Imagining The Hanson Family

As the wind began to shift northward and the ominous perfume of acrid smoke drifted down to the streets at the other end of the island, as the casualty lists grew longer and the stories of the missing less lined with hope, as the end of the world as we know it entered its postlude, it was the Hansons I fastened on. No telling why, exactly, except perhaps for the way their names appeared on the flight list, with that single number:

Peter Hanson, Massachusetts

Susan Hanson, Massachusetts

Christine Hanson, 2, Massachusetts

I could see them clear as the lambent blue sky that seemed to mock the mangled streets of lower Manhattan. I could see them in my imagination, the part of my mind that veered away from the footage of the flames and the endlessly falling. Maybe Christine, 2, had her own backpack to make her feel important going on the airplane. Maybe her parents carried a car seat to keep her safe on takeoff and landing.

It seems as though each one of us had something that made us tremble: the airplane cell-phone call from husband to wife, saying he was going to take on the hijackers; the jaunty lament of the workers in the Twin Towers about the long climb down; the firefighters' helmets and boots found amid the rubble. "It was the people jumping out of the building holding hands," a woman whispered at daybreak, walking her dog.

For me it was the Hansons. I don't know why. It wasn't even that I knew much about them; I found out from news reports only that the three of them were going to visit family on the United flight from Boston to Los Angeles, the second plane to hit the World Trade Center. Instead I was struck by the idea of them, of what it feels like to be a mother, a father, to travel with your husband, your wife, with your 2-year-old daughter in the seat between you.

Despair was as thick in the air of the city as the smell of smoke. New Yorkers who often make eye contact only with the concrete beneath their feet walked, half dazed, glancing up at the sky that now seemed so dangerous. In the middle of the night a plane flew low and loud, and we started from our beds, seeing the familiar urban constellation of white lights out the window, looking for the bombs bursting in air.

Hope lies in the bright line that divides us from the men who did this thing: we can imagine the Hansons. The terrorists thought they were destroying buildings, monuments to capitalism and American military strength. But what they were doing was blowing families to bits. They left behind, not so much a monumental mass of rubble, but tricycles, sweater drawers, love letters, flower beds, books, video cameras, unpaid bills, untidy kitchens, mothers, fathers, uncles, brothers, sons, daughters, friends, from Maine to California. And people have folded their hearts around all that messy detritus, so like their own, so that all the deaths have become a death in their family.

Anything can happen when human beings allow ideology to trump their humanity, when they elevate an idea above the lives of individuals. Anything can happen, and too often does. It becomes possible to bomb a black church and kill the four little girls inside. It becomes possible to execute a doctor who performs abortions, shoot him through the window of his own home while his children are nearby.

It becomes possible to drive a truck full of explosives into the side of the federal building in Oklahoma City and feel the ground buck beneath your feet, to turn a day-care center into a conflagration and refer to the babies and toddlers killed as "collateral damage." Perhaps ideologues so divorced from empathy are incapable of feeling even for themselves. Hence Timothy McVeigh's dead eyes and stoic stare into the camera as he lay on a gurney in the death chamber. Hence the unimaginable willingness of the men who sent those planes like fiery torpedoes into public buildings to see themselves, as well as their passengers, as merely incidental cargo in the service of some heinous greater good.

As the ground smokes and the people seethe, it is tempting to feel something of what those men did, to see human beings as a faceless bloc, a wholesale locus for anger and revenge. In the line to give blood at the Red Cross, a man railed against the Palestinians because he'd seen television footage of men, women and children dancing for joy at the thousands of American dead. But that footage shows other people passing behind the gaudy celebrants, people unacknowledged by the outraged and the vengeful, people who look away, who do not join in. The Islamic Cultural Center a block away from here has a police officer standing guard; in the middle of the night the roar of a man's voice shatters the street nearby, crying, "Every sand n----r must die!" Crazy, perhaps, but with a crater of tumbled steel where two of the world's most iconographic buildings once stood, the people muttering conspiracies to themselves on the street have overnight come to seem like seers.

Amazing, isn't it, the sort of plotting and scheming and careful planning that the blazing belief in violence to underscore demagoguery can produce? Amazing, isn't it, that without any plotting or planning at all the notion that we are essentially alike leads human beings to rise up and, even stumbling about in the dark of horror, do what is necessary. Blood donations, bags of sandwiches, secondhand clothes, e-mail messages, casseroles, prayers, embraces. Evil requires careful machinations. Good does not. The end of the world came with both whimpers and bangs and all manner of sounds in between. When it was done, what hung over it all, greater than the smoke or the shock, was the sense of what most people are really made of, the emotional alchemy that enables us, from time to time, to love our neighbors as ourselves. To see ourselves in them all: the executives, the waiters, the lawyers, the police officers, the father, the mother, the 2-year-old girl off on an adventure, sitting safe between them, taking wing.