Living in Terror

Karin Carrington, Susan Griffin, and Howard Teich are coming out with an anthology next year entitled Transforming Terror: Remembering the Soul of the World (University of California Press), for which I was asked to write a blurb, and I gladly did so.  The book–mostly essays, but also some poetry–redefines terror not in the usual sense as coming from “a terrorist” alone,  but rather explores the various ways that civilians have been terrorized in modern times, whether through the lynching of blacks in the South or the bombing of innocents in wartime.  A multitude of the wisest voices of our time are included: Daniel Ellsberg, Huston Smith, Vandana Shiva, James Hillman, Czeslaw Milosz, Carolyn Forche, Vaclav Havel, Susan Sontag, Bishop Desmond Tu Tu. 

Reading this moving volume caused me to ponder the ways in which we all live in fear, every day.  And it didn’t used to be that way.

Speaking of terrorists, this morning the headline in the Oregonian was Flying’s too-personal touch?  The article tells of a woman in a wheelchair who was pulled aside by a Federal officer at the Portland International Airport for the new anti-terrorism pat-down.  The traveler, who suffers from post-polio syndrome, teetered up so she could stand on the rug marked with large yellow feet.  The officer told her where she would be touched and then proceeded to place her gloved hands under the woman’s breasts, the inside of her thighs, across her buttocks, and inside her waistband.  Presumably, the officer found no weapons or explosives, so our traveler was free to board the plane to visit her grandchildren. 

Now–do you feel safer?  Does our traveler?  Personally, I don’t.  In fact, I find that I live in a world that is now inundated with fears of various kinds.  We are all subjected to the airport searches, and the “orange” alerts, which tell us nothing except to be more afraid than we were.  Many children don’t feel safe walking to school alone or playing in most neighborhoods.  Unwrapped Halloween treats must be thrown away.  Would a neighbor poison my child?  We are cautioned to shred personal papers and old bills, lest our very identity be stolen.  We read of shootings in schools and even churches.  We have double-bolt locks and security systems in our homes.  Some people have even withdrawn into gated communities. 

The fears I grew up with as a child in N. Louisiana were personal, from a family that had its problems–but these fears weren’t overlaid with the fears that saturate our society today.  Our doors were always unlocked during the day.  When “hoboes” (the wandering indigent) came by, we always gave them a big plate of food.  Our dog never had a leash, and ate scraps from the table.  We rode our bikes wherever we wanted, walked or hitched rides several miles to school and to the swimming pool, charged whatever we wanted to eat at the local grocery store on the town square.  We knew the banker–he lived next door.  Teenagers went to the “Teen Club,” sponsored by Coca Cola, and we drank nothing stronger than our sponsor’s beverage.  After basketball games, we went to the Purple Cow, where we had a burger and curly fries for 36 cents.  The most daring thing we did was to drive a couple of miles out into the country and climb the fire tower.  Since nobody was drinking, nobody fell.  (I should add that this bucolic picture applied only to whites, in a community that was absolutely segregated.)

I did not choose to return to Homer, LA, to live.  It got way too small for me, really soon.  But I remember that lovely sense of feeling “in place,” feeling safe and free in a community.  How do we still our anxiety in these times we’re in?  Where is a haven?  Where do we feel safe?