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What, Us Worry? Yes, Us Worry

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NYPD officers patrol Grand Central in response to raised terror alert status.  

Here's an unasked question: To what extent have we made a choice to live in a terrified and compromised world?

The president, for instance, it seems fair to argue, had two fundamentally opposite roles to choose from:

To be a cheerleader for normalcy and recovery.

Or to be a sentinel for vigilance and vengeance.

In the former, the job would have been to devote great energy to preserving the confidence and optimism that good economic times are made of—to reassure, to boost, to talk us through the troubles (an orange alert would have been precautionary instead of anticipatory). Why punish ourselves? It's a therapeutic approach. But in the latter, you go with the view that everything has changed, or must change, that personal, social, and economic well-being must and should take a backseat to larger moral, mortal concerns. Your job is to get people to accept an amount of bleakness and fatalism. Put on the hair shirt. It's a religious approach (it is possible yet that this president will be seen as having much in common with Jimmy Carter, our born-again seventies president).

The president, of course, chose the latter view and was followed by the media and—at least temporarily—by the electorate.

It does not seem churlish to point out that this grim, determined, one-dimensional view fits the president's sober, evangelical self (interesting to speculate that the good-timer in him might have led to a different sort of recovery). Nor does it seem too partisan to point out the obvious: The former era, this free-floating, transformative, polymorphous brainiac-kids-in-T-shirts nonstop throw-out-the-old-in-with-the-new party, was not good for the Republicans.

As it happens, war exhortations not only mobilize media and troops but restore the old, hierarchical, paternal model. Information comes from above; it's doled out by information regulators; it's interpreted by the information interpreters; and, mostly, it's uncritically accepted by the information receivers. The new information free will dissolves. The man talks; we listen.

It's security (con-fidence, fearlessness, expansiveness) that's been lost, or been replaced by some new, quaking state of anxiousness.

In some ways, that was the startling, amazing accomplishment of the lost nineties. There was not only economic security—pick your job, count your money as it grew—but physical safety. No crime! Hello? No risk—danger had dwindled down to virtually none at all. One day in the mid-nineties, we woke up to find that New York had become a gentle town (along with the gentleness there were, too, the new amenities, the scrubbed quality, the shine, the flowers—everywhere some spit and polish). This was, of course, in weird and stunning contrast to those earlier decades of everyday terror.

The terror, albeit of a different order, is back. The subways, which, if you want to terrify someone, have always been among the most effective places to do it (I remember a man with a knife in my car on the F train, in 1976, disemboweling another man), are once again a stage set for nightmares. A suicide bomber (as radically discordant as it is to transpose the bomber on a Hebron bus to New York) on a Times Square platform would, even as much as 9/11, alter the future of the city.

There is, too, not just fear of random acts but, back to prior decades, the prospect of the nuclear big one (the nineties, for the first time in 40 years, also briefly expunged this possibility).

One Manhattan school that I know of now has a health-and-safety manual that spells out how to seal a room to make it airtight in the event of nuclear or chemical attack, how to build up radiation-shield tables in the room, and the emergency supplies that are now kept on hand, including a backpack with flashlights, ropes, first-aid kit, water, and extra batteries, along with a day's supply of Iosat pills for every child and faculty member, which, the manual says, prevent the absorption of radiation.

The fact that these threats—dirty bombs, suicide bombers, poison gas, airborne antigens, "packages" (and these are the devils we know)—are theoretical ones in some sense makes them more psychologically complex and anxiety-producing.

Even though we have seen virtually no evidence of domestic terror beyond September 11 (except the odd, and most always unconvincing, arrests), we cannot breathe ever easier. It is not socially acceptable to deny the fear of terrorism. Terror is our totem—we believe in it.

Indeed, not having had another domestic attack since September 11 (even though they have been so vividly promised) seems, however counterintuitively, only to increase the statistical probability that one will come. Metaphorically, the air, the moment, the time and place, are pregnant with danger—and at some point, the terror must be delivered.

Then, too, it is hard not to consider, and harder still to rationalize (although we are forced to), that the war process itself could bring this thing on. The steps we are taking to lessen the threat of terror increase the threat of terror. That is, almost everyone would agree, too complicated to parse out—it's existential, French (ugh). We're not smart enough to deal with that one. And yet, of course, not parsing it increases that sense of dependency, and of being infantilized—our only hope is that they know what they're doing.

This is further anxiety-producing because most New Yorkers do not at all believe that Bush and his cabal have much idea about what they're doing.

Which means we are really on our own.

Of course, this is all obviously ridiculous, too. Or anyway, the likelihood—as well as the best-case scenario—is that almost everybody will be rolling on the floor laughing about the duct tape soon. (The school's terror manual will—one hopes—resurface years from now as terror kitsch.) We're close to being back in Dr. Strangelove territory. It's terrifying and depressing, but a surreal comedy too.

Rising hysteria brings out the foolishness in everyone; rumors of terror separate the truly off-the-wall from the only mildly addled.

We enter now an age of cheap and desperate distraction (arguably, we just came from an age of expensive distractions—the great, mad lust for money may soon seem like a form of high culture). Reality-TV shows in the '00s are perhaps a seventies-disco equivalent. Certainly something will be.

Where before, the workaday life was the thing—the career the central experience (all those great, galvanizing, theatrical, sexy Wall Street and media careers)—that won't be true anymore. Working, having lost its transformative rewards, will be the boring thing, the forgotten thing, the irritating thing. A take-this-job-and-shove-it thing.

The seventies were a private, solipsistic time (the true age of vast amounts of mindless drugs and sex). It was almost impossible to imagine an energetic future. Similarly now, with war and its long aftermath, rising deficits, and deep consumer ennui (even the age of consumerism may now be ending), there will be no Next Big Thing on the horizon—no tech, no financial schemes, no 401(k)'s, no big media plays (but for reality TV). It's personal, beyond politics, economics, technology, culture—it's back to dealing with things by yourself. Back to your own neurotic condition—no hiding from your own neediness, or passiveness, or fearfulness. Embrace it. Zen and the art of war and recession.

Self-loathing soon gets to self-parody.

My daughter called from college the other day to report the old canard currently circulating as new epiphany on campus that her generation would be the first to fall behind its parents' generation—to be less prosperous, less secure, to have fewer opportunities. This was a seventies thing, too (it was also big, as I recall, in the slacker early nineties). We used to say this with great resignation and existential dread (and, more modestly, simply feeling sorry for ourselves). It implied a sense of loss, of something being taken, of promises not kept, of disappointment and apprehension in the air, of the world having turned, abruptly, capriciously, cruelly, from another livelier, richer, more hopeful course.

This is, it seems to me, exactly the present feeling—which will last until, in fact, a great new catastrophe overwhelms us, or we get too bored with it all and cycle on.


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