A Fig for Thee, O Terror

The reason Mayor Giuliani sounded more effective than GW Bush was a simple matter of doing versus planning. You trust a man who’s talking about lifting that brick right now and don’t ask about tomorrow yet.

The reason Mayor Giuliani sounded more effective than GW Bush was a simple matter of doing vs. planning. You trust a man who’s talking about lifting that brick right now and don’t ask about tomorrow yet. When work needs to be done, there isn’t time for fretting and conjecture.

But millions of Americans, the majority by a long shot, have only been attacked by proxy. We sit and wait. Imagine. Think. Make stuff up. In the absence of relevant work, we start to fear everything.

While people died, and looked for missing loved-ones, and lifted rubble, most of us were crying in the TV room. We called friends and relatives. We sent emails. We talked a lot, and talking led to worry, and worry led to fear.

Now the media is focusing on troops and bombs in Afghanistan, on anthrax, on strategies and diplomatic issues. Nuclear facilities, national landmarks, hazmat vehicles, reservoirs and crop dusters all across the country are a threat. Tunnels are patrolled. Trucks are checked. Giant flowerpots are popping up like early spring, barriers around the cities’ most likely targets. Every day, another spore appears.

Dan Rather says that fear’s our biggest problem. But CBS, CNN, ABC, NBC, and MSNBC have Tourette’s. ANTHRAX. WARNING. FATAL. The Greyhound Bus accident was not related to the INTERNATIONAL TERROR ORGANIZATIONS. Do not be frightened by the 100% PROBABILITY OF ADDITIONAL ATTACKS. Relatively speaking, the number of people DEAD FROM WEAPONIZED BIOLOGICAL AGENTS is minuscule.

Forget Cipro. Where are we going to get 100 million tablets of Paxil?

People ill equipped for extra anxiety in their already anxious lives are breaking down. Now’s about the time when post-traumatic stress syndrome kicks into second gear. Weeks have passed. Initial shock is wearing off. Life is moving on and our routines are something…else. We start to understand that this is normal. Terror’s hanging out for a while, having another beer.

‘This isn’t bad,’ says Terror, reclining in your Lay-Z-Boy®. ‘I could get used to this.’ Shit, we think. Terror’s moving in. We should never have invited Terror in the first place.

At best, we’ve all become 99-year-olds, wondering if we’ll make it through the day, savoring the sheer dumb luck of having gotten this far, thoroughly enjoying our bowls of oatmeal. ‘These raisins are so delicious! I love you…I love you, little raisins!’

In fact, we are living through the very stories that will bore the wits out of our grandchildren. In another age of luxury, kids and their genetically-created friends will whiz around the skies with jetpacks and blissfully remember nothing, while we the old *remember* and talk about the time when Planet Earth had gone to war.

Yet we will know, as some of us already know, that what we saw in September ‘01 was worse than December ‘41, but not as bad as August ‘45.

We have, despite ironic efforts to forget, something to learn from the old-timers: perspective is important; maybe the world will end, but probably not; there are sweet, delicious raisins in the oatmeal; and fear and trembling are fat wastes of time.

We’re scared of white vans and Ryder trucks. Brother, if you weren’t already afraid of Ryder trucks, with their oft-forgotten break fluid checks, quasi-annual oil changes, never-trustworthy inspections, $19.95-a-day guaranteed rates that cost $150, and drivers who, in their very bones, believe that driving a big moving truck is just like driving a Honda Civic, it’s no use fearing them now.

We’re scared of unclaimed bags on street corners and trains, in restaurants and shopping malls. There is a 99.9999999999999998% chance they’re full of gym socks.

Biological and chemical weapons are more disturbing, more creepy-crawly. They are a grand, mysterious evil, the weapon of the bogeyman, black magic. Or, ultimately, just another way to die. That’s it. Maybe the suffering is more prolonged than, say, having an aneurysm or being hit by lightning. But it all kills you, it’s all death. Germs are just a quicker kind of cancer. A slower kind of bomb.

As far as the mysterious, anthrax-threaded powder in suspicious envelopes, why be afraid of a powder you will instantly recognize, report, and receive Cipro for, a white powder from which ‘you’ll be expected to make a full recovery’? If we must be afraid, let us fear the inhalation anthrax. Let us fear smallpox.

