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5 minute read
Lance Morrow

A train wreck a century and a half ago sent Herman Melville into this eloquent rant: “Two infatuate trains ran pell-mell into each other, and climbed and clawed each other’s backs; and one locomotive was found fairly shelled, like a chick, inside of a passenger car in the antagonist train; and near a score of noble hearts, a bride and her groom, and an innocent little infant, were all disembarked into the grim hulk of Charon…Yet what’s the use of complaining?… Don’t the heavens themselves ordain these things?”

But Melville did not mean the heavens. He was inclined to look for an evil principle at work in the heart of things: at sea, the white whale, Moby Dick, would serve the purpose. Around his home in the Berkshires of Massachusetts, Melville had to strain himself to turn a locomotive into a dark metaphysic: “Hark! here comes that old dragon again–that gigantic gad-fly of a Moloch–snort! puff! scream!” “Great improvements of the age!” he wrote contemptuously. “Who wants to travel so fast? My grandfather did not, and he was no fool.” Earlier in the 19th century, there were those who thought that traveling faster than 20 m.p.h. would cause insanity.

Disaster sends us looking for the devil. As the aftermath of Flight 800 showed, it is a terrible anxiety, a kind of low-grade moral infection, not to know exactly what evil you’re up against.

The Melville of the train wreck blamed progress itself. And so, come to think of it, did Melville’s possible disciple in this line of thinking, the Unabomber, who was a moral train wreck in his own right. The complaint seems a little simple. It can appeal to a flintstone fundamentalism that argues that materialist secular humanism, with its seductive technological wealth and toys and vices, fosters a godless hubris. But no one except Melville’s grandfather thinks Flight 800 fell from the sky because its passengers wanted to travel too fast.

Theologians make a distinction between natural evils (earthquakes, cancers) and man-made evils (murder, the Holocaust). When you heard the news of Flight 800, did you think mechanical failure? Or jihad? Whatever brought down the 747, its 230 passengers were just as dead, and just as far beyond caring.

Perversely, though, a stray thought suggests it might matter to them–could they know about it–that their death had the prestige of a great disaster, like the Titanic, say, or even of Lockerbie. More stature in that–more fame, more myth–than in a commuter flight downed by wind shear in rural Iowa.

But that is a trifling notion to impose on the passengers’ families. They are inconsolable; the catastrophe, whatever its origin, has done its worst to them.

The event leaves the rest of us in a state of unease and vulnerability. The flight attendant still instructs us to fasten our seat belts and to bring our seat backs and tray tables to an upright position before takeoff–all the irritating in-flight punctilio, with its bloodless ritual language–but as we strap ourselves in, our minds are projecting fireballs, and calculating odds, and trying to calm themselves more urgently than before. The worst part of jet travel is our eggs-in-a-carton passivity: inert flesh encapsulated for a leap of faith that may be (we tell ourselves) as statistically acceptable as ever, but psychologically harder now. The passengers on Flight 800 began a trajectory to the City of Light and ended, after a few minutes, in a burst, and then the profoundest blackness. An arc of time interrupted by eternity.

And if travelers are flying to Atlanta, their internal dissonance is unsettling. The bright celebration of the Olympic Games will be dimmed by a sticky coating of paranoia. We went through this atmosphere before, in the ’70s, and we remember Munich.

We know that the mentally ill–paranoid schizophrenics, for example–hear menacing voices speaking from unlikely sources (harmless strangers, inanimate objects), or they read malignant meanings into random events, or they think the very furniture will rise up and murder them. Horrors like Flight 800 tend to nudge the sanest minds into the demoralized routines of paranoids. They grow jumpy, irrational. Such familiar rituals as air travel turn sinister.

The terrorist, in any case, dreams of such results. Any one of those suitcases on the conveyor belt is the seedpod of our death. The furniture really does conceal monsters. Each rental truck is an apocalypse idling at the curb. Each 747 takes on some unsettling metaphysic of Jonah-eating whale, or Moby Dick. Paranoia renders nature and its objects darkly volitional, satanic. The intent of terrorism, we know, is to break down the boundaries and sane categories of the mind and to make everyone start thinking like a psychotic.

No need for that. The real monsters hide among the delusional monsters they create, as in a hall of mirrors. It takes an intelligent and civilized eye to see the real ones.

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