Terrorism feels personal. It literally puts a name and a face to our fear that some ideologically impelled individual will strap on a suicide bomb and take us all out. As such, it’s the anxiety-inducer of choice.
One week after my husband was killed on 9/11, I returned to work near lower Manhattan. A co-worker cornered me in the hallway. Hers wasn’t a message of condolence but a warning. “We have to kill them all,” she insisted, her eyes wild, her fingers digging into my arm. “Because they killed your husband. Because they hate us. We have to get them first. You of all people should understand.”
The woman was angry. She was also afraid.
That was the moment I first saw how terrorism might succeed.
In the weeks and months afterwards, the “us versus them” mentality created fault lines that divided friends and families. Nevertheless and for all too short a period, many New Yorkers remained determined to come together. Those of us who lived and worked in the region spent less time conceiving of ways to punish whole groups of people and more on proving our resilience through projects emphasizing rebirth and renewal. Many of us who had lost loved ones on 9/11 were determined to create a legacy that emphasized what was best, not worst, about humanity.
Fourteen and a half years out, we’re still in danger. Not simply from terrorism but from our own propensity for paranoia, fear and anger.
We’ve been taught to fear many things: Rampant viruses, killer pathogens, an overreaching government or a changing climate that will destroy our natural resources within decades. Terrorism feels personal. It literally puts a name and a face to our fear that some ideologically impelled individual will strap on a suicide bomb and take us all out. As such, it’s the anxiety-inducer of choice. Scare people with the word “terror” printed in jagged red letters and you’ve got more viewers. Convince the danger is ever-present and you’ve got supporters willing to accept even the most outlandish proposal in the false belief they can be made safer.
As we should have learned years ago, an over-the-top reaction to acts of violence is precisely what extremists are counting on. Still the fear-mongers make proposals to register Muslims or build a wall against terrorist infiltration. None of this will make us safe. Rather, these schemes are likely to alienate potential allies and guarantee more recruits from which violent organizations can draw.
This isn’t new. Fear helped create internment camps for Japanese-American citizens following the attacks on Pearl Harbor. Fear was behind the misbegotten school drills that put school children under wooden desks in preparation for a nuclear attack. Fear helped create the Patriot Act. Fear inspires reckless comments from candidates for president of the United States.
Homegrown terror doesn’t induce the same level of angst. Twenty-six people die in Brussels and we’re panic stricken. Twenty-six children are killed at a school in Newtown, CT and we shrug. We don’t seem distressed about the never-ending cycle of terror that has for decades defined daily life in a dozen countries in the Middle East and Central Africa.
When violence pops up in Western countries, however, we take notice. Watch out, we’re cautioned. It’s close. Be terrified. Be incensed. Be both.
There may be more fear-promoters than ever, thanks to a wide assortment of media outlets. My hope that we might find common ground in combating terror after my husband’s death has flagged.
In the face of so much dread, I search for signs of our better angels. I latch onto any piece of evidence as if it were a life preserver. Veterans banding together on social media to stand up for immigrants with the hash tag #IWIllProtectYou. “Troll-trackers” armed with humor and wit responding to racist and sexist tweets. Late-night commentators taking over for timid mainstream journalists in questioning policies and pronouncements that demonize or target specific groups. Three small examples of cultural pushback.
I watch the organizations that tirelessly work on conflict resolution, groups like. Search for Common Ground. They don’t get much attention; their work is painstaking and behind the scenes. But these are the people who may find a way to end violence while we’re busy trying to out-frighten each other.
9/11 taught me resilience and perseverance and the limits of rage. It also taught me how unhelpful anxiety is to imagining any sort of future.
Maya Angelou is quoted as saying “Hope and fear cannot occupy the same place. Invite one to stay.” I’ve already made my choice.
Nikki Stern has published two non-fiction books, Because I Say So and Hope in Small Doses a 2015 Eric Hoffer Montaigne Medal finalist given to non-fiction works that inspire, provoke and redirect thought. Her essays have also appeared in the New York Times, Newsweek, USA Today, The Broad Side, Salon and Humanist Magazine. She’s been a guest on NPR’s “All Things Considered” and CBS “Sunday Morning,” among others. Her new novel, a suspense thriller, is awaiting publication. More at nikkistern.com