Inbox Zero Dark Thirty
Bryan VanDyke

There’s only one place to start and that’s at the end, or at what feels like the end: when word gets out that Osama bin Laden is dead. I get a text from the Times at 11 p.m. I turn on the TV and CNN is running a shot of the crowd at the White House gate: girls are perched on the shoulders of young men and everyone is shouting “U.S.A., U.S.A,” as if we just won back the superpower-class world championship. A few minutes later the presidential press conference begins and Obama cuts right to the point. “Tonight,” he says, “justice has been done.”

Later that night I write an e-mail to a friend: “Normally, I don’t go in for blood revenge but in this case the Furies had to be answered to, you know?” But I don’t feel the same swagger as the words I use. Lying in bed that night I keep thinking: What now? What happens next?

I live in New York City. I was just a few blocks east when the Towers collapsed. I work in a high-rise building that showed up on an al-Qaeda hit list. I get jittery when I hear too many ambulance sirens echoing all at once. And after a decade of living with a tensed gut and in grim certainty of another large-scale terror strike, I should be happy to hear the long manhunt for al-Qaeda’s founder has come to an end. But I don’t know if I’m happy. I’m satisfied, yes. I’m relieved, absolutely. Happiness isn’t always a big share of relief.

Or perhaps we should begin later, much later.

I am seated upstairs at an Indian/Chinese fusion restaurant in Curry Hill on the East Side. My wife Raina and I are on one side of the table, and our friends Ginger and Greg hold down the other. They listen indulgently as I describe the moment when I knew success was at hand. How I slowed down after I sensed the inevitable win. How I let some e-mails slide, knowing that if I sent a response, someone else would write back and delay my goal of an emptied inbox. And how I finally sent out a text message like a victory flare to Raina at 10:54 a.m. on Monday, January 14, 2013: “IT’S OFFICIAL: INBOX ZERO.”

Although my story is a shade melodramatic, many would agree that “doing e-mail” is one of the least rewarding parts of one’s personal or professional life; as a result, all three of my dinner companions can relate to the sense of accomplishment I felt upon reaching the end of my e-mail. Ginger says just this week she’s heard three people talking about the nirvana of Inbox Zero.

“The term is a hash tag on Twitter, too,” I admit. “It’s trendy.”

Then she asks if I still have an empty e-mail inbox. She’s caught onto the artificial quality of my so-called accomplishment. She’s a lawyer, and she has a lawyer’s ear for stories that don’t quite click. After all, the torrent of e-mail never stops. I’m probably getting more right this minute.

“No, no, I’m still clear,” I tell her, sounding a little like a junkie on the phone with his parole officer. I’m still clean. And then I tell her, Greg, and Raina that I’m going to use my experience to write an essay about the scourge of e-mail and how it is one of the enduring problems of our time: “And I’m going to call it Inbox Zero Dark Thirty,” I say, and we all laugh.

Such an essay sounds ridiculous because what connection could there possibly be between doing your e-mail and an Academy Award-nominated movie about hunting down the scourge of our times, Osama bin Laden?

At the end of the night Zero Dark Thirty comes up again. I haven’t had a chance to see the film in a theater. Greg tells me that whenever I get around to seeing it, he’d love to talk about what I think. He’d seen it at a special advance viewing last fall, and as a result he had very few people to talk about a few things in the film that bothered him.

“So you didn’t like it?” I ask.

He shakes his head. “It’s just—well, you’ll see.”


A month passes and I have forgotten about my hollow promise to write an essay conflating e-mail and global terrorism. I also have long since lost my Inbox Zero status. I declared total e-mail victory on a Monday morning, and by the following Friday, when we all went out for dinner and Ginger cross-examined me for misleading statements, I’d already lost the upper hand. For me, the problem with e-mail is a problem of deliberation. I am not a flippant e-mailer. I allow responses to incubate. I craft even my most telegraphic replies. The modernist in me is forever asking: What Would Virgina Woolf Do?

