in Madrid, and the bombings were enough to trigger what I must accept now as my Pavlovian response to terror acts: Stop thinking this is not happening and reach for your cell phone in an attempt to draw those you care about closer as an ever widening horizon of unknowns unfurls around you. Another terrorist strike at the balustrade of everyday life: people going to work.

Working in various drudge jobs I’ve heard the joke, “I work to live, I don’t live to work.” That quip always springs to mind when I think about the Murrah Building, the World Trade Centers, and now, via a visceral immediacy we were lucky to lack before, Madrid’s train stations. The network of terror organizations and their political, economic, and cultural subtexts are extraordinarily complex. Some of us glean what we can from mainstream media sources while others probe further, but we are all thwarted by the same intricacies that obscure terrorism, just as we are all exposed to the simplicities that reveal it. We can all relate, on some level, to the worker—unaware, oblivious—journeying to work to begin another day on the job. We can all feel the simple betrayal that such an action should find contest with bombs and firestorms.

A friend from Madrid emailed me recently after the train bombings. He included an audio link of a woman’s voice who was calling her office and leaving a message explaining that she would be late to work due to train delays; as she speaks, a bomb is heard exploding in the background. My friend wrote “It’s people like you or me just going to work and nothing else.”

It made me remember how for weeks after September 11th getting into work at my usual time was a discouraging travail every morning. I wasn’t late out of usual laziness, it was more of an avoidance technique, an effort to disrupt the routine that read like a timeline of that morning: I was stopped at that corner when I first heard, I was walking up those steps when I heard it again, I had just booted my computer up when I understood. Work was not a fitting catalyst to the emotions brought out on that day. Work— snug behind our desks and coffee cups-should not make us think, “I would not like to die at work.”

On September 11th 2001, I had recently returned to DC from the road trip across the country that had taken me through my minute within the Oklahoma City memorial. 9/11 was a deliverance into a newly present reality, and I found myself wishing I was back in 9:02 again, back in the summer before the fall, when I could have walked out into a hushed workday afternoon of normalcy. That night I ended up in my neighborhood bar, where I sat talking with a UPS driver who was still in his uniform, although his working day must have ended, like mine, in mid-morning.

As the images from NYC and The Pentagon played yet again on the televisions behind the bar, the guy shook his head like he had had enough. “Man, they was just going to work,” he said. Out of all the memories of that day, it is the force with which the man at the bar spat out the last syllable of his anger and sadness that remains most vivid in my mind. Work. I can imagine how my Spanish friend’s voice would trail off, faltering with the English and the same confusion of emotion, at the end of his own observation.

My terror-taught response after Spin's March 11th is to stop thinking this is not happening. I have to believe that I am hearing the same thing all over again. I have to think about people in their daily, dull routines going to work. In New York, they never got to go home. In Madrid they never made it there.


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