Roger Rosenblatt: Vigiliance in an Age of Terrorism
[Sorry, the video for this story has expired, but you can still read the transcript below. ]
ROGER ROSENBLATT: After the London bombings, experts there and here were asked what one can do to protect oneself in subways, on buses, in shops, anywhere. The answer the experts gave uniformly was vigilance: Keep your eyes open for unattended packages, unsavory people, for the exit doors in case of the worst.
The implication of such advice is that most people most of the time are not vigilant, not even casually observant, and this seems true. One saunters through the day without taking notice of the details of one’s surroundings. Now we are advised to notice all we can, as the act of seeing may save our lives.
Annie Dillard wrote an essay on seeing in “Pilgrim at Tinker Creek” some years ago. She, too, thought that seeing can save a life, though she was not dealing with bombs in subways. Annie was addressing the self-blinded soul which does not pick up on all the sights life has to offer, all that is to be seen. Seeing is living and the embracing of life, a creative vigilance attached to grace.
In his essay on “blindness,” Jorge Luis Borges says much the same thing about not seeing. “Blindness is a gift,” says Borges, because it makes the blind eye see more clearly, like John Milton’s inner vision of “This Dark World and Wide.”
When, as recently, the public is urged to see more clearly for its own good, a much larger process is set in motion. First one sees one thing, then many. Looking for something one may find another.
If Americans are to be more vigilant in their self-protection, that includes a watchfulness of one’s government as well to see that it does not exercise power that diminishes the freedom of those it protects. A Patriot Act that interferes with the free life of libraries takes away an essential kind of sight. An unattended package is no more lethal than an unattended liberty. Then, too, seeing involves the long view. This dangerous world becomes more dangerous if we refuse to see those who need us — those whose values and beliefs are different from ours, and those who fear us or hate us.
CORRESPONDENT: Torn open at both ends and blasted in the middle, these, the mangled remains of one commuter train, the site of a massacre of the innocent.
ROGER ROSENBLATT: Terrorists count on the universal lack of seeing, not only for purposes of planting bombs but also to foster and encourage national enmities. It is possible that if one saw the world more expansively, with greater openness, terrorists would have fewer targets for their murderous eyes.
G.K. Chesterton wrote an essay called “A Piece of Chalk” about his going out to draw sketches and finding that he needed a piece of white chalk. He was in despair until he realized that he was sitting on a hill of white chalk.
Everyone says so: The more we see, the better off we’ll be. There is much to notice in the world, entrances no less than exits, until the vision widens to include everyone everywhere, and we finally see where we are.
I’m Roger Rosenblatt.