Everyday Life and the Futility of Fear

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The train platform is jammed at Grand Central Station

The trap the terrorists left for us looks remarkably like normality. Its sinister purpose — scaring us away from our daily lives — only reveals itself when we give in to our fear.

The legacy of September 11

My morning commute felt blissfully ordinary. It was only when I stepped off the subway and walked past a nondescript man nervously clutching a large bag, shifting from one foot to another, that my heart rate, which had slowed almost to normal pace for the first time in a week, picked up again. This guy, I thought to myself, panic rising in my throat, this guy could be carrying anything in that bag. The horrible possibilities danced though my head: A beaker of Anthrax, an explosive device, a gun. My blood pounded in my ears. I could die right here, with absolutely no warning.

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I walked as quickly as I could out of the station, reflexively seeking out the comforting bulk of my office building in the nearby skyline, pushing through crowds until I reached the familiar doors. Then I stopped, suddenly paralyzed by another thought: What makes me think I’m any safer here than I was in the subway, or on the street or in a restaurant having dinner?

If you’re ready for it, it’s not terrorism

One of the most horrifying things about last Tuesday’s attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon is that they were aimed at people just going about their daily lives, drinking coffee, planning meetings, emailing colleagues. September 11 was an absolutely normal day.

In the aftermath of such an attack one of the most challenging aspects of recovery is accepting the element of horrible surprise as an x-factor. It’s almost impossible to accept that we can never be prepared for terrorism, that while we can try to live our lives in the safest and most responsible ways, our sheer existence, the fact that we draw breath, makes us viable targets for those who hate us. Ironically, of course, that sense of vulnerability, however terrifying, is also what frees us: We cannot control what happens to us, so we might as well live as fully and completely as possible.

Giving in to life

We are, by nature, a happy species. Our bodies are biologically geared for pleasure: Eating, falling in love — they send powerful endorphins pulsing through our bloodstreams, making us, as we understand the word, "happy."

There are other kinds of happiness, too. We find them sitting quietly in a park, or by a window, watching people go about their lives. In New York, we’ve learned that going to work, seeing the same people and sitting at a familiar desk can, rather than make us feel downtrodden, make us feel free. We are alive, we are going about our lives, we are making a statement.

I will make my own small statement this weekend — in the form of defiant air travel. An anxious flyer to begin with, I practically wheeze in fear when I contemplate boarding an airplane now to complete a long-planned vacation to the West Coast. But when the time comes, I will get on that San Francisco-bound plane, buckle my seatbelt, and, yes, probably start crying out of sheer terror. But I will be comforted by the fact that I am, by claiming a seat on what I suspect will be a fairly deserted airplane, gesturing impolitely in the direction of terrorists — and terror. I refuse to be locked out of my own life by someone else’s hate.