It is difficult now to recall the world of the nineties. At the time it seemed like the beginning of boundless prosperity, inspired by the manifest destiny of exploring and settling the new world of cyberspace, an era in which the iron laws of gravity and economics had been abrogated, a time of challenges that called for boldness and unconditional devotion.
But at the turn of the millennium, diffidence and disappointment set in. We began to realize that the second coming might not occur in our lifetime. Limitless affluence would take longer, and more work was needed to construct hyperreal happiness. On September 11 of 2001, diffidence turned to despair and disappointment to sorrow. In retrospect we could see that in the nineties we had been turning our private spheres into cocoons of self-indulgence, and we had enveloped the public realm in a virtual fog of cell phones, pagers, beepers, personal CD players, digital cameras, and video displays.
September 11th was in a terrifying way what Virginia Woolf has called a moment of being, a situation that made us feel the shock of reality.11xVirginia Woolf, “A Sketch of the Past,” Moments of Being, ed. Jeanne Schulkind (New York: Harcourt, 1976) 70–3. The attacks themselves were conducted in a primitively real way, and the terrors in turn shredded our cocoons and dispelled the virtual fog. Suddenly we became aware again of one another and of the things about us. People emerged from their seclusion and anonymity through their heroism, their selfless exertions, through acts of kindness and sometimes simply through the acknowledgment of tears and consolations. Suddenly the high-rises that had seemed so forbidding and aloof looked frail and precious. We felt affection and sorrow for the twin towers of the World Trade Center, which we had previously regarded as the height of witless arrogance.
Calamity has a way of restoring us to reality and kindness. When the big snow paralyzed Chicago in 1967, people learned again how to walk, how to be neighbors, and how to attend to the simple tasks of getting milk and bread from the store on a sled and of clearing a space from the garage to the street. When an ice storm paralyzed the northern part of upstate New York early in 1996 and shut down electricity for weeks, people shared their fuel and their kitchens and volunteered to minister to the sick and the elderly in makeshift shelters.22xStephen Doheny-Farina, The Grid and the Village (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2001). When wildfires ravaged Montana in the summer of 2000, people sheltered and consoled one another, and the much detested “Feds” turned into heroic guardians.