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The Terror of Not Knowing

Guest Column
Mike Hall

“Breaking News: Plane Crashes in Western Pennsylvania.”

Western Pennsylvania. Pittsburgh. My hometown.

I had been watching CNN’s live broadcasts from New York and Washington, seeing the replays of the second American Airlines jet crashing through the south World Trade Center tower. I sat shocked, dismayed, but still unbelieving.

“It was like a movie,” a friend commented. I couldn’t agree more, because that was the only plausible explanation. The towers were falling right before my eyes, but it seemed so distant -- like it was a shot from downtown Baghdad or Tel Aviv or another one of those faraway places I heard about in passing on the news.

Then, in one split second, it came all too close.

The news alert flashed on the screen, the announcers began mentioning “Pittsburgh” and “Western Pennsylvania” and “plane crash” all in the same breath. Images flashed through my head. Pittsburgh. Big buildings in Pittsburgh. The Federal Building.

The building where my mom works.

And then it hits. The terror of not knowing. Of seeing American icons crumble on the television, of hearing that those terrorists -- those nameless, faceless cowards -- had struck your home.

I raced downstairs to the nearest phone, trying to call home, trying to reach someone somewhere who might have answers. Can’t call Mom, phone lines might be out, want an answer, call Dad, he’s not in the city -- hands race through pockets, no change! -- race to Courses, go to register, get change -- no dollar bills, just use a five, you’ll need the extra change anyway, long-distance call. Race back to the pay phone, hands shaking, shove the quarters in, remember Dad’s work number? No answer, but damn it! Used a 617 area code instead of 412, told you you’d need the extra change. Why the hell would those bastards hit Pittsburgh, anyway? The city’s got nothing anymore -- call again, shove quarters in, remember 412 this time, hands shaking -- phone rings and rings and still rings! But no answer, but Dad always picks up this line, and they’re not in the city, so why aren’t they picking up... unless they got hit, Michael?

And hang up the phone, pick it up and slam it down down down and just start crying all over the extra quarters.

I headed to the 2nd floor lounge, next to the TV, tapping people’s shoulders, asking if they saw where the plane hit in Pennsylvania. No one remembered the name. They would have remembered Pittsburgh if it happened, right? But panic still. Then came relief: the plane hit in Somerset County, miles away from my mom, my dad, my brother, my family. Relief, finally, in the minutes of not knowing.

Those cowards didn’t hit my mother yesterday, thank God. But they hit other mothers in Pittsburgh, New York, DC. Other children are left now with the terror of not knowing -- or of knowing that the worst is true.

Now is the time to strike back. Now is the time to find out the names and faces of those nameless, faceless cowards. Now is the time to hit back harder than we’ve ever hit before. Now is the time for those nameless, faceless cowards to run in fear, to tremble when dialing their loved ones, to wash their spare change in their tears.

Now is the time for them to feel the terror of not knowing.

Mike Hall is a member of the class of 2003.