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Pause with a purpose

By Jeffrey Schaffer / September 21, 2001



PORTLAND, ORE.

For a long time, I've been curious about what kind of crisis could be massive enough to make the whole country pause, for sports events to be postponed, and for TV networks to suspend regular programming. This is not a subject people want to talk about in everyday conversation. "How," a friend chided me, "can a cheery person like you think such morbid thoughts?"

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The answer is simple: Humor is right around the corner from tragedy.

As someone who works hard to find the bright side of bad situations, one of my standard techniques is to reflect on how much worse things might have been.

And looking back at the tumult of the past century, I often wondered whether we might someday experience a truly catastrophic event that would jolt open a new chapter of American history.

With a Herman Kahn-like approach, I was still focused on cold war possibilities, most likely a nuclear detonation in a major city. Obviously, I was way behind the curve of current terrorist thinking. The skyjackers of Sept. 11 had plans for inflicting horror outside the boundaries of what I had been imagining.

Numerous commentators have already made comparisons with World War II, and I'll add one more. It may sound odd, but in my musings about potential national disaster, the Rose Bowl always figured heavily. Amid fears that the West Coast might be invaded, the 1942 game was moved from Pasadena to North Carolina. So when I heard that major league baseball, college football, and the NFL were putting their schedules on hold, it was my final confirmation that we'd experienced a new Pearl Harbor. The entire country paused.

In many ways, it feels like time and space have been yanked out of order. Destroying buildings and committing mass murder are the types of sabotage we feared from Nazi agents, but our fears back then never materialized. People walking the streets in search of missing relatives, holding up photos of the disappeared, are scenes we'd expect in a third-world country.

What doesn't look out of place is the sight of all those crews sifting through the rubble. As I watched the twin towers fall, the idea of clearing away so much wreckage seemed impossible. A lot of Americans probably had similar thoughts while watching newsreels of London burning during the blitz of 1940. But dynamic cities find a way to recover. The slow, exhausting work of cleaning up doesn't get a lot of coverage in the history books. It just gets done, and New Yorkers are proving that point right now.

I'm definitely not qualified to speculate on the future. I can, however, assure you that none of this crisis was pre-scripted by Nostradamus, despite what you may have read in e-mail messages that are showing up all over the Internet. The days ahead of us are still blank pages. Nobody knows what will be written. I just wonder how many pages it will take to reach the end of this chapter.

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