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Fear Itself

Roger Rosenblatt considers fear in the United States after the terrorist attacks.

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    In the last years and throes of the Soviet Union, I was strolling around Moscow with a university teacher whom I was interviewing. As we walked on a bright, blue September Sunday, I noticed that people we passed were staring at me — lots of people with a sort of scientific intensity. I asked my companion; did I look so different from ordinary Russians that I stood out as an object of curiosity? She responded almost blithely, you don't look afraid. Americans don't look afraid.

    It was true, of course, and it was the first time I had been made aware of this oddity in the American make-up. All other countries and cultures have had good reason to know and show fear, to have had fear bred into their voices, postures, habits of mind. But until the past few weeks historically blessed America has sauntered about fear free. And our newfound alertness to bombers in the trees has had the effect of a new national costume or language. Not only does fear not feel natural to us, one is nostalgically aware of how pleasant it was to live without it.

    The Israelis have lived with this kind of fear for over 50 years. The Russians and Soviet Bloc countries as well. Vaclav Havel wrote of the distortion of reality fear instills, how perfectly sane and intelligent citizens would spout Marxist slogans to appease the secret police who did not believe the slogans themselves. Unlike the Czechs, Americans are not afraid of their own country but we are beginning to be afraid of living in our own country, which comes to pretty much the same thing. This is what terrorism does. It takes your country away. Incidents of anthrax occur, the FBI has information not specific to target that more attacks are imminent. Unspecificity creates fear in its worst form, panic, which is what the terrorists want: Fear of the enemy without a uniform, the front without a front.

    Cervantes said that fear is sharp sighted and can see things underground and much more in the skies. He was really referring to that transitional state when fear which is sobering and useful becomes out of control and dangerous. So we are beginning to know how fear works on the system. It makes one speechless, literally takes one's speech away. It makes one feel alone and isolated, isolation being the last thing one wishes to experience in a time requiring unity. But the worst it can do is to seep into the bloodstream so that all of life is poisoned. And even in those moments when nothing is going wrong, a sweet time with family, a walk in the park, one feels that life is on the verge of a mad explosion.

    One is supposed to make a silk purse out of this mess, I know, but I doubt that this newly acquired trait permits many elegant conversions. One hopes that fear may be alchemized to resolve, others before us have done that. Meanwhile the sky goes dark sooner these days bearing clouds of gunmetal gray and an explosive sinking sun and the occasional plane. I'm Roger Rosenblatt.

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