Fifteen years ago the towers burned like beacons for an hour and then plunged in an ashen cloud. The minutes between the strikes and the collapses stretched into an eternity at the time. Every screen that could render video the world over showed that few second clip of the second plane striking the second tower, over and over again.
Every time we watched it that day, a hundred times over, it seemed at first blush like any other plane flying over any other city in that way we’ve seen a thousand times. And then when it just impossibly slides into a skyscraper, our eyes try to tell us that it’s just the plane passing behind the building, the way we’ve seen every day of our lives. It’s almost casual how it does it, like a hand slipping into a pocket. There’s an impossible moment then, a split second in which the plane no longer exists, and the building still does.
It’s Schrödinger’s atrocity, a solitary quantum of time in which the horror has both occurred and hasn’t. Our memories of tragedy have no sense of time, no sense of duration. They are trapped forever in that infinitely small span after the cause but before the effect. It’s what Stephen King was getting at in The Jaunt, (“longer than you think, dad, longer than you think”), in that the frailties of the human mind can render time a discontinuous function. It can jump and stretch and make zero an infinity.
Hell isn’t pain, and it’s not even other people, it’s a moment that lasts forever.
We dwell in that moment, we worry at it in our minds, digging and picking at it like a scab. As if by trapping that moment in amber we can somehow change the outcome. We don’t think about the horror itself, but about the moment before it. Our minds freeze at the instant the hand slips, the instant we hear the brakes squeal and spot the oncoming truck, the instant the ice cracks under our feet.
And that time between the planes striking and the towers falling was another elongated moment, a point stretched from one dimension to two. The people that were trapped above the slash of jet fuel and molten concrete in each tower, gods no one alive can possibly understand that dawning horror.
Sentience is a sword that cuts every direction. The capacity for abstract thought is what makes us human beings: it means that we can delay gratification, we can endure pain in order to avoid worse. That’s the gom jabbar that Frank Herbert described in Dune, the ability to comprehend that if you don’t endure a certain pain, then your life will be ended. An animal cannot conceive of that abstraction. All the other trappings of sentience are mere side effects, whether science or poetry. All those things are premised on the ability to not pull one’s hand from the fire, and stare the old witch with the poison needle right in the eye.
But it’s that same ability that can destroy us utterly. It can take a moment in which we are immediately fine and make it unbearable because we know what is coming. Our minds are thieves of joy, stealing our last moments of happiness in anticipation of the horror that has not yet arrived.
Hell is the moment between cause and effect.
Steven Lloyd Wilson is a hopeless romantic and the last scion of Norse warriors and the forbidden elder gods.