New York City, September 11, 2001.
After an invigorating morning swim and a walk to the office under clear blue skies, I’m selecting a muffin to go with my morning coffee when a cafeteria worker rushes in from the dining area. Nearly hyperventilating, he tells everyone that a plane has just crashed into one of the World Trade Towers.
We all hustle toward the windows and look to the south. Dense smoke billows out from the irregular shape now punched into the side of the north tower. We grasp at explanations. Our collective imaginations reach this consensus: the pilot of a small plane must have suffered a heart attack and lost control of his aircraft.
Shortly thereafter, in my own department eleven stories higher, I join my coworkers along the south-facing bank of windows. Speculation continues even as a second aircraft appears to the west, coming in low across the Hudson River at high velocity. We theorize that it must be a press-related plane rushing to the scene, but it’s coming in too fast and is too close to the building and, seconds later, slams into the south tower. A fireball erupts as it crashes through the building. The visual force of it shoves us back from the window.
After our many attempts to grasp what has been happening, we now face a more likely yet discomforting fact: We are under attack.
Throughout the morning, as we watch television broadcasts, monitor the Internet, contact friends and relatives, and eventually recoil in horror as the towers collapse one after the other, two dominant yet contradictory themes emerge:
“This is unimaginable.”
“It looks like a scene from a movie.”
Later that afternoon, in our attempts to navigate home through the paralyzed city, my husband and I crowd onto a bus heading uptown, away from the disaster. People sit and stand in silence, some marked as close witnesses by dust, soot, and ash. If we speak at all, we speak in broken whispers. Mostly, we settle into a state of numbness that will haunt us for days, weeks, generations.
When the bus stops to let passengers on and off, I look back toward the plumes of smoke rising above Manhattan. Already I’m exhausted by a sight that will dominate the view from my office window for a period beyond all expectation. I look down at the street, where I see a crumpled and dusty costume being run over repeatedly by buses, cabs, fire trucks, and police cars. I recognize the red-and-blue paneling and its black web motif. It is a Spiderman suit.
Where were the superheroes today? I ask myself.
The answer is obvious. Superheroes are make-believe. They’re fictions, fantasies. Yet somehow, even in the context of such stark realities, they seem entirely imaginable.
• • •
This is unimaginable.
It looks like a scene from a movie.
These comments echoed once again throughout the coverage of the shooting at the recent “Batman” movie premiere in Aurora, Colorado. In this instance, however, the comic-book costume in question was inhabited, come to life.
James Holmes, his hair dyed red like the villain the Joker, a gas mask concealing whatever crazed expression might have been on his face, his body encased in bulletproof armor, fired randomly and repeatedly into a smoke-filled theater and struck 70 people.
In Aurora, the police were quick to apprehend Holmes. With a mixture of luck and skill, they were also able to prevent any further damage that might have resulted from entering his booby-trapped apartment.
Even after capture, Holmes acted like someone “playing a role,” according to one police officer. In other words, he continued to engage in make-believe, pretending to be someone he wasn’t. He was acting out a fantasy.
He was imagining things.
• • •
At an early age, I decided that I could and would make a career out of imagining things. I read the fiction of Ray Bradbury, Italo Calvino, and Donald Barthelme with both appreciation and envy. In order to achieve true and lasting greatness, I would have to dream bigger things than my literary idols and spin from those dreams far greater works of fiction. To do that, I would have to create characters, settings, and situations that no one else had thought of before.
In short, I would have to imagine the unimaginable.
And so, after years spent crafting short stories, novels, and poems, the events of 9/11 left me feeling uneasy and strangely complicit. Hadn’t I created similarly sinister plots for my own antagonists? Truth be told, I saw nothing “unimaginable” about flying an airplane into a building as an act of terrorism. Quite the opposite: It seemed rather simplistic.
In the days and weeks after the attack, I grew annoyed when people in both the media and our government used the word “unimaginable” to describe the events. It seemed a sloppy description, as much a dodge as a denial.
