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Check your fear at the door



When I was in the Newspaper Guild, before my elevation -- or banishment, if you prefer -- to the managerial class, I had a philosophy regarding contract talks. Negotiations were always a tense, difficult time, full of uncertainty and the specter of a strike. Colleagues would work themselves into knots over what might happen, and I would tell them -- and myself -- something like:

"Every day, I walk up to the building and push against the revolving door. If the door moves, I go inside and work. When it doesn't, I'll worry about what to do then."

I will admit that wasn't the proactive approach. But it worked for me.

It's the same approach I take toward this terrorism business. I go about my business, and if something explodes around me, I'll deal with it then, probably by curling into a ball and screeching, if I'm alive.

That just doesn't seem like a moment that can be prepared for. I am not hoarding duct tape, or storing water, or paying attention to whether it is an orange or a yellow day. What's the point?

All these warnings, what are they for? Obviously, they are intended so the government, humiliated by being completely taken by surprise on Sept. 11, can cover its enormous bureaucratic ass. So they can, after the disaster that all their wheel-spinning and tough talk failed to prevent happens anyway, say: "See, we warned you. It was a magenta day. So we did our best."

That's insane. Or, at best, immature. A responsible government would tell us if they know something helpful and keep quiet if they didn't. These vague warnings and symbolic measures only feed fear and give ammunition to the conspiracy theorists.

Here's a simple test. Take whatever the government says, and ask yourself: Would this have helped someone working in the World Trade Center if they heard it Sept. 10, 2001?

The vague warnings? No. The keep a three-day-supply of food advice? No.

I suppose the keep-a-flashlight-handy advice might have done somebody some good in the World Trade Center, but not much. The people who died were killed either by the impact and fire, were trapped so they couldn't get out, or were rescuers heading up to help, ignored the problem until it was too late. No one was doomed because it was too dark.

The problem, as I see it, is there are too many possible disaster scenarios. Preparation only helps you for such a narrow range.

There's something self-delusional in "preparing.'' I speak from experience. After Sept. 11, I did something deeply embarrassing, but which I will share now because it's relevant: I bought a rope. The image of those people clinging to the window frames of their offices was so horrible, it got me thinking. Yes, I'm only on the fourth floor, but that's fall aplenty to kill you. My office is about a 50-yard walk through snaking corridors to the stairs. Any problem at all, and I'd be trapped. Heck, the fire department would scoot their ladders straight to the seventh floor, where the executive offices are. So I bought a 50-foot coil of yellow nylon rope. To rescue myself, you see, after the building blows up.

Maybe that seems prudent to you. But, to me, it seemed fearful and pathetic. I never brought the rope to work. I think it's still in the trunk of my car. I didn't want to yank open file drawers and find it, my talisman, like the magic string Zulu tribesmen wore around their necks to keep the bullets from harming them.

I am not prepared, but I am not afraid, either. Tom Ridge said, "Americans are not afraid." Like most things his office has been doing, that is the funhouse-mirror reality. A lot of people I know are twitchy as parakeets. I'm not because I'm resigned. There is nothing we can do.

That's my advice, nongovernmental though it may be. Don't let your fear follow the fashion. Don't worry about stuff just because everybody else is. If you're not scared of heart disease, Alzheimer's, traffic accidents and household slips, then don't be scared of terrorism. Remember, had you been sitting at your desk at the World Trade Center, eating an apple, on Sept. 11, odds would still be that you'd come out OK. Most people did.

We'll be OK. And, if we're not, it won't be for lack of potable water and duct tape. If you want to prepare yourself for a truly frightening future rushing toward you, quit smoking, and open up a 401(k) retirement fund.

Neil Steinberg is a columnist for the Chicago Sun-Times.

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