Waggish

Before the Disaster

I have a long post to write on David Grossman’s remarkable See Under: Love, but it’s not where my mind is now, because I am experiencing a small part of a small sliver of time when a disaster is known to be imminent and inevitable but has not yet occurred. Grossman’s book, which is concerned about the Holocaust, is concerned, as with many other books, with the time during and after the disaster.

In my life in the US, most of the events of mass hysteria and panic occurred with no warning: several earthquakes, the Rodney King verdict riots, and the September 11th bombings. The vocabulary of these events is well-known, even scripted: people are taken by surprise, and all hell breaks loose. The early warning systems we have didn’t exist for much of Southeast Asia when the tsunami hit.

What of this moment of the collective inhale and holding of breath, when there is no doubt and no disagreement as to what awaits (only worries about the severity), when the well-wishing propaganda of public figures seems, for once, inarguably transparent and hopeless? Maybe it gives Americans a little taste of what some Iraqis felt in early 2003, those who knew that the war was inevitable and that from the moment that shock-and-awe bombing began, they would enter a period of far greater chaos and upheaval than many of them had known to date, and that Bush’s rhetoric of post-war democracy and paradise bore little resemblance to their own wishes. (And, somewhat more speculatively, those who are currently convinced that the current constitutional talks can only break down and lead to new sorts of chaos.) This is not to draw equivalencies, only to point out a certain type of experience that requires extreme circumstances. Americans have recently lived in a country where collective anxiety was diffuse and unfocused. Only in these small moments like now is it brought to a focal point.

In old Irwin Allen disaster movies, the script is different: maybe one or two people know what’s coming, but they’re dismissed as cranks. The window of time between the mass recognition that disaster is inevitable and the occurrence is tiny; it’s the post-disaster moment that holds interest. But when it’s stretched out, I imagine it must give people ample opportunity to turn the anxiety in on themselves, and to take stock of who they are before circumstances may draw out, uncontrollably and unpredictably, the best or the worst of them. Some are capable of blithely ignoring the issue until the point of crisis. Others spring instantly into action in any and all possible directions the second they realize the impending crisis. For others (and I suspect I would be one of them), the moments of speculating on what they may become, or may be reduced to, must be excruciating.

Comfort and strength to those from the moment that they need it.

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