The question comes up with some regularity: “Where were you when …?” What goes in place of the ellipsis has changed with the generations. For my parents, it was the (first) Kennedy assassination (1963). For my siblings and chronological peers, it was first the Three Mile Island accident (1979) and then the Challenger disaster (1986). For almost everyone since, it’s been the September 11 attacks (2001), though a generation lacking memory of those events is now entering adulthood. These examples are admittedly taken from mainstream U.S. culture. If one lives elsewhere, it might be the Mexico City earthquake (1985), the Chernobyl disaster (1986), the Indonesian tsunami (2004), the Haitian earthquake (2010), the Fukushima disaster (2011), or any number of other candidates populating the calendar. Even within the U.S., other more local events might take on greater significance, such as Hurricane Katrina (2005) along the Gulf Coast or Hurricane Iniki (1992) in Hawaii, the latter of which gives September 11 a very different meaning for those who suffered through it.

What these events all have in common is partially a loss of innocence (particularly the man-made disasters) and a feeling of suspended animation while events are sorted out and news is processed. I remember with clarity how the TV news went into full disaster mode for the Challenger disaster, which proved to be the ridiculous template for later events, including 9/11. Most of the coverage was denial of the obvious and arrant speculation, but the event itself was captivating enough that journalists escaped wholesale condemnation they plainly deserved. The “where were you?” question is usually answered with the moment one became aware of some signal event, such as “I was on the bus” or “I was eating dinner.” News vectors changed dramatically from 1986 to 2001, as two relatively arbitrary points of comparison within my lifetime. Being jarred out of complacency and perceiving the world suddenly as a rather dangerous place hardly expresses the weird wait-and-see response most of us experience in the wake of disaster.

Hurricanes typically come with a narrow warning, but other events strike without clear expectation — except perhaps in terms of their inevitability. That inevitability informs expectations of further earthquakes (e.g., San Andreas and New Madrid faults) and volcanic eruptions (e.g., the Yellowstone supervolcano), though the predictive margin of error can be hundreds or even thousands of years. My more immediate concern is with avoidable man-made disasters that are lined up to fall like a series of dominoes. As with natural disasters, we’re all basically sitting ducks, completely vulnerable to what armed mayhem may arise. But rather than enter into suspended animation in the wake of events, current political, financial, and ecological conditions find me metaphorically ducking for cover in expectation of the inevitable blow(s). Frankly, I’ve been expecting political and financial crack-ups for years, and current events demonstrate extremely heightened risk. (Everyone seems to be asking which will be worse: a Trump or Clinton presidency? No one believes either candidate can guide us successfully through the labyrinth.) A tandem event (highly likely, in my view) could easily trigger a crisis of significant magnitude, given the combination of violent hyperbole and thin operational tolerance for business as usual. I surmise that anyone who offers the line “may you live in interesting times” has a poor understanding of what’s truly in store for us. What happens with full-on industrial collapse is even harder to contemplate.

  1. 5191 says:

    Sputnik and the Cuban Missile Crisis.

    • Brutus says:

      Both are before my time. Did the “where were you?” question really get asked about either? I thought that the JFK assassination inaugurated that meme.

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