But all of this is a distant memory on a cold but sunny Friday in mid-February when Raina and I take a joint vacation day. Using work vacation days to bum around the city is the best way for parents of wee ones to strike up and sustain an actual conversation—or to do something we’d been meaning to do, such as buy tickets for Zero Dark Thirty at the Lincoln Square Cineplex.

To our surprise, the theater is packed, despite the 3 p.m. start time on a workday. I am primed for a transformative experience by the time the house lights dim. My expectations for the film are impossibly high and, sure enough, within five minutes of the opening scene, a sense of regret settles over me. Ten minutes more and my disappointment has increased until it seemingly extends to the screen itself, like beads of water on glass. I keep thinking: Is this it? Is this all there is?

I am left cold by the movie first and foremost because the characters just don’t do much. Yes, I know, they’re passionate about catching Osama bin Laden, but this is asserted through dialogue and implication more than by any real illustration of the personal and professional sacrifices the characters make to reach their goals. We keep hearing about major events that happen offstage, where we can’t see them. If this were Greek tragedy, that particular tactic would be in keeping with the medium. But Sophocles didn’t have a $30 million budget, now did he?

I am particularly troubled by the repeated usage of “UBL” to refer to Osama bin Laden, which feels like a last desperate bid for insider-like credibility. The abbreviation of UBL has been used in memos and dialogue in real-world nonfiction like The Black Banners and The 9/11 Commission Report—based on a slightly different transliteration of the name, Usama bin Laden. Yet, in the film, the term feels like a tactic that has been put in place to alienate the viewers, to rock them out of the familiar and make them feel like outsiders in the hope that this will make the storyline new again. Because the truth is that every moviegoer in the world saw how this ends two years ago on the small screens of our living rooms.

The movie credits run and after a few minutes spent in our seats, Raina and I exit to a crowd of patrons. On the side streets between the theatre and the subway station, Raina and I agree that the whole movie felt oddly pitched, not quite right, even if it was well crafted. To the credit of Bigelow and the other filmmakers, our discussion about the movie qua movie quickly pivots to a dialogue about the morals underlying the country’s actions.

Before the uptown C train shows up, we are knee-deep into a debate over whether the U.S. still has the moral high ground in the so-called war on terror. We know some innocents have stood on the wrong end of our country’s Hellfire missiles. We are both devotees of Showtime’s Homeland, which more or less hinges on such collateral relativism. Both of us are ashamed of the black hole that is the detention center at Guantanamo Bay. But we’re also realists about the world, and the power we have to change it—especially from our position in an underground station on Central Park West. As the Judge says in Cormac McCarthy’s greatest novel: “It makes no difference what men think of war. War endures. As well ask men what they think of stone. War was always here. Before man was, war waited for him. The ultimate trade awaiting its ultimate practitioner.”

Neither of us is quite sure whether we like the movie, and our ambivalence holds fast a few nights later, during the Oscars. The film is nominated for five Academy Awards, including Best Picture, Actress and Original Screenplay. The producers leave with just one award, for Best Sound Editing. (And that award they share with this year’s James Bond flick. So, if you are tallying up points, please note that the movie based on a real life spy story, and praised widely by critics for capturing the tenor of our times, must share its lone award with the twenty-third movie to be made about a pretend spy created during the Cold War.)

Raina and I have a tradition of watching the Academy Awards ceremony together, but I am not entirely present for the simulcast this year. I am too busy doing e-mail. My inbox is fit to burst again with inquiries that I should have answered long ago. This, and the repeated mention of Zero Dark Thirty on screen, causes me to return again to the title of the unwritten essay. I pull up Word and sit with hands poised over the keys, waiting for the ideas to come together. But nothing sparks. What meaning could I add to this topic?

One thing I did not mention to anyone during the Inbox Zero period was the weird loss of purpose that I experienced when I sat with hands poised over the keyboard with no one to write to. I actually had to reflect and decide what to do next, rather than react in a rote manner to whatever was next or easiest in an endless e-mail to-do list. That kind of living is harder by definition than ducking and dodging by instinct in order to stay alive.

