Context Matters

-- Posted by Neil H. Buchanan

Nine years and 363 days ago today, I walked into Professor Catharine MacKinnon's classroom at the University of Michigan Law School in Ann Arbor. As I moved toward my seat, a classmate told me that an airplane had just crashed into one of the towers of the World Trade Center. Smartphones and immediate web access did not yet exist, so available details about the attack were minimal. A few minutes later, Professor MacKinnon began class by saying that something very bad had happened, but since there was nothing we could do about it, we would proceed with class as planned. Her commanding presence calmed everyone, and we talked about the law of gender equality for the next 50 minutes.

As we left the classroom, we found the hallways filled with talk of the attacks, and a few televisions had been set up around the building. Some people watched endless loops of the available video footage on CNN, while the rest of us talked and speculated. A friend and I -- apparently trying, without realizing that we were doing so, to pretend that everything would soon be back to normal -- stepped outside to talk about class and to make plans to go to lunch. As we did so, someone walked by and said that one of the towers had just fallen down.

At that point in my life, I had never lived in New York City, but I had visited many times over the years. My late brother had lived there, though never further downtown than the Village, so I was unfamiliar with the Financial District. Still, the news of the falling tower immediately turned my mind -- which had been racing with all kinds of worst-case scenarios -- to thinking about how much damage a falling skyscraper could do.

Not yet having seen any of the footage, the picture that formed in my mind was of a plane hitting a tower very close to street level, causing the tower to fall sideways like a felled tree. Trying to keep itself busy, my mind started running through some numbers. I was pretty sure that the towers were a hundred stories tall. How many feet is that? If all of it landed sideways, how many building would be crushed? I remembered that, in mid-town, there are twenty streets per mile; but this is downtown. Is it more or less? How many people are on any given block? Is this residential, so that the buildings would be mostly empty on a weekday morning, or office space? Are the towers close enough to the water to have fallen into the Hudson?

Even with all of these imponderables, the horrific arithmetic was adding up to guesses of deaths in the tens of thousands. Although I was pretending not to be thinking about it, I had formed a picture in my mind of devastation for blocks around the towers. Finally, my friend and I walked back into the law school. The first television that we saw was showing the video of the first tower's collapse. Collapse! It had not fallen sideways at all. Tens of thousands of people whom I had thought dead or doomed had been spared.

I do not know exactly what I said -- or even if I said it out loud -- but it was either, "Thank God!" or "YES!!" I think I remember pumping my fist. If I did say it out loud, the few people around me were too preoccupied to notice. Still, I have often thought about what would have happened if my reaction had been caught on camera. Here was a guy seeming to cheer the collapse of a tower after a terrorist attack! What I was actually doing, of course, was expressing relief that it had not been much worse. It was as if tens of thousands of people had just come back to life.

This memory of my strange and easily misunderstood reaction has remained with me for nearly ten years. I do not intend to draw any broad philosophical or political lessons from this anecdote. I do, however, occasionally use it to remind myself that, even (or perhaps especially) in the most extreme situations, things are not always what they seem. Others might have more profound reflections on that day. Idiosyncratic as it is, this is mine.