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The Fear This Time

Are we getting to the point where terror is just something we complain about but live with, like bad weather?


I read Monday’s Times on the porch of the farmhouse in Vermont where I’m trying to have a vacation. It’s a perfect summer day, sunny and warm, but not too hot. Goldfinches are dive-bombing the bird feeder in the yard. Our neighbor is on his John Deere tractor mowing the lawn. I glance at the obits first—a recently acquired habit. Let’s see: “Lilian Moore, 95, Who Wrote Books for Children, Is Dead.” A good age, Lilian; congratulations. “Irvin Yeaworth Jr., 78, Director of the Camp Classic ‘The Blob.’ ” Then the sports section: No 300th win for Greg Maddux.

Finally, I take a deep breath (no matter how far away you are from New York these days, you’re not far enough) and reach for the front page, turning it faceup like the last card in a hand of poker. u.s. warns of high risk of qaeda attack. So it’s here at last: the Event that—without quite admitting it to ourselves—we’ve all been waiting for. Maybe, given the Orwellian disinformation we’ve been fed all summer, it’s simply not true. We must understand that the kind of information available to us today is the result of the president’s leadership in the war against terror,” declared the bipartisan Tom Ridge. In other words, nothing’s happened. But the specificity of the bulletin alarms even a skeptical New Yorker like me. Some of the targets are obvious: the New York Stock Exchange, the World Bank in Washington, D.C. But others are eerily precise. Why Citigroup? Why the Prudential Financial building in Newark? (Newark?) Tom Ridge and John Ashcroft lack the imagination to make up this stuff. (Not even Karl Rove could concoct it.) Remember that scene in The Blob where moviegoers flee screaming from the monster as it overwhelms the screen? Irvin, you didn’t know the half of it.

The people I talk to back in the city are hardly reassuring. Just about everyone I know who isn’t tethered to a desk or whose kids’ obdurate soccer coaches won’t give them a pass on preseason practice has already made plans to leave town during the Republican convention. Now they’re trying to figure out whether to leave today—this minute. “I can’t feel any more nervous than I have since 9/11,” says a friend of mine who has two little kids. “I was already getting more nervous by the day.” He has instructed his family not to go anywhere near midtown. Another friend whose kids are off at camp confides that he is contemplating sending his wife up to Maine for an unscheduled visit. “You know how some couples won’t fly together?” He doesn’t have to finish the thought.

Even before last week, what I’ve come to think of as It was back. There was more talk around dinner tables: I’m glad the kids are away for the summer. Maybe we should sell our apartment now while prices are high—before . . . The third anniversary of the catastrophe was approaching. Footage of the frightened citizenry in Michael Moore’s Fahrenheit 9/11 gripped my heart—a seizure of PTSD. I read on “Page Six”—a highly reliable source in disclosing the latest escapades of Paris Hilton, so why not on this impending crisis?—that New York Times reporters covering the Democratic convention had been issued “escape hoods,” designed for protection in case of nuclear, biological, and chemical attacks. (What about the rest of their bodies?) Also in my Apocalypse files is a Wall Street Journal “service piece” titled “A New Approach in Terror Readiness.” The Rand Corporation has devised a reference card, “designed to fit in a handbag or pocket,” that offers such useful tips as “take shelter in the closest building,” unless it has been “damaged or threatened by the explosion”; and buy a dust mask with an “N95-rated particulate filter” to protect against radiological dust. And don’t forget the duct tape—read by urban dwellers who have never been to a hardware store in their lives as “duck tape”—to seal off your apartment. Feel safe now?

Until this summer, life had almost begun to seem normal again. The cafés on Columbus Avenue were packed; the gossip columns spoke of late-night doings at Soho House and Bungalow 8. Bold stripes in men’s shirts were back, I read in GQ or somewhere—an assessment that my own field research among the crowded display tables at Thomas Pink and Turnbull & Asser confirmed. Jermyn Street, apparently, continued to find Manhattan alluring.

I stared up at the monumental Columbus Circle towers in astonishment: You’ve gotta be kidding. Who would live up there?

Not that things were the same—not that things would ever be the same. It—that is to say, It—was still on the front page of the Times every day, in some form or another: the findings of various post-9/11 commissions; squabbles among architects down at ground zero; human-interest stories about the families of firemen who died. Little things would leap out at you. Riding in the back of a taxi one day, I noticed that on the Manhattan maps affixed to the seat, the icon of the Twin Towers was gone, in its stead a looped red-white-and-blue ribbon. I was reminded of the photograph of a Communist Party apparatchik described in Milan Kundera’s novel The Book of Laughter and Forgetting: In the photo, he stands on a balcony in a fur cap, haranguing the crowd in the square below; four years later, having been charged with treason and hanged, he’s airbrushed out of the photograph. All that remains of him is his fur cap.