And yet invisible diseases can’t be seen—what with being invisible and all—and therefore cannot be detected or avoided anyway. We can pray for the irradiation of mail. We can wear latex gloves in the office mailroom. Wash our hands. Beware of fishy letters. Yes, yes. But there isn’t the time, interest, or energy to feel so terrorized, to hear a loop of NPR for hours, days, and weeks, to tremble at the mail. There’s simply no stopping some quack from mailing any of us an unmarked envelope full of death. No one stopped the Unabomber, not before he had his fun. And jerry-curled men wearing aviator glasses and white hooded sweatshirts are easy to find.

If danger is what we crave, we should forget anthrax altogether. It is too difficult to manufacture, too hard to find, and our quest for undetectable, inescapable malice is better served by total fabrication. Getting AIDS from public toilet seats, for instance, or finding hypodermic needles in the coin slots of candy machines, or the old, trusted standby—being abducted by aliens.

Just think of those space aliens, so certain they’d induced the maximum degree of fear and paranoia across the widest possible portions of the United States. They must be sitting in their saucers, wondering why they didn’t just send a couple of suspicious-looking letters with intergalactic postage. ‘Foowkg-narg!’ cry the aliens in dismay. ‘Foowkg-narg-narg!’

Last but not least, we’re afraid of flying.

Reporters have been getting everything but bazookas past airport security. Osama’s saying, ‘Get the planes.’ And even with our pants down, didn’t those September 11 hijackings seem awfully smooth? Right, flying’s out of the question. So skittish people all across America are taking to the roads, increasing the risk of automobile accidents, creating better bus and locomotive targets: ‘Do not bother with the Boeing. We will get more on the Greyhound.’

Maybe we should stay home altogether, away from buses, away from planes and trains. Best to keep out of the crosshairs.

If anything felt out of the crosshairs before September 11, it was the Pentagon. The pall of CIA conspiracies, of X-Files, cover-ups, fabricated moon landings, hangers full of UFO debris, a great inviolable United States Government—that whole house of cards collapsed, the minute we saw that they couldn’t even save themselves.

The government shot Kennedy? Christ, we can barely hit Kabul.

As it turns out, the Pentagon was not the Ultimate Fortress of Untouchable Power. It was merely an important building, shaped like a pentagon. And if the sons-of-bitches can hit the heart of Washington, they can certainly hit our homes. Blowing up a residential area is easy. Fewer guards, more surprise, plenty of targets.

We can die on an airplane, or visiting the Grand Coulee Dam, or cruising to the Caymans, or sitting in our underwear at home in front of CNN, despite the National Guard, despite sky marshals, despite AWACS. Might as well visit Manhattan, in case they don’t attack. We might as well fly there. Imagine no more terrorism in New York for the next 30 years: think of all that fabulous Manhattan we’ll have missed.

Think of how boring your house is.

We are now a people who believe—for the first time in our collective life—that we could die at any moment. Once resigned to the inability of halting every possible scenario as we leave our homes, drive to work, or visit cities (or towns, or states, or countries), a certain sense of freedom emerges.

Resign yourself to death, at least enough to end your fitful nights and embarrassing diarrhea, and most of the methods will begin to look more or less identical. Left-handers and right-handers write the same words. Smallpox is a gun is cholesterol. If not a nuke, a patty melt. They’re all ultimately death. There’s no need to fear anthrax any more than a bank safe falling on your head. And it’s no good worrying about that safe, either.

So we keep reading the news. We open our eyes. And then, in spite of that, we grab our coat and shades. Maybe they’ll get us tomorrow, sitting in a bar, ordering our pints of beer, our glasses of seltzer. Suddenly a flash. Our drinks explode in our hands, tables splinter, our feet and hands are found a block away. Or maybe we’ll make it out, only to die beneath a falling safe. Or maybe we’ll fall in love and die of happiness.

But now—right now—we’re getting invitations in the mail. We’re tearing them open, saying, ‘Yeah. I’m totally there.’ We’re going out around town, amid the Ryder Trucks and white vans, through tunnels, over bridges, under planes, and up the elevator to the party on the top floor of a high rise.

Gather ye raisins while you may. Tomorrow we’ll be dying.