Reviews > Culture

Home of the brave?

Culture | Americans must overcome being afraid of fear itself

Issue: "Elaine Chao: Unlikely star," Nov. 3, 2001

Americans in the wake of the 9/11 attacks are experiencing something they are not used to: fear.

Sights of white powdery substances-from spilled flour to baby powder-have inspired panic across the country, overloading the emergency medical teams charged with sorting out the real anthrax attacks. Some people are refusing to open their mail. St. Louis Cardinals baseball players have asked mailroom personnel to stamp "return to sender" on all fan mail. Too risky.

Airline flights are nearly empty. Hotels are deserted, thanks to canceled travel plans. In the airports, security guards are confiscating everything from fingernail clippers to razor cartridges. In Wisconsin, someone actually burned his universally coveted and impossible-to-buy Green Bay Packers tickets. Not only was he afraid terrorists might strike Lambeau Field. He was also afraid of giving them to a friend or selling them to a stranger, because he was afraid of feeling guilty if they were killed.

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People are scared, and for good reason. Never in America's recent history (except for a few inconsequential shots from a Japanese submarine) have we been attacked by an enemy power on our soil. The history of Europe, Asia, and the Middle East is a chronicle of invasions, but it has rarely happened here.

To make it worse, Americans realize that the danger to their lives is not through some invading military force, which our own defense forces could contend with. Rather, the dangers are coming-and people have died-in the course of just going about their everyday lives: going to work; taking a business trip; opening their mail.

As the name implies, a "terrorist" is someone who spreads terror. The goal is not just to kill people; it is to frighten everyone else. Spreading anthrax is effective, but white powder in an envelope that tests germ-free can also do the job. The 2,300 cases of suspicious mail or questionable substances investigated by the hazardous materials teams, in their white suits as all-covering as a Taliban woman's burqua, still qualify as acts of terrorism, even when they prove anthrax-free. Except for some accidental spills, most of them are proving to be hoaxes or practical jokes, from people who have the viciousness to think spreading fear is funny.

American culture used to have that luxury. We were so safe that we used fear as entertainment. Hollywood profited from movies that gave us a thrilling jolt of vicarious horror, as we sat in air-conditioned comfort munching our popcorn. Many Americans counted Halloween as their favorite holiday. We have enjoyed trying to scare ourselves, but the real thing-the fear that an airplane could crash into our workplace, that a terrorist could give us a fatal disease, that one of the customers in a crowded food court might have plastic explosives under his jacket-is not so pleasant.

In this war, since civilians are the targets and the ordinary workplace the battleground, it behooves us ordinary Americans to show some military-style courage.

This virtue, as moralists have pointed out throughout the centuries, is not the absence of fear. A child who has no fear of going off the high-dive does not have courage when he jumps into the swimming pool. It is no big deal for him. But a child who is afraid of the height and jumps off anyway is showing courage. Bravery involves doing what is right or accomplishing a mission despite fear, refusing to be controlled by that natural emotion, and being strong enough to master that fear.

And indeed, just as the casualties of this war have been ordinary Americans, so have the heroes of this war, who have exemplified a courage rivaling anything on conventional battlefields: the rescue workers charging into a collapsing building; the passengers over Pennsylvania who charged their hijackers, bringing the plane down rather than let it crash into another office building.

This is the spirit Americans need to cultivate now. And, indeed, when an unruly passenger (later found to be mentally ill) tried to break into the pilot's cabin during a flight to Chicago, the rest of the passengers rose up, wrestled him to the ground, and tied him up with one of those demonstration seat belts. The real advance in airplane security has come not from longer lines at the metal detector but from the new attitude on board planes.

The land of the free must also be the home of the brave.

Gene Edward Veith
Gene Edward Veith

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