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When Did We Become the Land of the Fearful?

I spent my winter vacation feeling victimized, terrorized. In other words, I traveled by air. As the Homeland Security alert level rose to orange, the fear level went right up with it -- ratcheted by the powers that be, fueled by vague public information, hyped by an apocalypse-loving media. What astonished me was the extent to which I bought into the hysteria, the extent to which I betrayed myself.

It didn’t start that way. The morning I left Los Angeles, I watched security officials swab my baggage, less scared than angry at how I was being manipulated: lined up, ordered about like a suspect, reminded again and again to report suspicious behavior. “Don’t talk back or they’ll arrest you as a terrorist,” muttered one of my fellow passengers as we stood first in one line, then another, avoiding eye contact, behaving like scared rabbits and potential snitches.

Then came a week of flight cancellations, endless conjecture on cable news shows, administration officials claiming an attack was imminent. By the time I flew again, this time to New York City, a good part of my anger had catalyzed to fear. When Air France aborted six flights between Paris and Los Angeles, I began to wonder if I would get back to LAX and home. Toward the end of the New York flight, as the pilot flew up the Hudson, providing a vivid view of Manhattan, all I could think was how vulnerable we were. I pointed out the Empire State Building and Central Park to my children, but I only saw targets, imagining the whine of overloaded engines, the plane knifing from the sky.

New York was grimly -- perhaps inevitably -- Orange Alert observant, attentive to the free-floating anxiety that terror provokes in us. But it hardly consoled me to be herded behind yellow lines while my bags were scrutinized, to have museum guards go through dozens of camera cases, as if each person in line were plotting some catastrophic event.

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“Better safe than sorry,” said a woman behind me in a long security line one afternoon at New York’s Museum of Natural History. But it’s impossible to gauge what “safe” means anymore. Surely the next attack won’t be triggered by terrorists waiting patiently in line, not when they can choose the wide-open park across the street, the restaurant on the corner, the sidewalk 10 yards outside the door.

That hit home when I led my kids into Grand Central Station, headed for the subway. We were greeted by uniformed National Guard troops, their M-16s angled toward the ground. I began to think about escape routes and then, all of a sudden, amid the crowds surging beneath the vaulted constellation ceiling of the station, I understood how ridiculous it was, how paralyzing, and how useless in the end.

Of course, terror is the wild card we live with, the new baseline for reality. We must acknowledge it, prepare as best we can, but to suppose that with enough surveillance and checkpoints we might truly secure ourselves is a pernicious fantasy. If you doubt this, consider Israel. The more we queue up -- docile, frightened -- the more we let the real terrorists win.

This is, in part, a matter of civic identity. I come down on the side of Benjamin Franklin, who once said, “Those who would sacrifice liberty for security deserve neither.” Yet even more, it’s an issue of how we live every day, of whether we give in or stand up to hysteria. Terror alerts don’t make us much safer, they make us more scared. They make us turn our public spaces into no man’s lands, where we are always peering over shoulders, staring at one another with suspicion, searching for the next act of devastation even as it unfolds within our hearts.

Is there an alternative? I spent some time on New Year’s Day talking to a friend who works in Times Square, which is surely a prime target for anyone seeking a symbol to destroy. Yes, she said, she worries, but not on an Orange Alert timeline. “You should understand,” she said, laughing. “You’re a Californian. It’s like living with earthquakes.”

And she’s right. Danger, after all, is always with us, just below the surface of the everyday. As individuals we can’t keep it from occasionally exploding; we can only keep it from taking over our lives. Fear does not protect us, it only generates more fear.

I tried to keep that in mind as I flew home, through skies full of undiverted airplanes, flying over cities that, alerts and rumors notwithstanding, would make it through the holidays intact.

David L. Ulin edited “Writing Los Angeles: A Literary Anthology” (Library of America, 2002). His book “The Myth of Solid Ground: Earthquakes, Prediction, and the Fault Line Between Reason and Faith” will be published by Viking Penguin in July.

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