What I found truly unimaginable was that the people in charge of defending against such things hadn’t done their jobs and anticipated this scenario. (In fact, some intelligence agents had, but few people believed enough in their reports to act on them.) I wanted to suggest that the soon-to-be-formed Department of Homeland Security should employ fiction writers like Tom Clancy and Robert Ludlum—any writers, really—to help them out a bit in the imagination department.
The Aurora shooting incident, however, represents the flip side of this argument. Here, a work of imaginative fiction inspired the assailant. In his twisted state of delusion, James Holmes latched onto the Joker, a character created by comic-book writers in the 1940s, and erased the border between fantasy and reality. He obsessed over the Batman mythology but followed the wrong role model.
Authorities made easy comparisons between Holmes’s behavior and Heath Ledger’s portrayal of the Joker in the film “The Dark Knight,” which earned him a posthumous Academy Award. Critics praised the depth of Ledger’s commitment to the role. Sources on the movie set expressed their astonishment at the intensity of Ledger’s investment in the character. In an interview at the time, Ledger himself described the role as “fun,” adding: “There are no real boundaries to what the Joker would say or do. Nothing intimidates him, and everything is a big joke.” (Empire magazine, January 2008)
“Well, I warned him.” According to one report (New York Daily News, January 24, 2008), this was Jack Nicholson’s response on learning about Heath Ledger’s death by overdose a short while later. (Nicholson had taken on the Joker role in Tim Burton’s 1989 film “Batman.”) Nicholson knew the emotional and psychological toll involved in playing the Joker, and Ledger’s subsequent health issues suggested that he had been haunted by the role well after the film had wrapped.
Ledger’s death raises uncomfortable questions for those in the creative arts. Are there some places in the imagination that we shouldn’t go? And even if there are, how do we prevent ourselves from going there? Just because we may refuse to imagine something, does that make it unimaginable?
• • •
“With great power there must also come–great responsibility!”
This insight, currently attributed to Stan Lee and the Spiderman franchise but thought to originate with the French thinker Voltaire, provides a guiding light whenever I have my doubts about writing and the imaginative impulse. It reminds me that any ability, like any tool, can be used for good or bad, to create or destroy. A person can use a hammer to build a home or break a window. Radioactive material can be used to destroy cancerous cells or bring an empire to its knees.
With so much potentially at stake, it becomes tempting to sit out the debates that we need to have—with each other and with ourselves—in the wake of events such as 9/11 and Aurora and countless other acts of violence. In postponing action—or, in some cases, shrugging and offering up a feeble, defeatist “Well, what can you do?” attitude—many of our appointed leaders deny their own power and, as a result, shirk their responsibilities. They fail us, plain and simple.
In the resulting void, opportunists rise to the debate like sharks to bloody chum. Some amplify their pre-existing fears and hatreds, which in turn can incite other acts of violence. (Witness the recent shooting in Wisconsin.) Others cultivate a false sense of security or superiority with cynicism or trendy ironic detachment, a kind of toxic snark. Neither suffices for the level of serious discourse required. Both, in their own ways, risk being irresponsible.
The day before the Aurora incident, I began work on a fictional story about guns and violence inspired by Ishmael Beah’s book Long Way Home: Memoirs of a Boy Soldier. The day after the shooting, my progress stalled. I could imagine what might happen next in the story, but part of me simply didn’t want to any more. The subject felt too overwhelming, and my efforts to address it seemed insignificant. Like young Peter Parker after his uncle’s murder in the Spiderman origin story, I questioned my own powers and abilities. That superhero suit? An empty costume after all.
Slowly, the paralysis subsided. Silence was no longer an option, nor was surrendering to self-doubt or cynicism. I began to write again, and, in doing so, attempted to create the empathic connection that explores all sides of an issue, not just the easy or most comfortable side.
I could not expect a superhero to swoop in and write that next difficult scene for me, just as we cannot leave our hopes for a more just and peaceful world in the hands of some mythical caped crusader. In the real world, our daily challenges remain ours and ours alone. Luckily, we have the power to respond to those challenges in creative and positive ways. If we can imagine ways to channel that power responsibly, then together we can save the world.