Living in New York is like a terminal disease: You start awake in panic every morning, your stomach knotted, your heart plunging in your chest. But as the day wears on, you’re not even aware that you’re going about your life. An event that will surely qualify as one of the most astounding in the whole of recorded history has occurred not a mile from you. It’s as if you just happened to be a shepherd tending your flock near Pompeii when Mount Vesuvius erupted, or a seventeenth-century London publican glancing out the window of his establishment in the Strand to glimpse the flames consuming London. That two hijacked, passenger-loaded commercial jetliners should plunge into the World Trade Center and topple it to the ground, reducing almost 3,000 innocent civilians to ash, was beyond imagination—but I still have to drop off the dry cleaning and go to the bank.

It’s this disconnect between the ordinary rituals of daily life and the unpredictable course of history that keeps us here. “Dad, why didn’t the Jews leave Germany when they realized the Nazis wanted to kill them?” I badgered my father when I was 9 years old. “Why did they sit around and wait until it was too late?” Why didn’t the burning of the Reichstag in 1933 tip them off as to Hitler’s intent? Nearly half a century later, after three decades in New York, I have the answer: Because it was home. Even a self-styled “rootless émigré” like the visionary cartoonist Art Spiegelman, whose Maus depicts the Holocaust in comic-book form, confesses to a love of his Soho neighborhood. His forthcoming illustrated book, In the Shadow of No Towers, is about the traumatic experience he suffered on the morning of 9/11, when for a terrifying half-hour he was unable to locate his daughter at Stuyvesant High School. Why didn’t he leave after that? “One of my near-death realizations as the dust first settled on Canal Street,” he writes, “was the depth of my affection for the chaotic neighborhood that I can honestly call home.” Me, too: I’ve lived on the same street on the Upper West Side for more than a quarter of a century. I’m supposed to pack up our belongings in a rented Dodge van, furniture lashed to the roof, and flee?

People are doing it. Twice in a week, articles in the Times chronicled the back-to-the-land movement that’s happening upstate, in Columbia and Ulster counties. This is no anecdotal phenomenon: Local real-estate agents can testify to the brisk sales of farms. There are yuppie cafés in the sleepy rural towns, urban dropouts farming arugula. Even as far north as where I am, four hours from Manhattan, I notice a lot more people with New York and Connecticut license plates pulling up in front of Powers Market every morning—and they’re not here for the tractor-pull at the Schaghticoke Fair.

I can’t really blame them; the buzz from the city isn’t good. There’s a lot of what Saul Bellow calls “crisis-chatter” in the air. “I think about it every morning on the subway, especially when the No. 6 stops near Grand Central,” says an editor who works downtown. “On the way home, I’m relieved when I get to the 59th Street stop. They wouldn’t strike this far north.” A trader on Wall Street has started looking at other New Yorkers differently: “If someone’s shirt isn’t tight, or their sweater’s too bulky, I think there might be a bomb beneath it.” It’s the rational paranoia of people trying to control the uncontrollable, based on imperfect information and vague threats. But the anxiety can’t be maintained at a constant level; it comes in waves, cycles. “Sometimes I go for days without thinking about it,” says a friend who works in Times Square. “Other days I can’t shake it for ten minutes.” Richard A. Friedman, associate professor of psychiatry at New York Weill Cornell Medical Center, worries that people have been “desensitized” by the roller-coaster news, shifting between indifference and sudden bouts of panic. “The mood is bottomless apprehension,” he says. “We’ve been notified that terrible things are going to happen, and that we have to trust the people who are telling us these terrible things are happening. But—especially in the context of an election—how do you know it’s true? Who knows what to believe anymore?”

Even with the skepticism engendered by our Machiavellian administration, we all know, deep down, that New York City is a target and that it’s impossible to protect. We beef up security at the Citigroup building; policemen with machine guns patrol in the vicinity of Bloomingdale’s (you never know). Then—fooled ya!—they bomb Chase headquarters on Park Avenue. The uncertainty has made us fatalistic. My friend Ellen, her voice calm over the phone, is defiantly insouciant. “My mother was supposed to fly in from L.A., and now she’s canceled her trip. That’s ridiculous. The whole point is that they’re trying to disrupt our lives.” Also trying to kill us, I think to myself. “Why not treat it the way the British deal with IRA bomb threats in London?” says Jay Parini, a professor of English at Middlebury College with whom I compare notes. “It’s just become part of their lives, like bad weather.” Besides, what choice is there? As Godot says, “I can’t go on. I must go on.”

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