As I drove into work this morning I listened to the people on the radio discussing how to prepare for terrorism and I was struck by how similar the fears expressed by people today match the fears I felt during the early 1980s regarding the threat of nuclear war. There were many nights during junior high school when I stayed awake waiting for the brilliant flash of light that would signal the end of the world. It seemed like Ronald Reagan was bent on pushing the Soviet Union into war regardless of the cost. I even wrote an essay about B-52 bomber bases and sent it off to Newsweek to be published. It never was. And I remember having nightmares for weeks after watching “The Day After” on television. I still remember the images of the missiles taking off over the fields of the Midwest - the white exhaust trails pointing toward oblivion.
My reaction to the threat of terrorism is completely different today. I would never go to the hardware store to buy plastic and duct tape. Nor am I planning on investing in a gas mask anytime soon. So what makes the terror today so much more manageable, at least for me, than the fear of nuclear war in the past. Obviously I’m older now then I was in 1983. But age alone isn’t enough.
I can’t claim that the terrorists are any more rational about choosing to go to war than the Soviets were during the cold war. In fact one of the best arguments for Bush’s preemptive strategy of action is the irrationality and fanaticism of the terrorists. The Soviets didn’t want to die any more than I did, so I could comfort myself with the sentiments expressed by Sting. Today the attitudes of the suicide bombers are impossible for me to understand; they don’t even seem rational.
I begin to wonder if what I feel is fatalism. If there’s no way to respond to an irrational threat then maybe I don’t have to worry about it. If the planes, bombs, or biological weapons start coming my way there’s not much I can do about it. Having enough duct tape or plastic on hand isn’t going to save my life if I can’t get home or need to stay in a shelter for longer than a few hours. So I just go on living my life as though nothing much has changed. And in most ways nothing has changed for me. The pronouncements of how the world was altered by September 11 seemed flat when they were made on the anniversary and, as time passes, the minimal changes get further away.
I strive to have a view of the world that is broad, but about terrorism I seem to be falling into the same selfishness that affects everyone else - it just doesn’t matter until it actually affects me, personally. During the first Gulf War I was afraid of getting drafted. The chances of that happening now seem really remote.
One of the unifying themes I’ve observed in media coverage of preparing for terrorism, the shuttle disaster, and other recent events is the ridiculous, verging on the absurd, risks we are willing to accept and refuse. I’m more worried about being in a car crash then being the target of terrorism, and even more concerned that it will be an SUV that hits me on the driver’s side. I’m more worried about surveillance by my own government than I am by a biological attack. How have we gotten to such an absurd state where people don’t even seem to have a basic grasp of statistics and risk? A lot of things need reforming in the world but it feels like this would be one of the most effective.