Impact

On August 14, 2010, the week Senator Ted Stevens was killed in a plane crash, Bilal Dardai (The Neo-Futurists) read the following at The Paper Machete.

It might surprise you how many ways there are for you to react to a plane crash; and by “you,” going forward, I will mean “me,” but I am saying “you” because I don’t want to feel like I’m the only one who thinks this way. And by “react to a plane crash” I mean “a plane crash you are not actually in,” because I suspect that there are very few ways to react to a plane crash you are actually in, all of which are variations of “oh no, I am in a plane crash.”

You expect to react with horror, of course, because a plane crash is horrific, a mess of tangled steel and broken limbs, the crater it leaves, the stench of jet fuel ablaze. But there is a part of you that reacts with a strange sense of blasé, a part that thinks irrational things like “oh, must be that time of year again,” as if it were allergy season, as if plane crashes were ragweed. There is a part of you that reacts with cold science to the numbers and size, decides that your empathy is proportional to how many dead versus how many survived. There’s that CSI part of you that focuses on the culprit, pointing fingers at the weather, at the pilot, at terrorism. There’s that ugly little goblin in your brain that is frantically writing the inappropriate jokes, the Need Another Seven Astronauts jokes, the jokes that you hope you are decent enough to veto with extreme prejudice.

Sometimes there is somebody you knew on the plane, and this gives you a whole subroutine of emotional response that can play out for years. You could find out right away that somebody close to you just fell out of the sky, or you could find out years later that the girl who refused to go with you to the spring formal was on the plane that hit the Pentagon.

You could read one Tuesday morning that a plane has crashed in southwest Alaska, and that on that plane was former Republican Senator Ted Stevens. Ted Stevens, who had served as Alaska’s senator for forty years, the longest-serving Republican in history, before being ousted by a young Democrat in 2008. And you might be completely perplexed as to how you should feel about that.

You don’t like to admit to all of your schadenfreude because you don’t want people to think you’re a sociopath. But you can name, for example, a certain former Vice President, a man who you suspect has survived so many heart attacks only because Satan is trying to stall the inevitable primary challenge. You think to yourself that although you wouldn’t wish noisy mangling death upon said former Vice President you would not necessarily mind if it were to happen that way. And for a moment you might try to convince yourself that Ted Stevens, Bush-era-Republican Ted Stevens, open-up-ANWR-for-drilling Ted Stevens, the-Internet-is-a-series-of-tubes Ted Stevens, that maybe you feel that sort of animus for him as well.

But this argument fails, and you’re left with the empty feeling that you should at least feel something. So you’re taking hours of time at work to do what amounts to seventh-grade research on the life and times of Ted Stevens, more attention than you ever paid to the man while he was alive. And you find out that his middle name was “Fulton.” And you find out that this was his second plane crash in Alaska, that the last one killed his first wife Ann.

And you find out something you should have known in the first place: Ted Stevens was another in a long line of human beings who live to the age of 87 and then pass away, leaving behind a varied series of memories and perspectives of how that life was lived, and it doesn’t necessarily have anything to do with you.

But you take the time to note that whenever this plane crash comes up again, it is going to be referred to as “the plane crash that killed Ted Stevens.” So you find an audience in a bar one afternoon and you remind them that this was also the plane crash that killed Terry Smith, Bill Phillips, and Dana and Corey Tindall.

But you don’t know how you feel about any of them, either.

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