New sense of menace in the now and future world

This Just In...

November 09, 2001|By Dan Rodricks

HE ARRIVED at work in what he considered his most productive hour -- 7 a.m. of a Sunday, when the world would not bother him. Phones would not ring. No one would stop by his desk to offer unsolicited opinions about a television show or sports franchise. It could be a good time for work -- two hours, no distractions.

So the man parked where he always parked on Sunday mornings -- in the lot behind his office, a ground-floor warren of gray cubicles under a low ceiling of fluorescent light. It was a dull space, but since Sept. 11, 2001, the man had come to see it as far more appealing than a luxury suite in a skyscraper. He grabbed his briefcase. Keys jangled in his hand as he moved briskly toward the office door to unlock it, and that's when he spotted, on the sidewalk by the door, the little reminder of the now and future world.

His son had a backpack just like it and used it as a book bag -- black nylon with three or four zippered compartments and a tan, leather bottom. Leaning against the wall of the building, the bag appeared to contain something, but what?

In the good old days, the man would not even have wondered. He would have ignored the bag or, if time allowed, he would have opened it and searched for the owner's identity.

Now he knew he had to dial 911.

Because of 9-11.

"Suspicious bag," he heard himself tell the emergency dispatcher. Then he gave his address, returned to the parking lot, moved his car about 100 feet from the backpack and waited for the police.

The man told himself he'd done the responsible thing, but he felt foolish, annoyed and even cowardly.

He was annoyed at the waste of time, the breaking of routine, the loss of even a few precious minutes of productivity, when his mind should have been focused on a project or idea, something good, instead of the backpack and something awful.

He felt foolish wasting the time of police. In all likelihood, someone had left the bag by mistake. Why would terrorists, in all their sinister scheming, attack a relatively small, suburban field office of a large media company in a section of town that was usually devoid of life over the weekend?

The man felt the heavy air of self-consciousness as he stared at the bag across the parking lot. If he had any nerve, any courage at all, he'd walk over there right now, pick the thing up and open it. Why bother the cops? Why let the terrorists turn us into cowering, whining, 911-dialing wimps?

But the man did not move. He waited. He had triggered the emergency response system and turned the matter over to professionals. It was too late to play action hero.

The first cruiser arrived within minutes, a fresh-faced officer at the wheel. From the driver's seat, he could see the black bag, and he knew instantly why the man had called 911.

"But I'm not sure what to do," the officer said. "So I'm going to call my supervisor."

The young officer spoke into his radio, then parked his car about 50 feet from the office building. In a minute or so, two more cruisers arrived, both drivers slightly older than the first officer. They immediately appreciated the significance of the black bag to the media company; they understood all that it implied.

The three cops met in the parking lot and huddled out of earshot of the man who'd called 911. Then one of them -- the oldest and apparently the supervisor -- moved without further hesitation in the direction of the bag. He turned to the man who'd made the moment possible by seeing Osama bin Laden in unattended luggage and said, "Step back, please, sir."

The man, already 50 feet from the door, moved to a much safer 75. It occurred to him that this officer intended to open the bag. There would be no robots picking the thing up, no remote-controlled water guns hitting it from a distance. There would be a police officer's hands.

Now the man felt oddly, sadly wistful. The summer of 2001, full of the laughter of children, seemed so long ago. Almost every aspect of life seemed to have been changed on Sept. 11.

There are 6 billion people on earth, the man thought as the police officer reached the black bag, and many of them suffer in far-off places. There is famine, war, disease, ethnic hatred. There are a million things that tear people apart, a million maladies in human life across the globe. But they don't touch us much in America. We ignore the suffering or shake our heads or mail in our checks. We go about our business, and we look for places where the world won't bother us.

The police officer squatted in front of the bag and examined it.

The man thought of the sadness, violence and despair in the United States, the common miseries that such police officers see every day. But never before has there been this feeling of terror in our midst, this worry about ordinary things: letters without return addresses, unattended backpacks like the one now in the police officer's steady hands.

Americans die in car accidents, the man thought, they die in drug deals, of cancer, of heart attacks. But they seldom die from bombs left by men who envy and despise us, and who have some twisted notion of a better world through global jihad. Never before, the man thought, had he called 911 because of a backpack.

The officer pulled on the zipper and the black bag split open. From his vantage, the man could see its contents -- an article of clothing, maybe a black T-shirt, a headset for a portable CD player, some papers. Two of the officers examined the bag, then one closed it, lifted it off the sidewalk and took it away.

The man stepped across the parking lot toward the office building to thank the officer who'd made it somehow safe again. "In this atmosphere," the officer said, sensing the man's self-consciousness, "you did the right thing."

The three officers left quickly, and the man went into his office, into his cubicle, finished for now with the now and future world.

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