I drove by the fallen bridge in Minneapolis the other day. It was a strange and eerie feeling.
There is something both suspended and final about seeing a bridge hanging in parts with vehicles overturned and crushed and stopped on impossible angles. You want the scene to continue until it settles into some kind of visual resolution. But it doesn’t. The cars remain there, parked sideways on a ramp of concrete jutting like a broken bone into the sky. The overturned vehicles, piled on top of each other, feel like unfinished stories — incomplete events frozen in time.
And then there is the absence of life. There should be people in those cars. There should be movement on that bridge. Instead, it is like a room people abandoned without taking even so much as a toothbrush with them.
I have seen this once before, in La Conchita, California, where a mudslide had sent houses down the side of a cliff, and you could stand before the mountain of mud and look at houses snapped open with rooms displayed like pieces of a dollhouse dropped by a careless hand. Here a toaster hangs by a cord from a wall socket, there a curtain flutters in the breeze in a glassless window. Couches sit in rooms that have no front wall. And all of this, like the cars on the bridge, takes place on impossible angles that beg for some resolution by the laws of equilibrium and gravity.
In some ways, these two disasters share something. In each, the earth shifted, slid, and stopped. There was finality, but no resolution. Each was a ghost of an event, where you could see the result but not the action. It was like “here is where it stopped,” followed only by silence and a sense of desperate abandonment. People wander around looking, but they are miniature in scale. Rescue workers and clean up crews seem like ants scuttling over a great, fractured surface.
But, blessedly, in the bridge collapse, as in the La Conchita mudslide, the event echoes more with the absence of life than the presence of death.
It is a miracle to me that only 8 people died in this bridge collapse. It is inconceivable that a freeway bridge, packed bumper to bumper during rush hour, could fall eight stories into a river and result in only eight fatalities. My wife said she would have guessed 500 dead just by looking at the wreckage. I would have said 1000.
But the number stands at eight — no consolation to the families of those who are among that number, but a miracle in light of what could have been.
I am proud of our Minnesotans for how they responded. We are, indeed, a kind and helpful people here, and it is good to see that demonstrated before the eyes of the nation.
But I am ashamed of our governments — both state and national — for how they have betrayed the trust of those good people by selling the idea of government as the cause of problems rather than the solution. Our bridges should not have gotten to such a condition and their construction should not have been done so much on the cheap that they only have a fifty year life span. The way to avoid this is to build to maximum specifications and exacting tolerances and to maintain to an impeccable standard. But such impeccability costs money, and you cannot expect people to give over their earnings willingly when you see a government conducting an impossibly expensive and unjustified war through the use of high-paid private contractor proxies, offering up pork barrel projects to legislative districts all around the country, and all the while selling a political philosophy that government can only be wasteful and cumbersome rather than compassionate and universal in its reach.
This bridge has been reduced to a pile of rubble. It will not soon go away, but it will soon be out of the hearts and minds of those in other parts of the country. It probably is already. But we need to remember it, just as we need to remember the mine disasters that result from lax government oversight and the cities of the south that lay in ruins from a hurricane that has passed from consciousness for most of us and is being criminally ignored in the halls of our national government.
My hope is that the young people of today will soon say, “We’ve had enough. It’s time for change.” My generation did it, though I’m still not sure on balance if we did more good than harm. But at least we galvanized for collective action. This generation has new challenges where the enemy is not conformity and regimentation as it was for us, it’s selfishness and mindless consumption.
Maybe the metaphor is in that bridge. It was built in 1967 on the eve of the Tet Offensive, when my generation truly came alive to what was happening around us, and the old way of thinking began to fall. Maybe this bridge can be a different kind of Tet Offensive. Coming on the distant heels of Katrina, but touching us all with the nearness of a similar danger in our own lives, maybe it can bring a new generation alive to what is happening around us, and the current way of thinking will begin to fall.
I hope so, because if we don’t soon realize that collective responsibility is as real as individual prerogative, a lot more than that bridge is going collapse beneath us.