My generation has come of age in an era that history will likely mark for two major trends: the rise of digital and the rise of international terrorists. This is obvious to the point of tautology for the likes of people like Raina, Greg, Ginger, and me. All of us have aged and changed in concert with the altering world.

I came to New York planning to be a writer, but I ended up as someone who thinks about the Internet for a living. Greg—whom I’ve known for twenty years—moved to New York at the same time; we were of the same circle as undergraduates at Northwestern, and we shared in painful workshops. He was one of the first people I ever met who said he wanted to be a writer. Not a journalist or a novelist or an op-ed pundit but a writer, someone who made sense of the world through stories.

Neither Greg nor I have had the trajectory that our writing professors advised. Instead, the world of e-mail, its etiquette and its overreach, took shape in real-time as our individual careers took root. I spent fourteen years as a digital strategy expert at a large financial services firm. He runs his own game design company.

To have come into your own as a professional over the last two decades is to watch firsthand the rising deluge of spam, chain letters, and mandatory listservs, the corporate Death Star e-mail tools, the organizational announcement e-mails, late night e-mails with Power Point attachments, reminder e-mails, e-mailed bills, drunk e-mails, poison pen e-mails sent from a spoofed address, registration e-mails, e-mails about deaths, debts, dashed hopes, and ugly friendship-ending e-mails—all of it coming into being real-time as a cultural touchstone.

And, at the same time, as we all struggled to meet deadlines and edit presentations till they were letter-perfect, we were also constantly dodging the news headlines of thwarted terror plans, the 11 o’clock news featuring the faces of men wanted for questioning, the enemy combatants placed in the brig, the invasion of Iraq, waterboarding, and soft-target bombings in Bali, in London, in Madrid.

For me, this double helix of e-mail and terror warnings ran uninterrupted and unchallenged until the birth of my daughter in September 2007. For both Raina and me, the relentless march of life and career as we knew it was interrupted, or at least put on hiatus. As a new father or mother, your entire life becomes a battle to exert control over the smallest logistical matters associated with this new little being who has absolutely no regard for your plans.

Cleaning out an e-mail in box? Impossible.

Drinks with friends to talk about books? Never.

Debate over enhanced interrogation methods? Laughable.

We re-emerged from the parental sequester in fits and starts. Almost a full year passed before we both were firmly back into the swing of life, seeing friends for dinner, responding to invitations, grappling with the topics and perils of our day and age. As such, we were still goggle-eyed and bleary when we attended a party at Greg and Ginger’s apartment in October of 2008.

Their Park Slope apartment was full of friends and food when we arrived. I debated the likelihood of Senator Obama’s election with a stranger while opening wine bottles. On a quick tour of the place, I admired how an entire wall in one room was handed over to the display of their many books. In addition, in the hallway, they’d hung up artwork that Greg had done—many of them photographs printed on paper bags, some featuring shots of the open sky, or Ginger on a step in Park Slope, or whatever caught his visual fancy.

Greg had told me about the photography project some weeks earlier. He had no arch explanation for what he was doing; there was nothing pretentious about it. He simply told me that he thought the process looked cool. Standing in his home and seeing the prints juxtaposed against the books that we’d read as younger men, I wondered if photography had perhaps replaced writing for him—he’d moved on to something else, maybe temporarily, maybe for good. For some reason, this struck me as poignant, a marker for the passage of an era.

We stayed a little too late and drank a little too much, as new parents on the town have done since the dawn of babysitters. In the end, Ginger called a Town Car for us, and the driver picked us up downstairs after we finished our goodbyes. The Town Car’s ripped leather seats enveloped our tired bodies and the radio murmured and my head lolled, but the wine buzzed in my mind, keeping me from dozing off as Raina did. I had this sense that everyone else was at peace with, or at least in acceptance of, the world as it had turned out. It felt like they all knew who they were, what they should do, what kind of person they should be. Meanwhile, I was still trying to figure out how to accomplish all the things I wanted to do in spite of all the parental obligations and work e-mails and the terror warnings and all the rest.

