Shouldn't I be more afraid of terrorism?

My family has known people who died in acts of terror, but I don't seem to be afraid.

Published September 16, 2004 7:00PM (EDT)

Dear Cary,

I am a mid-20s single female with a career that I love, a family that I love, and an all-around stable life. I have a family member who escaped from one of the twin towers on 9/11, and my family knows people who died in the U.S. Embassy in Kenya when it was bombed. My family has many members in the military, both retired and soon to be active. I have several friends and colleagues who worked on the human remains recovered from the World Trade Center. Given all the above, I feel that I can say that I have a pretty personal connection to these events and the resulting actions.

My question is this: Why am I not afraid of terrorism? Since October 2001, I have felt extremely critical of this country's response to 9/11 and the "war on terror." Not only am I not afraid, I am hyperskeptical. I am not sure that this position is a way to distance myself from the issue, as I remain very engaged in American politics. I just don't feel afraid. Not at all. So unafraid that I fear that I have a complete cognitive disconnect with people around the country who claim to be afraid. Are all these other people crazy and I am sane? Is this some kind of Republican scheme to infect all Americans with fear?

What is up with me?

Almost Afraid to Be Unafraid

Dear Unafraid,

I think the key is to make a realistic assessment of the objective risks, and then be aware of how we assess the same situation differently according to our experiences, our habits and our temperaments. For instance, Osama bin Laden is said to be in the shipping business. I have some personal experience in the shipping business. I think of Osama bin Laden being in the shipping business as I drive over the Golden Gate Bridge. I imagine being on the bridge when a naptha tanker of cloaked origin explodes underneath it. I know the chances are slim. But my experience, my habits and my temperament affect my own personal nightmares.

We have to try to distinguish between what makes us feel safer and what reduces the probability of a terror attack. A president who walks resolutely and talks confidently may make us feel safer. But feeling safer is not the same thing as being safer. If we examine the president's decisions, we may find a flawed decision-making process and an element of personal recklessness -- elements that make us less safe.

Feeling that we are in the hands of a reckless incompetent can compound our fear. On the other hand, feeling that we can affect political outcomes may lessen our fear. So your political engagement probably helps you feel less afraid, as does the knowledge of real-life risks you gain in the course of your political work.

Throughout my childhood and teenage years in the Cold War, we feared that we were never more than a few minutes away from a catastrophic clash of armies. You'd look up and wonder if maybe right at that second nuclear missiles from the USSR might be streaking toward mutually assured destruction. Then you'd go to your mailbox and wonder if you might be getting a draft notice to go to Vietnam. One of the reasons we demonstrated in such numbers throughout the Vietnam War was that getting out in the streets was a way of combating feelings of fear and helplessness. That is probably true today: The surge in activism is a healthy response to a real danger.

There are other reasons you may find yourself less afraid than those around you. Sometimes direct experience with something makes it less frightening rather than more. For instance, I have been through many hurricanes, so I am less afraid of them than my wife. She on the other hand has been through many earthquakes, and is less afraid of them than I am. So direct experience of something seems to make one less afraid. Your experiences with terrorism's effects may have helped you in this regard. Your circumstances may have armed you against excessive fear.

And finally, concerning the politics of our precarious time: In the words of Joe Strummer, "Anger can be power." Or, if you prefer Shakespeare:

To be furious
Is to be frighted out of fear, and in that mood
The dove will peck the estridge...

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