Waiting to know

Six­teen years ago.

I still remem­ber so many details about that day, most of them so triv­ial, incon­se­quen­tial, which was, I think, all I was real­ly capa­ble of tak­ing in and pro­cess­ing any­way. I can still see my store man­agers face as she received an ear­ly morn­ing tele­phone call from a friend. I can still hear her sharp cry of alarm at the news, freez­ing me in place in the ghast­ly flu­o­res­cent glow of the back­room of the book­store where, a moment before, I had been sleep­i­ly try­ing to remem­ber all the mun­dane steps of count­ing out cash draw­ers and prepar­ing to open the shop for anoth­er day of business.

Even after all this time, I still don’t know what I can mean­ing­ful­ly say about the real events of Sep­tem­ber 11, 2001. But in the wee hours of this morn­ing, as I checked for updates of dam­age from Hur­ri­cane Irma and won­dered how my few friends and acquain­tances in Flori­da were far­ing. I was struck by how much our infor­ma­tion pipelines have changed from what they were when the jets hit the tow­ers. There was no Twit­ter. There was no Face­book. I knew peo­ple with cel­lu­lar phones, but no more than a hand­ful of them.

At the book­store, we rolled out the tele­vi­sion that was used for train­ing videos and stood around, employ­ees and cus­tomers alike, watch­ing the break­ing cov­er­age on net­work news. We eager­ly clus­tered around the news­pa­pers the next morn­ing when they arrived to pore over the writ­ten cov­er­age, to first begin to digest the news and to try to under­stand the how and the who of it. And a few days lat­er, when the week­lies like Time and Newsweek and The Econ­o­mist and the New York­er, we again eager­ly seized and devoured them to begin our jour­ney to real­ly under­stand­ing what had hap­pened, and what might hap­pen next.

And when time per­mit­ted, we would call each oth­er on our respec­tive work breaks and talk for a few min­utes, ask­ing each oth­er how we were, what we were think­ing, if we had heard any­thing new. We would take com­fort in each oth­er’s voic­es at the oth­er end of the line, the long spi­ral cord of the tele­phone hand­set fol­low­ing us around the cramped break room, teth­er­ing us to that con­ver­sa­tion, to that moment, to that exchange of dis­tant connection.

It is trite to say it was a dif­fer­ent time. But it was, and I am feel­ing that most keen­ly as I reflect on the dif­fer­ences in the flow of infor­ma­tion, in the gains in instan­ta­ne­ity in our news sources, and the cor­re­spond­ing loss­es in cred­i­bil­i­ty for the same. Six­teen years ago, we wait­ed to learn the sto­ry, hop­ing to under­stand. Now, we refuse to wait for the news to fin­ish hap­pen­ing before we want it parceled out and post­ed in eas­i­ly-shared snip­pets. And we don’t need to digest it, because most of us all know exact­ly what we want to know already. We already believe what we are going to believe. Any news sto­ry that attempts to counter what we already know? Well, that must be biased, or fake, or… who cares? We dis­miss it as eas­i­ly as we dis­miss our fel­low cit­i­zens who hold to dif­fer­ent hopes or ideals than ours. We don’t wait to lis­ten, we don’t wait to under­stand. It does­n’t even occur to us to try anymore.

Is this all because of that day? Is this chok­ing of our civ­il dis­course the result of those smoth­er­ing clouds of ash and dust that went roil­ing through the streets of Man­hat­tan? Is our nation­al patience and con­cord left buried under the unsort­ed rub­ble? I don’t know: I’m still wait­ing for the news to come in.

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