As an ambitious young man and an aspiring writer, I had wanted so badly to be a person of consequence, not just among my friends, but in the larger world. When you grow up and find that you are still less than what you expected to be as an adult, you are left to feel as if you have failed to give to the world the profit of your gifts; and even if you are successful or kind, even if you have a wife and child whom you love fiercely, you feel faintly like an imposter, or a thief, or a traitor to your potential because you have veered from what felt like a straightforward bargain—and time, as ever, is running out. On nights like this you turn to the faint reflection in the car window to your left and you ask: now what? What will you do with the time you have left?


The story would end here—and one more dead-ender essay idea would have been filed into the remainder bin in the back of my mind—except for a trip out to Chicago in April 2013.

I fly out of JFK at 6:30 a.m., and while the passengers around me settle into sleep, desperate for another hour or two, I begin to jot down ideas about Inbox Zero Dark Thirty. Eventually, I put aside the phone and doze off too. But the chemical process for creating a thesis has begun.

Essentially, the argument I have in mind is this: the temptation, upon watching Zero Dark Thirty, is to feel separate from SEAL Team 6—and to see one’s own life, one’s own paltry struggle against, for example, his inbox as so divorced from the killing of a terrorist as to be an alternate reality. But that’s a truncated view, and an intellectual cop-out. Our nation, just like every nation, rests on the boneyards of men, good and bad, whose legacy is the bloodline of our present time. Everything is connected.

By the time I arrive at my hotel in Chicago, I have all the sections of the essay mapped out, but much of the prose is scattered and confusing, and many of the ideas are still just partially chiseled from the limestone of thought. I will need to do some draftsman’s work to pull everything together—sort out tenses and ideas and then bring it home.

Of course, just when you think you have everything sorted out, and you can put the ideas in a box and label the box with a permanent marker—that’s the moment when the world will slip out from under you. A few hours later I am seated in a chair in a conference room of the Swissôtel in Chicago when I get notice through Twitter that two bombs have gone off in Boston. Suddenly nothing about terrorism feels theoretical anymore. Suddenly the whole idea of writing an essay on the topic seems cheap and gauche—people are bleeding and dying in the streets and I am debating paragraph structure?

For the remainder of my visit to Chicago, the newspaper, Internet and television coverage is brutal and inescapable. I avert my eyes from the most graphic footage of the bomb blasts with some success until the evening of my return to New York. I cannot pass a television in O’Hare that does not resound with the stories of the maimed and, most terribly, the snapshots of the little boy who was killed. He’s got a toothy smile like my son. He’s just a few years older than my daughter. This is not a world where reason holds dominion. This is not a world where you can strike a real balance between any two ideas and call a problem solved or an essay complete. The problems slip from under you every time you look up.

My first thought upon my return to New York is how strangely unlike 9/11 everything feels. Not that I expect us all to revert to the fetid panic of that era, but for so long we have all assumed that the next strike, when it comes, will land somewhere in the five boroughs, and so there is a strange sense of unreality in that the moment has arrived and it’s not happening right here.

The memorial service up in Boston is held three days after the bombings. Despite the long span of time—or it feels like that to those of us hopped-up on instantaneous cable and Internet news feeds—the big news from police and the federal government is that they still don’t know what happened, who did it, or why. Then, as day turns into evening, the FBI releases photographs of the two men suspected of planting the bombs inside black knapsacks. The massive project of culling social networks for photos and asking people to e-mail in their snapshots has borne fruit: we have faces to study for the first time. I stare at one of the photos of these two unknown men and think to myself: Okay, here we are, but now what? What could I possibly do to help?

