In another time of national crisis, another president, sensing how much his countrymen were on edge, wisely counseled them that the only thing they had to fear was fear itself. It wasn't just a nifty turn of phrase that some presidential speechwriter produced but a prediction as profound then as it is now.
Fear is a strong emotion that, magnified, can exert a powerful hold on a country's psyche, altering behavior, disrupting sleep, and inducing panic.
America puts on a cowboy's bravado when clouds roll in. It's a defense mechanism, a way to brace for bad news without falling apart. We like to imagine our collective spirit standing tall, shoulder to shoulder, ready to take on whatever or whomever dares to threaten our U.S. of A.
Bare-knuckle boldness carried us through many a conflict when warfare still had perimeters. But in the brave new world, terrorism is without boundaries, can strike anywhere without warning, and is chilling in its pinpoint deadliness.
Try as we might to keep a stiff upper lip no matter what, terror has settled in like a low-hanging fog over the land. It has forced us to slow down as we attempt to navigate a path shrouded and shadowy and scary as hell. We assume the fog will never envelop those of us in small towns or cities. We imagine we are safely removed by distance from large, populous metropolitan centers seemingly more attractive to terrorists.
But we can't be sure, can we? What about the nuclear power plants within driving distance of home? Could they become ground zero for a masterful plot to shake up the nation's heartland?
Some of the plants now sport sharpshooters and, in this region, are being closely monitored by Coast Guard crews on high alert as they patrol the Great Lakes.
Speaking of present-day paranoia, have you found yourself occasionally studying the flight patterns of some planes? Is that one flying too low or not straight enough? What about crop-dusters that fly over many a Midwest field? Are they still cause for concern as potential weapons of bioterrorism?
The highway patrol is on the lookout for drivers of mammoth tanker trucks hauling hazardous waste. Are the operators of those rigs tagged with poisonous or flammable warnings really who they say they are? Can we ever feel the same passing them on the interstate again? The threat of lethal biological and chemical weapons suddenly being dispersed into the general population is frightening. Positive testing of anthrax exposure from Florida to New York to Capitol Hill is enough to unnerve even the most stalwart among us.
Should you stock up on gas masks, hoard Cipro, boost your life insurance, build a bunker, or what? Are we sitting ducks for diseases like anthrax or nerve agents like sarin, unknowing and unprepared? Hearing about what could happen can dredge up enough bad dreams, horrible movies, and worst-case scenarios to drive one crazy with fear. When every day there is another anthrax scare, the population at large worries a little more about the prospect of toxic materials or pathogens used as weapons of mass destruction.
United we stand, but against what or whom? Those who seek to intimidate and destroy could be terrorists from Timbuktu or Toledo. They could be copycats craving attention, or anarchists seizing the timidity of the day to dump more fuel on the fire.
While fear is a reasonable reaction to the bizarre and brutal, it must be tempered with reality rooted in rational thought. So we have to be more vigilant with ordinary activities. Live with it. Coupled with new security measures, a shaken society should regain some of its confidence that all is not lost.
Things will get better. Fear cannot forever control life or, as FDR knew, it will surely defeat us.
Marilou Johanek is a Blade editorial writer. E-mail her at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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