Back to Normal? No Way

Two decades ago, I had an obsession.

It concerned a question. At the time, I was working at a magazine that covered nuclear arms control. Pondering nuclear war every day took a toll. I regularly dreamed of nuclear devestation. The scenario was usually the same. I'd be engaged in some mundane activity -- say, walking down the street -- and then ... ka-boom! Just as the blast began, I would be jolted awake, not knowing for a moment that the world had been destroyed only in my mind.

During my waking hours, I often dwelled on these dreams and wondered, if a nuclear attack did occur would there be any warning? Not warning in the sense that the military air defense command might pick up a radar image of an incoming missile and sound air raid sirens. I wanted to know, in the event of a nuclear assault, whether one would be able to look toward the sky, see the falling warhead or its contrail, realize what was about to occur, and have time to murmmur, Oh shit. I was aware some warheads were designed to detonate at high altitudes, some were set to explode upon impact. But how fast would they be traveling, and at that speed could you follow the downward trajectory of the object of doom?

I had the means to answer this question. I knew experts. But I never sought an answer. Instead, I wondered over and over, frequently recalling the opening line to Thomas Pynchon's "Gravity's Rainbow" -- A screaming comes across the sky. I shared this morbid curiosity with no one. (It was certainly not good first-date material).

My twentysomething life went on, punctuated by occasional dread. Were others around me -- coworkers at the office, clubhoppers on the dance floor, people on the sidewalk -- also worried about the prospect that all could be obliterated at any moment, through either an act of malice or miscalculation? It did not seem polite to ask. Who wants to be a downer?

After two years at the magazine, I left; the reoccurring nightmare appeared less often, and my preoccupation with that particular question faded. (Twenty years later, the dream does return once in a while.) At the time of that obsession, I took partial comfort in the fact that there seemed to be no one who truly desired to use nuclear weapons to achieve massive carnage. That generally left error, not hatred, to fear.

That was then.... These days, when I walk around Washington, D.C. -- a city at war -- and gaze at new concrete barricades and the additional police on patrol, watch security guards at government buildings as they inspect visitors more closely, listen more attentively to the distant sirens of emergency vehicles -- my apocalyptic musings do not fixate upon the sky. Seconds of warning? No way. An act of nuclear terrorism will originate at, not fall upon, ground zero. But what about the flash? Could you discern the flash? Can impulses speeding through your neural pathways outrace the shockwave of a small nuclear device? Could you whisper a goodbye?

Life after September 11 -- I have the sense our national leaders have not quite grasped the profound change that has been wrought.

Apparently, though, it is not a productive use of time to worry about nuclear terror, for the media and congressional hearings in recent days -- prior to the us airstriakes in afghanistan -- have concentrated on the threat of biological and chemical terrorism. Before a Senate committee, Health and Human Services Secretary Tommy Thompson, who days earlier had told 60 Minutes, "We're prepared ... for any kind of bioterrorism attack," later acknowledged that, um, we're not.

At another hearing, a terrorism expert was asked if the medical establishment was equipped to deal with a biological attack. Are you kidding? he replied, half the public health officials in this country don't have computers on their desks. In The Washington Post, Georgetown matron and what-about-me journalist Sally Quinnn defended her recent efforts to acquire gas masks for her family. (For those who worry about Quinn and her brood, good news -- the mission was a success. She founds masks available from a place in Salt Lake City, which was stockpiling them for the Olympics.)

But the President, while he prepared for war, encouraged the nation to get back to normal. Citizens, head to the malls. Even as Attorney General John Ashcroft notes another wave of terror is a distinct possibility. And get back on those airliners, too. Even as authority is granted to military commanders to shoot down planes they believe to have been hijacked. Investigative reporter Seymour Hersh, referring to the intelligence community, notes, "the thinking is...[the terrorists] put the second wave into place before [September 11]. In other words, whatever is going to happen next is already in place." On the same day that an intelligence offical in a closed-doors briefing told senators there is a "100 percent" chance of a terrorist strike should the United States hit Afghansitan, the White House press secretary Ari Fleischer declared there are increasing signs that life in America is getting back to normal. Then came the bombing and more warnings that terrorist reprisals were likely.

Getting back to normal? Who's in denial? Will Sally Quinn resume her renowned dinner parties -- but with gas masks slung over the back of the dining room chairs? Have we returned to normal, because Hollywood reports the public has again started consuming the same-old junk? Forget Pynchon. Now it seems we are in a Delillo novel. We will pursue the large and small dramas of our lives, waiting -- or trying not to wait -- for those bursts of horrific violence that arrive intermittently, each one of us hoping the next tragedy occurs in another town and penetrates our own world only via the television screen. Welcome to globalization. As Osama bin Laden might say, Borders are for suckers.

Who knows how best to proceed within this new world disorder? Should we join the rush to normalcy? (You can get a great deal on a 2001 model car now.) Or should we be screaming: this is so god-damn crazy? Unfortunately, neither course of action offers much solace or security. And military retaliation -- even if succeeds in capturing or killing the September 11 plotters -- is unlikely to protect us from future terrorism.

In delivering a hawkish speech last week, calling for war, British Prime Minister Tony Blair did assert that the war on terrorism ought to be tied to a global campaign for social justice. The best chance the West has to free itself from the madness of terrorism, Blair suggested, is to confront inequity and deploy compassion as readily as force. That won't rid the globe of murderous hatred, but it might damper support for terrorists among governments and populations overseas. This would be an attempt to drain the swamp, and Blair is taking a long view. But the present leadership of the United States shows little interest in a holistic strategy that gazes beyond the us-and-them perspective of the commander-in-chief. And the opposition -- that would be the Democrats -- shows no signs of being able to address the disturbing new fundamentals of life after 9/11. Cruise missiles do not change the equation.

So what, then? Get used to it? Life has risks -- and now there are more? In essence, that is what Bush and his aides are telling us. Don't ask too many hard questions. Shop while you fret. What else do they have to say? They're lost, too. Bush keeps insisting he is waging a campaign for freedom, as he makes military alliances with repressive, non-democratic or autocratic regimes that care not a whit for freedom. Does the Bush clan have a good idea of how to prosecute an effective war on terrorism? Recently, a senior offical traveling with deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz told a reporter, "It is difficult, in my view, to overestimate how much we don't know."

Those who govern our nation can provide us with neither gas masks nor assurance we won't soon need them. And Bush's solution to the attendant economic woes? Accelerating the tax cuts for the rich. Bush did initially propose extending unemployment benefits and other modest domestic spending as part of a $75 billion economic stimulus, before yielding to conservative Republicans who oppose additional spending and consider this an opportune moment to press for business tax cuts.)

Sorry for the pessimism. But, then, I'm the sort of person who has nuclear nightmares. Feel free to party like it's 1999. Perhaps there will be self-help books aimed at coping. (Success over Terror: Empowering Yourself in a Time of Uncertainty?) For those who do not wish to repress reasonable fears, my less-than-satisfactory suggestion is that we ought to demand more from our leaders -- even if we do not know precisely what that entails. They have failed us in imagination, preparation, and protection. They should be pressed to talk straight about the threat and the possibilities for achieving a secure world, at home and abroad, for there is no distinction. No phony attempts at assuaging anxieties. Let's have them acknowledge: we're far from what we once believed was normal and are not likely to be in that territory for a long time.

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