September 11th and the Maintenance of Fear

September 10, 2010

On September 11, 2001, I was the most frightened I have ever been in my life. It had never occurred to me that a large-scale attack on high-profile symbols of my country would ever occur and, when it happened, I was filled with panic at the revelation of this completely new piece of life’s puzzle. I was alone with my seven-year-old child, in a mostly empty condominium development (it was a work day, after all) and I was pouring Lucky Charms cereal, for heaven’s sake. Within an hour, I was wondering if a police vehicle would soon be circling the development, with an officer holding a bullhorn, telling me how to evacuate the war zone.

As the day turned to night, and my husband came home, and the towers fell endlessly on television, my fear ebbed and flowed. It returned to its peak when my husband began to get his clothes ready for work the next day: “You’re going to work?!” I cried. “We don’t know what’s going to happen tomorrow!”

My fear level dropped significantly the next day, when he did in fact go to work, and I discovered that no more buildings had been violated during the night and no more lives lost. I talked to friends and relatives, repeating the same anecdotes about the previous day, while, on the television set, the towers continued to fall, again and again and again, until the sight of them falling didn’t produce as much adrenaline in my system as it had just twenty-four hours previously.

By September 13th, I was only experiencing brief moments of fear: the quietness of a department store parking lot, due to the lack of airplanes flying overhead, gave me a chill. But sadness was seeping into the hole that fear had blasted open inside me. I cried while watching an interview with the man who ran Cantor Fitzgerald, a business that lost hundreds of employees on September 11th. I cried at a local church service for victims of the tragedy who lived in my area.

In light of the recent activities designed by extremists to stoke fear in the average American, I’ve been thinking about the relationship between fear and September 11th.  I don’t think that fear is designed to stick around. It exists to get your blood up, get you moving, make you flee or make you fight, and then it cuts out. It’s too exhausting an emotion to maintain for a very long time. Just as we don’t remember pain—I can tell a fantastic story about passing my kidney stone, but none of the pain I felt at the time is accessible to me now—I don’t think we can remember fear. We can remember that we were afraid, but the actual terror, the sensation of panic—I don’t think that’s accessible to us after the fact.

So, according to my theory, maintaining fear takes effort, and that effort is what the aforementioned extremists are ready and willing to provide. “Never forget.” “Always remember.” I know that these “9/11” phrases refer to the dead, and I honor that. But, I also believe that, for some people, they are a code for “Never forget the  fear.” “Always remember the fear.”

When people are afraid, they don’t think clearly. They are prone to quick judgment. They are easily unhinged. They can be led astray.

Instead of seeing September 11th as a day on which to feed our fear, I hope that Americans will see it as a sad day, a day on which people with grievances (whether justified or not) made a very, very wrong choice about how to express their anger. As Timothy McVeigh did on another sad day. As Richard Speck did on yet another sad day. I could, of course, go on and on, back to the man the Bible calls Cain.

Fear does not deserve to be maintained; love does. Love is an emotion human beings can remember and conjure at will. This September 11th, act with love. Love never leads you astray.

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