Paranoid like me

The country becomes afraid and my alienation begins to fade.

By Gary Greenberg

Published September 26, 2001 7:37PM (EDT)

When the Thing happened, I waited for the trauma to make its way through me, the textbook progression from shock through grief and rage to resolution. And even though in real life nothing ever works this way, I was surprised to feel only mild preoccupation, some small increase in my native absent-mindedness -- a sandwich misplaced, an appointment forgotten. Later, I heard that my students, the ones who attended the classes I insisted on holding despite the blizzard of bad news (but in which we talked of little else), thought I was untouched by the events -- which meant, I suppose, that they suspected me of callousness in the face of 6,000 or so people wiped out in a stroke.

I wondered the same thing. You'd have to be a real son of a bitch not to notice that all about you, people are losing their heads more than you are or, having noticed, not to suspect your own decency. There were explanations, at least for myself -- notably that I don't have a television, hence hadn't really seen the thing. But I didn't have a TV when the Challenger blew up either, and I ran right out to a department store to watch that little flash and the sudden chaos of contrails that followed. This time, though, even when my sister in New York told me that the whole thing was captured live and being broadcast on an endless tape loop, like the yule log at Christmas, I decided to spare myself the sublime nightmare of Godzilla and King Kong squaring off above Wall Street, of technology and capital burning each other alive. I vowed not to watch what I could not truly witness. Because imagination is a more moral faculty than watching, or so I have come to believe.

(They keep saying that it's incomprehensible, but it's really not that hard to imagine people being blown out of a building 1,500 feet above the ground, or holding hands and leaping from the 82nd floor. You don't have to stretch too hard to picture the sudden surprise of a plane bursting into your office, the instant recognition that this is how it ends or the decision to make the terms of your death your own, the wish to spend your last moments free-falling in the close company of another person. You break it down to its basic physics and psychology, and it all makes perfect sense.)

But the aggregate of it, the sheer scale -- shouldn't that bother me? That is the terror, after all, because anyone could be on those planes, in those buildings, buying a bagel from a peddler in the street below. The evil is in the happenstance, the indiscriminateness, the failure of the terrorist to care about which individual identities he is erasing. So that even if you keep your ass clean, pay your taxes, drive on the right and have never wished ill on a Palestinian, let alone killed a Muslim, you might be next. This is what my clients are confessing to these days, at least as prelude to their mundane worries about loves gone bad or emotions run amok: the loss of some sense that beneath the psychopathology of everyday life lies a solid ground, a place to go home to, bills in the mail and newspapers on the doorstep, happiness in the offing once this little problem with Mom is straightened out.

I heard one commentator say that America had lost its virginity. I disagree, and here may be the source of my apparent callousness. I've been feeling fucked for a long time. Oh, not nearly as fucked as your average Palestinian or Iraqi, but fucked just the same. In at least three of the myriad senses of that word. Fucked as in hopelessly confused, confined to the territory of bad faith, driving to the store in a car worth all the targets in Afghanistan put together (a new definition of poverty -- a country too poor to be worth bombing) and listening to a radio report on the greenhouse effect, simultaneously marveling at and disgusted by my ability to do that. Fucked as in ruined, doomed to inhabit that blasted moral landscape forever. Fucked as in penetrated to the core against my will, or at least my better judgment, by hopeless contradiction.

I've been living in a state of terror for years now. The fact that any day I could be thrown in jail and my family and all my material possessions taken away because of some personal habits is only the nearest sign of it, only the most obvious (and maybe least important) way that I feel the enormous apparatus of money and machine arrayed against me. I've never been on the high floor of a skyscraper without imagining falling (or being propelled) out. I've dreamed for years of airplanes driving down city streets and slicing buildings off at the knees with their wings.

I've always been without faith sufficient to just drag my chains and count my change and try to walk the line, and even when I lived in a cabin in the woods I woke up every day wondering if the grid was still there or if we were all about to be plunged into the panic of a deer being chased by a dog or the misery of a raccoon in the rain. I pay my mortgage and pretend it makes sense and take all the comfort that irony offers. Which is plentiful, but never enough to wipe out the sure and terrifying knowledge that there is blood on my hands, and that nothing really holds together.

This is a refined and luxurious terror, to be sure. No one is raining bombs on my village or crashing planes into my house or choking off my supplies of food and medicine or poisoning my child with amoeba-infested water or pouring cyanide into my river. But even without TV, I can imagine the pictures that illustrate my inescapable entanglement in these horrible things. And I've always expected it to catch up to me sooner or later. How long can you get away with such blatant evil?

So here's the funny part. Now that everyone else is scared shitless, I feel better. I feel like I have company in a country that I've shared with only a precious few, barely even mentioned to others because I know how paranoid I sound. For the first time in my adult life, I feel my alienation ratcheting down. This won't last long. The rumblings of victimized patriotism are already drowning out everything else; they even tried to name -- Infinite Justice -- and sang its battle hymn. But I will always remember that there was a moment, however brief, when all the world could see the fibers that hold steel and concrete together for the gossamer threads that they are.

Gary Greenberg

Gary Greenberg is a psychotherapist and freelance journalist. He teaches psychology at Connecticut College and his work has appeared in Rolling Stone, the New Yorker, Discover, and McSweeney's, among others.

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