In a time of terror, there is a freedom in helplessness

November 18, 2001|By Susan Reimer

IN THIS TIME of disaster and panic, Americans turn reflexively to the media for the latest information. However, these days we are getting something extra. We're getting cues on how to feel, how to react.

Dan Rather let us know it is all right to cry. Tom Brokaw gave us permission to express outrage. Sally Quinn and Maureen Dowd, who write for major newspapers, have shown us what full-blown panic looks like.

For those of you looking no further than this space for guidance, allow me to provide a living, breathing example of how to behave in these troubled days.

Don't worry. Be helpless.

It is working for me.

Like most of you, I have children to protect and my own life to preserve until they are launched. But as soon as I admitted to myself that I could do nothing more on these accounts than reiterate the necessity of seatbelts, I found I could relax.

I am willing to admit that I felt no fear after the airplanes hit the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. I do not live or work in a structure that holds great symbolic meaning for the enemies of Western culture. I felt that my sleepy little neighborhood was safe from international statement-making.

When anthrax showed up in the mail of Sen. Tom Daschle and anchorman Tom Brokaw, I still felt safe. Unless some terrorist gets to the catalogs or the pizza flyers, I thought, I will be OK.

Even when my husband came home from work modeling the latex gloves his company issued for opening mail, the kids laughed at the comical picture, and so did I.

"I don't get mail," he said. "But let this be a lesson to you kids. I'd be wearing gloves like these every day if I hadn't flunked organic chemistry in college."

But then postal workers started dying of inhalation anthrax and spores started turning up everywhere, like pollen on cars in spring. Slowly, I began to realize that I would be forced by events to abandon my attitude of not worrying and find another emotional posture to assume.

That's when I decided I was helpless. That's as good a reason as any not to worry.

I haven't got the time, much less the imagination, to out-think Osama bin Laden and his boys. All they do all day is sit among the rocks, praying and scheming, while most Americans are scrambling to get to the video store before the late charges kick in.

Overbooked, overscheduled Americans are no match for cave-dwellers who dream of dying a martyr's death in the company of thousands of innocents.

I don't mean to be flip. And I am not making light of these terrorist acts. And I am grateful that the president is taking all of this so seriously.

But during what hour of the day am I supposed to worry that my children will contract smallpox while watching Monsters, Inc., at the local Cineplex?

Where am I going to find the time to wring my hands over the fact that I may not live to see them graduate if a terrorist gets to this country's Diet Coke supply?

Stuff like that takes a lot more hysterical fretting than I can get done in the few minutes before sleep overtakes my exhausted self each night.

Besides, there is a pleasant byproduct of my current worry-free helplessness: I do not feel guilty. For the first time in my adult life, I am guilt-free and worry-free.

I have to admit, however, that I have never felt so helpless. It is what author Richard Ford describes in an essay for the New York Times: "What seemed good and free about the suburbs and about ourselves looks more like mere defenselessness now."

I -- we -- have no idea from which direction the next terrorist blow will come, and there is a certain tranquillity in that. This must be what those bumper stickers mean: "Let go, and let God."

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