For Most, Nothing Ever Happened

Like everyone else, I remember exactly where I was and what I was doing on Septmeber 11, 2001.  I was in my second year as a Peace Corps volunteer in a small town in Madagascar.  I happened to be listening to the BBC on my shortwave radio just before four o’clock in the afternoon when I heard a brief and unremarkable news bulletin about a fire in one tower of the World Trade Center.  A few minutes later the regular program was interrupted, and a reporter in New York tried to explain the breaking news.

A plane had hit one of the twin towers; little else was known at that time.  It sounded like an awful, tragic accident, but nothing more.  I was still listening when a second plane hit the second tower.  There was no more talk of an accident; it quickly became a terrorist attack.  I continued to listen.  A third plane hit the Pentagon.  A fourth crashed in Pennsylvania.  One tower collapsed, then the other.  I heard it all as it happened, and I felt the enormity of it even from so far away.

I felt restless, anxious.  I went for a walk and made my usual circuit through town.  I talked to everyone I met about the traumatic events so close to my home, but so far from theirs.  I needed a connection, just a little bit of decent conversation to let me release all the thoughts and emotions trapped, by isolation and linguistic separation, inside me.  But with everyone I encountered, we only managed the same feeble and petty chitchat that we always did, the only discussion possible across such an enormous cultural gap.  I tried to explain to them about jumbo jets that hit skyscrapers, and skyscrapers that collapse to the ground with thousands of people trapped inside.  They heard the urgency in my voice and tried to sympathize.  But in the end they just feigned a somber expression to mask their confusion.

Very few people in that small town in Madagascar ever understood much at all about the attacks.  I had my shortwave radio to keep me informed.  They had only the very occasional French news bulletin, relayed, between dance tunes, one the one local radio station.  Even now, years later, I bet most people in that town still know little if anything about what happened that day. 

On my international radio, politicians, journalists, and all the men and women interviewed as bystanders described the attacks as a global tragedy, a moment that shocked the world.  They called it an attack not just on the United States, but on civil society everywhere.  Everyone agreed that the event heralded the start of a new era in history, with radical changes in air travel, immigration policy, domestic security, international relations, even our own personal liberties at home.

“The world changed today,” everyone said.

But on their local radio in Madagascar, this whole grand drama, this drastic change in the state of the world—it all sounded like nothing more than a break in the music.  Nothing changed in that small town that day, and for everyone there, life continued as before.

People in Madagascar live in a very different world than we do here in the United States.  They are far more dependent on nature and its cycles.  They eat at dusk and go to sleep just after that.  They rise with the sun the next morning.  The seasons determine what they eat, when they work, when and how they travel.  They live a subsistence life that forces them to rely on their natural environment without all the cushions of our artificial luxuries.

We, however, live in a world that, to a certain extent, we can control.  Electricity lets us decide whether we want to sleep, or read a book, or work into the night.  Canned goods and freezers let us eat whatever we want, whenever we want.  We work jobs that have nothing to do with natural rhythms, in businesses of our own creation, far removed from any sort of subsistence interaction with the environment.

We live in a world of human fabrications, a world that we created and that leaves us vulnerable to evils of our own creation.  Manmade disasters like terrorism and war, stock market collapse and depression, have enormous effects on our manmade world.  But they have little impact on people in places like rural Madagascar, people who live without that artificial buffer between themselves and their environment.  In such remote locations, events like the terrorist attacks of last September pass almost unnoticed.

Most people in the world live like my neighbors in that small town in Madagascar.  Distant manmade problems mean little to them.  Instead they have to worry about their crops that season, or maybe even their source of food that very day.  For all of these people, the majority of our global community, little happened on that September day that changed the world.

H.G. Wells wrote a short story, The Star, about what was almost the end of the world.   The entire story, except the very last paragraph, describes the frantic and desperate final days for everyone on earth as Neptune, dislodged from its solar orbit, hurtles towards the planet.  In the very last paragraph, just before the apocalyptic near miss which would have incinerated the earth, the perspective changes.  Martian scientists peer through a telescope and observe with objective detachment as the comet streaks past earth melting a little polar ice but otherwise causing no noticeable changes.  From their distant perspective, the earth goes on as before—the end of the world for us, a scientific curiosity for them.

But we don’t have to go all the way to Mars for such a drastic change of perspective.  For people in smalltown Madagascar, the terrorist attacks of last September were just another curiosity of world events.