Friday, April 26, 2013

Terror as the new normal

In the blink of an eye, everything changed. Again. And things will never really be the normal many of us grew up knowing.

Earbaby, her best friend Beth, and my husband and I were in New York when the Boston Marathon bombings happened. We were walking in Central Park, enjoying the glorious, if physically exhausting, spring day on school vacation week when an alert came up on my husband's phone.

See, this vacation week was different from so many others. We had decided on taking a four-day trip to New York City instead of our usual weeklong excursion to the Gulf Coast of Florida. Condo rentals and airline fares being what they were, we decided a short trip was better than none, and EB got to bring her BFF, an incredibly joyous, gracious, and grateful young lady who brought out the best in EB, who was putting on her best bipolar Barbie act, even as she apologized for her quick-change demeanors.

But she and Beth got to take in a Broadway show, an off-Broadway show, Times Square, two hip-hop dance classes where they more than held their own, a hansom cab through Central Park, and lots and lots of walking and window shopping. These two giggling 14-year-olds danced, pranced, texted, tweeted and instagrammed all over the island that is Manhattan, excited to have a few days in the city that never sleeps.

But the trip in the afternoon of its second day was marred by alerts on my husband's phone of a bombing back home, and then, minutes later, another. My husband and I looked at each other with dread. Please, let it be a gas explosion and not a terrorist attack, I said. But I knew. And before I told the girls what had happened in their hometown, I had to walk away, sit down in a corner and pray.

The question never arose whether to tell, or try to keep it from them. These girls are internet savvy, with smartphones and their own world of constant communication. We told them what we knew at the time, which wasn't much. We knew some people were killed and many, many more grievously injured.

We all knew someone who was running, watching, or otherwise engaged in the extravaganza of Patriots Day and the Boston Marathon. And though we tried to keep the trip upbeat, we had to check in with everyone first, and let other friends and family know we weren't there (Facebook, I'm not home, please rob my house), so there wouldn't be endless phone calls from around the globe.

And we had to make decisions. Do we stay close to the hotel, or go out to dinner as we planned? Cutting the trip short wasn't an option, but we noted increased police presence everywhere we went, from Times Square to Chinatown, to the train station where we came in and out, passing by police and their hardworking dogs.

Days later, after returning home and seeing the rest of the story unfold with police officers shot, one fatally, one carjacking, one dead suspect, a lockdown of the entire city, and an injured but captured suspect, I realized that our new normal is worrying about the eventuality of terrorism.

It had sneaked up on us, worming its way into our subconscious, slowly elevating our anxiety level. A few days before September 11, 2001, I remember reading about a bombing at an outside market in the Middle East. EB was just a toddler then, but I remember thinking presciently that Americans probably would never understand that kind of horror unless it happened here. Days later, with EB in her high chair eating breakfast and watching Barney, my husband working in Washington, D.C., on a quick three-day trip, the first plane hit one of the Twin Towers. A friend called to tell me, and the rest of the world watched the second plane explode into the second tower. Two other planes went down, one of them at the Pentagon, four miles from where my husband was staying. The skies went silent. The horror had been visited upon us.

Now, this wasn't our first visit with terrorism. Homegrown terrorist Timothy McVeigh should have opened our eyes. But we weren't ready for the new normal that other countries have lived with for centuries. So we decided that was an isolated event (we decided all the bombings, from '60s radicalism to Ku Klux Klan atrocities and beyond were isolated events), and moved on, hoping for the return of the old normal.

The Twin Towers going down changed all that. And we entered our formerly unprecedented world of alarm at unattended luggage, fertilizer in large amounts, foreign-sounding names, and see-something-say-something diligence. As Americans, we won't be ruled by fear. As parents, siblings, friends, partners, we are haunted by the what-ifs. What if we hadn't gone to New York and had taken the girls down to cheer the marathoners? What if the train had been bombed, instead of the race route? What if the terrorist suspects started in Times Square, as one of the unfolding stories now says they were headed? How could I live with myself if something happened to either child entrusted in my care?

We have forgotten the time when one could get on a plane without first being thoroughly searched, removing belts, shoes, liquids and personal items in front of strangers, and then reassembling oneself a few feet away. My mother has joked that eventually we are all going to have to just show up naked. With the new body scans, some of us believe that time has already arrived. If you see an unattended bag, no longer would you try to turn it into the lost and found. Now you report it to the authorities, who may choose to have its contents euthanized.

Many people that day rushed toward the explosions, looking for ways to help. These modern-day Patriots  may have been going against their instinct of self-preservation, or it may have been their instinctual thing to do all the good they could for as many as they could, for as long as they could. It points to their inherent decency to look to help without knowing whether they could be the next victims.

Later on, when all the postmortems have been done on this heinous event, we'll go back to normal. But it's not the old-time normal of days long gone and never to return. It's the new normal of surveillance cameras, keeping mental pictures of  "suspicious" people, unconscious racial and religious profiling, and taking no one at face value. It's seeing something and saying something.

Living our lives, knowing that potential terrorists may live and walk among us is our new normal. And that's the real tragedy.

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