Time brings distance to all events. No pain is as fresh twenty years later as on the day it happened. The shock of the impossible becomes the new normal and then it becomes more background noise.
“A single death is a tragedy, a million deaths is a statistic,” Joseph Stalin said. The statisticians in Doha, Tehran and Riyadh know it quite well when they count up their numbers. Compound death is more than a statistic; it is incomprehensible.
The banal media coverage of September 11 grapples with a story too big to tell that can only be broken down into human fragments of personal stories.
This is true for most of the dark footprints of history. There is no story of the Holocaust, there are only countless personal stories of survivors and the procedural story of the Nazi killing machine. These perspectives never come together into a single story only human fragments and procedural details, the departments and mechanisms, how many milligrams of Zyklon B it takes per kilogram to kill a person and how many people can be loaded on a train in how much time.
The coverage of 9/11 breaks down into these same mini-stories, survivors describing how they escaped, the families of the dead relating how they reacted to the news, the stories of firefighters and officers, and the procedural questions, how long it takes a falling body to achieve terminal velocity and what happens to the human body when it breathes in enough ash and soot. On the other side are the killers who plotted and planned, checked flight schedules, got their boxcutters and their korans and killed thousands for Allah.
The story of the attacks cannot be told because there is no boundary to it. Where do we begin, with a handful of upper class Muslims in Hamburg? With a scion of the Bin Laden clan becoming a Ghazi or with Hassan Al-Banna finding inspiration in Third Reich propaganda to modernize Islamism? With the Gates of Vienna, the Shores of Tripoli or Mohammed in Mecca? All but the last are incomplete, and even the last leaves too much out.
When a murder happens we trace back the motives of the killer. Was he abused as a child, did the authorities fail to act in time, what made a once sweet boy turn into a killer? To do the same for September 11 is to travel back over a thousand years and still come away with few answers except that sometimes human evil can be congealed into an ideology and passed along from generation to generation like a virus of hatred and cruelty.
“Where were you when the planes hit,” attempts to orient us in time. But the question is only an attempt to make the impossible seem real. The businessman covered in ash and stumbling over the Brooklyn Bridge and the Seattle housewife waking up to see news coverage of it on television are more human fragments of a thing that is more than human. War.