published Sunday, May 19th, 2013

Shavin: Fascination with tragedy is human nature

By Dana Shavin

We are on our way home from Greenville, S.C., when a plane flies very low overhead. We are close to Dobbins Air Force Base, so it isn't unusual, but it awakens an ancient yearning. I want to see a plane crash. I want to see a plane crash really bad. Please do not be shocked by this. I suspect that somewhere deep down inside, everyone wants to see one.

A caveat here: My will is not ill. I don't want people hurt. The plane that crashes must be empty. Perhaps it could be a drone. What I'm after is not human carnage but dramatics of another sort: The sci-fi-ish spectacle of a monstrous metal object falling from the sky, the ear-splitting whine and roar as the plane commences its inevitable spiral to the ground, the body-rocking moment when it hits going 1,000 mph and explodes into an infinite number of unrecognizable pieces that will show up under the lazy noses of grazing cows hundreds of miles from the crash site decades down the line.

What I want is the visceral drama, the brain-rattling, eardrum-shattering, screaming-at-the-top-of-my-lungs-but-not-being-heard-above-the-din experience. The same thing people who choose popcorn over gum want. Something jolting.

Which brings me to the daily news. Sometimes weeks go by without anything grabbing my attention. And sometimes a domestic story so rattles me, I go to sleep with it in my head and find it still there in the morning. 9/11, Columbine, the surfacing of Jaycee Dugard and the Newtown shootings rattled me, all for different reasons. The Boston bombing and the recent limousine fire in California rattled me. The recent escape of three women who were held captive for a decade in Cleveland, Ohio, because it's still fresh, rattles me big time.

Of this last, I have so many questions and so few answers. None of which I need to know, but all of which I desperately want to know. When Jaycee Dugard resurfaced after her 18-year captivity in Phillip Garrido's backyard, I had a million questions for her. Thankfully she wrote a memoir, the most astounding revelation of which was the fact that she was not angry because to be angry would mean her captors had "won." Was it possible that she really was not angry? If so, this was, in a sense, my empty aircraft crash.

But I suspect it isn't true, or not completely true. I suspect Jaycee was, at some point, really, really mad. And that, too, is not my business to know, although I very much want to know. I can't explain it except to invoke the story of the scorpion that stings the hospitable frog that's carrying him across a lake. As they're both drowning, the scorpion defends his action, saying simply, "It's my nature." We are what we are. Sometimes what we are is downright ugly.

It is true that stories of kidnap and escape and limo fires on bridges are more the stuff of sensationalism than news. They are the plane crash we can't turn away from and so we watch, mesmerized, down to the very last tinkling of the very last piece of glass, until the charred, heaving, smoking body, the gashed ground, the twisted steel and exploded and violated personal effects mercifully fade to black. Soon enough, another spiraling plane will appear overhead, a specter that will awaken some drowsy, complacent part of me, and I'll watch yet again with equal parts fascination and horror.

I simply can't help it. It's my nature.

Contact Dana Shavin at danalise@juno.com.

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