Only now do I realize that The Unthinkable section belongs with the other unthinkable section of my library.
Around 2:00 p.m. on September 11, 2001 I was compulsively fiddling with the books in my library. Obsessing about the arrangement of the books, the different sections already organized by genre and author; standing in front of this or that section for a long time, rearranging some more. Right down to the visual balance of size, design and dust jacket color.
How very strange. I sort of came to, wading out of a fugue, and realized: What am I doing? I was doing something, to the continuing coverage of the tragedy on the East Coast. I was creating order in... chaos. And I was three thousand miles west of the whole thing -- nowhere near a target, unless bull pine, live oak and manzanita are considered high-value targets.
So primally traumatizing were the September 11 attacks that as soon as they were released, I acquired every book on the event in print (including the official 9/11 Commission Report), DVDs (United 93, World Trade Center, CNN Tribute: America Remembers); founded a tech startup in 2002 for homeland security applications, and in 2004 became CEO of a national nonprofit organization serving the grieving survivors of 9/11 casualties. Within a month of Hurricane Katrina, I had invested thousands of dollars in an emergency preparedness cache of food, sealed water, soap, first aid, solar-powered chargers and reusable batteries, extra athletic shoes, blankets, what have you, for home and for car trunks, to keep us safe and well-nourished for from five to 30 years. Depending on the menu.
The only thing missing from my emergency kit was The Unthinkable: Who Survives When Disaster Strikes -- And Why, by Amanda Ripley (2008, Crown Publishers, 223 pages). The definitive survival handbook.
This isn't another scout manual on basic camping skills, how to make fire or hang meat from a tree. A brilliant reporter who has written extensively about homeland security, disaster and risk for Time magazine, Ripley goes to the most critical survival skill of all: our instincts.
Drawing from documented historical examples, the data she assimilated in the seven years since 9/11 presents the spectrum of behaviors in sudden catastrophe, from the opening chapter, "Denial: Procrastinating in Tower 1" to questions of resilience, passivity, heroism and the physiology of fear. Again and again, humans in extreme situations make the same mistakes but the wonderful discovery is that our reflexes can be re-educated. "Simple truths emerge," says the author. "We need to understand how our brain works in disasters before we can save ourselves."
It's probably wise to acknowledge that the vast majority of Westerners do not die in disasters... It is, however, quite likely that you will be affected by a disaster... In fact, about 91 percent of Americans live in places at a moderate-to-high risk of earthquakes, volcanoes, tornadoes, wildfires, hurricanes, flooding, high-wind damage, or terrorism... Disasters are predictable, but surviving them is not.
What is the profile of a survivor? Our Twitter society and the 24-hour news cycle -- where network producers and reckless individuals conjure shock headlines, anxiety-inducing theme music, incendiary YouTube videos, and teasers designed to hold us hostage (don't go away!). We're set up for counter-survival reflexes (staying put is number one). The equations for dread, worry and panic are, we learn, affected by many complex factors, including yet another lifesaving incentive to forgo junk food:
Is it genetics? Experience? A chemical imbalance? What makes the difference?... People who are leaders or basket cases on a normal day at the office aren't necessarily the same in a crisis... There is the cruel reality of physics, too. Overweight people move more slowly and need more space, so they have more trouble escaping.
When the bombs start falling, The Unthinkable needs to be in our 72-hour backpack, with the solar batteries, water, Swiss Army knife, chocolate and portable scripture. The thing is to grasp The Unthinkable now, before we have to run.
I just realized I haven't finished rearranging. The 9/11 books need to be moved to the other unthinkable section of my library: Hitler, the Third Reich, and the Holocaust.