On Thursday night I pass out on the sofa well before eleven o’clock and then later shift to the bed while half asleep. This is odd behavior for me, a veteran night owl, but it has been a long week of travel and whipsaw emotion. By the time I wake up the next morning, one bomber is dead, the other is on the run, and all of Boston is in lock down. Nothing gets in or out.

By dinner, the news networks are reporting that the second fugitive has been cornered in a dry docked boat in someone’s backyard. The sun is about to go down. Officers in Boston have to decide whether to attempt to take him during daylight or finish this in darkness.

I am watching CNN when Anderson Cooper pauses at 8:44 p.m. and then nods, as if to himself. He turns to us, the viewers, and tells us the second suspect has been grabbed. The perpetrator has been caught. No ten-year search needed this time. No scouring of the world for a shadowy mystic. Our devil is a nineteen-year-old Chechen boy who will never see freedom again.

Within the hour, crowds of people are celebrating in the streets all around Boston. And this time, as I watch them chant “U.S.A.! U.S.A.!” I feel not just satisfaction and relief, but also happiness, because all those people will not cower in their homes for another hour. Even if the authorities find there are others who helped with the attack, Boston has already reclaimed the upper hand.

That night, for the first time since January, after everyone is in bed and the kitchen is clean and the dishwasher chugs quietly and the television is off, mercifully, for the first time in days, I begin to bash away at the wall of inquiries that have accumulated, the people waiting to hear from me that I’ve neglected, the notes that I should have acknowledged but have not.

I work for a long time to empty out all my mailboxes. Not just my personal inbox, but the work one, too. Everyone will have answers from me; or at least the closest I can give to answers. I even clear the queues in all the social networks where I operate. Is it a hedge against the possibility of an untimely death, this urge to write back and clear out every obligation till I can feel, at last, as if I am ready for the odious surprise of shrapnel-packed pressure cookers stowed in a backpack somewhere otherwise safe?

At 12:39 a.m. on April 20, 2013, hours after the second bomber is in custody and all along the East Coast people in the path of actual danger are finally sleeping after many sleepless days, I am looking at an e-mail radar screen empty of obligations. What now? What happens now?

The brief moment of time when we can celebrate a win is like the pause at the upper limit of a hat thrown in the air; a small moment in the grand arc, the struggle that continues and will continue for as long as societies collide, for as long as societies exist, as long as we exist.

The best place to begin is at the end, as I have already said; but to end, well, where else to turn but the beginning? On the morning of September 11, 2001, Raina and I saw the second plane hit from our seat on a bus taking us down Water Street. I saw the fireball and then we passed under the soaring battlements of the Brooklyn Bridge.

We left the bus four blocks early because being on a bus didn’t feel safe anymore. But we went into our office building because the streets felt less safe than the buses. Up in the bright blue air you could see a long pillar of smoke and swirling papers—natural, somehow, but terrible, as if memos and atomized ash had always belonged together, but were always to be kept apart till the end of days.

Inside our offices, all of our co-workers huddled in conference rooms and at desks to reload web sites and try to understand what was happening. The moment was surreal, as you’d expect me to say, but it was oddly quotidian, too. Raina and her sister wandered off to talk alone near the coffee maker and foosball table, as they often did. People answered their telephones. A woman on my team asked if she should post the equity market analysis to the web site before the Stock Exchange’s opening bell. I said yes, we probably should. Except the analyst never sent us the e-mail with the write-up. And there would be no opening bell. We had no idea how to divvy up all that was happening and assign the right levels of meaning. So we just tried to do what normally seemed important—hoping that later on it would not appear foolish to have done what we did.

Later on, the impulse to post the commentaries does seem foolish, especially in light of all the death and the catastrophe that happened just a few blocks over from us that morning; also, somehow, it does not seem foolish at all. The urge to maintain order, to preserve routine, to persevere—in big things and in small things, from e-mail deluges to days of infamy—maybe that is the best we can do with lives that are small and narrow and short and yet endowed with an almost infinite capacity for hope.