Periscope Depth

the dead know only one thing: it is better to be alive

This is true: ten years ago, plus or minus two days, twenty-seven hundred people left for work and didn’t come home again. Anything they planned to do when they retired, or next year, or over the holidays – hell, anything they planned to do on their lunch break – was left unfinished. They were janitors and security guards and brokers and analysts and researchers and salespeople and IT personnel. They came in on the PATH train or the A, C and E trains. They were hungry. They were children and parents. They had just started their morning, or were a few hours into an early shift, when they died.

The one thing that kills you is, by definition, the thing you weren’t prepared for. You can jog half an hour every morning, cut out white bread and saturated fat, celebrate twenty years sober, and still die of the most unexpected event like a hijacked airliner crashing into your office. Our inability to prepare for death is frightening. Civilization is preparation: anticipating the weather, a scarcity of food, the next generation’s ignorance, our future desires. Death lays all of that low. We can’t conceive of it – by definition, since death stops the conceptual process – so we approach it with metaphors, as we would infinity. And as with all metaphors, we use it and reuse it and hang meaning on it until we forget that it’s a metaphor and start thinking that it’s real.

You’ll read and hear and see a lot this weekend, whether you want to or not, about the effect that these twenty-seven hundred dead had on the cultural and geopolitical fate of a particular country. Through that all, please remember one thing: these people are dead. They don’t want anything. That’s what it means to be dead: not to think, not to feel, not to want, not to be. Both the religious and the atheists agree on this idea, that to be dead is to escape material desire. The dead don’t want anything. They don’t want to be remembered with a slowly flapping flag on CNN, or honored with candles, or avenged by a SEAL team in a Pakistan compound, or admitted to the communion of saints. They don’t want an end to religious extremism in the Middle East, or a restoration of civil liberties in America, or global hegemony or a dissolution of power. If we owe the dead anything, the dead will never come around to collect. If we join the dead tomorrow, or next year, or sixty years from now, the dead will not grab us by the shoulders and say, “Why didn’t you?” because we too will be dead. The dead won’t care, and we won’t care that the dead won’t care, because we will be dead, and the dead don’t want anything.

Some twenty-seven hundred people died ten years ago when a plane hit a building. The next day, about sixty-four hundred people died in America, mostly of cancer, heart disease and traffic accidents. Someday we’ll be joining them and we know not the hour.

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