Thursday, May 12, 2005

The fear and trembling part

Those of us who live in New York and DC have to contend more immediately than most with the prospect of planes falling out of the sky. (Or innocent events that for a brief period make it look like a plane might be about to fall out of the sky, then cause 24 hours of round-the-clock cable coverage about something that didn’t happen.)

These worries subtly imprint themselves on the contours of our lives. I have thought through various practical scenarios about what to do in the event of a terror attack, most of which would probably be useless in an actual emergency. We have some cash and canned food in the basement, but we did not participate in Ridge’s run on duct tape a couple of years back.

But the mind still has to do its churning thing, sampling different flavors of anxiety, crunching imaginary odds. It’s macabre, but everybody does it. It’s a subtle bond that levels all other differences. We fantasize to get some control, and take some consolation in our own irrelevance. The weapons of terrorists are big. America is big. But we are small. Individually that should work in our favor.

Plane crashes generate different worries than a subway chemical/biological attack, the other principal concern. With the latter one envisions a localized and hopefully containable event – this subway station, at this time of day, this end of the platform. (Though anthrax can travel far.) A plane crash – depending on the size of the plane - would cause more damage and be more likely to spark panic because you can see it coming. But, as Tim Noah speculates in Slate, it may be that such a crash poses little risk to the average citizen not occupying a high-profile target because, despite official policy, the U.S. military has an unwritten rule against shooting planes down over populated areas. Should this be a reason for relief or fear?

So we husband our secret worst-case scenarios and thank God they a) appear to be generally unlikely and b) if they become likely, we probably won’t be a victim. Except for nukes. But nukes occupy a different mental plane, that of complete helplessness in the face of events where control is impossible – e.g., getting hit by a bus or shucked from your clothes in the Rapture.

Is this useful? Probably not. As long as nothing happens, it’s a waste of energy. If/when something does happen, it won’t help. And it causes odd mental pressures, driving some to adopt a messianic fervor and invade, occupy and democratize nations that have nothing to do with terrorist plane crashes. But it's what we do.