The idea of terror

FEAR SPREAD THROUGH the streets of central Paris. It was 1986, and the group that gathered near the noble Arc de Triomphe stood silently as sirens blazed down the avenues, rushing to the site of what was surely another attack by Iranian militants terrorizing France. We awaited word of what horror had occurred a few short blocks away, where we'd heard a commotion and what sounded like an explosion.

Then word came: It wasn't a bomb; it was potatoes. French farmers had driven to the Agriculture Ministry and noisily dumped thousands of spuds at its steps in protest of a now-forgotten measure. In that moment, tragedy turned to comedy—albeit a particularly French brand—but for several tense minutes, the idea of terror hovered as ominously as the airplane cruising toward tower one of the World Trade Center just before 9 a.m. on Tuesday, Sept. 11.

That uncertain period as a catastrophe looms provides a visceral charge that scientists would surely explain with talk of neurons and psychologists would attribute to fear of the unknown. But why do we live so separately from harsh realities that when a horrible event occurs, it shocks us to our cores? Is this a particularly American trait? Do we need to change?

I stood among that group at the Arc de Triomphe that day, experiencing a variation on this sense of doom that would appear again throughout the '90s and, in a more concentrated form, this year. During the earthquake that struck Seattle in April, I gripped the door frame of my office not far from Pioneer Square, shaking violently and then settling into that portentous sway, rocking from side to side in what seemed like the precursor to the building's collapse. During the attack on the World Trade Center, I sat in my Brooklyn apartment about two miles away watching it on television, too numb to join the procession of New Yorkers to overlooks of where the terrible incident was occurring.

When the towers collapsed, transfixed, I glanced out the window to see ash and singed paper floating from the sky. I knew then that thousands of people had probably perished; the descending objects and the images on the TV screen delivered the message. Suddenly, the impending, or perhaps suspended, feeling of terror had turned to actual, devastating knowledge—a leap far past that gasp at the Arc de Triomphe or that shaky minute in Seattle.

The talking heads on television have tagged the Sept. 11 attack as one of those defining moments of a generation, like Pearl Harbor or John F. Kennedy's assassination. That's a glib way to describe what just took place here in America—even a conservative one. Taken in context, the World Trade Center bombing represents this citizenship's awakening to the everyday threat of personal calamity. Yes, resilient New Yorkers have bonded and worked to help the city and the nation emerge with courage and pride. Yes, Mayor Giuliani has displayed dazzling leadership and represented this city's and the victims' families' pain. But we're not through this yet, and we'll never return to where we've been.

DURING THE DAYS following the attack on the World Trade Center, I emerged from my brownstone and walked down my street past an increasing collection of photocopied faces, American flags, and desperate pleas. Inevitably I'd cross paths with someone aware of my recent move here and be greeted with a sarcastic, morbid "Welcome to New York." These friends meant this with the bitterest of irony, but the phrase represents another symbol of our newfound awareness. For me, the personal terror of being in a shaking old building made of brick and wood in Seattle and being two miles from the worst terrorist bombing the world has ever witnessed approach a grim equality. Or at least, they should.

We have to live differently now: We have to temper our blissful optimism with an eye toward what can go wrong, perhaps horribly wrong. This doesn't need to be as dramatic as it sounds; people of almost every other nation live with a perpetual fear that's latent until the unthinkable happens. Now, for our peace of mind and for our safety, we need do the same. It's a shame and a tragedy. Welcome to New York.

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