As world shrinks, risk grows

April 21, 2002|By Leonard Pitts Jr.

THERE WAS an emergency in the nation's capital on Monday. You probably didn't know. It didn't make national headlines or even receive much attention at the local level. But for the record, many Washingtonians who decided to visit their money at lunchtime found bank doors locked.

According to the Associated Press, dozens of branches of some of the nation's largest financial institutions - Riggs, SunTrust, Bank of America and Wachovia among them - were shut down after police received a telephone threat. The caller said a bomb would explode "at a national bank in the center of Washington, D.C.," at noon.

The banks were reopened after authorities determined the threat to be a hoax. Perpetrated by a 13-year-old boy. Who lives in the Netherlands.

If you're like me, your first thought is: What, they don't have banks in Amsterdam or Oosterhout?

Your second thought is a renewed appreciation for how painfully small the world is. As if you needed another reminder. As if Sept. 11 wasn't reminder enough for the rest of your life.

It has become cliched to say that things changed that day, but they did.

In a recent speech before a journalists' group in Washington, Tom Ridge, President Bush's domestic security czar, spoke candidly of the permanence of threat in our lives. We can reduce it, he said, but we can never eliminate it. "As a free and open and welcoming society, we will always be at risk."

Always. As in forever. That's a tough word to swallow in a nation that, a week after the terrorist attacks, was already looking for the way back to a place it called normal.

We have instead arrived at a different place altogether. Arrived at the realization that risk didn't just show up on our doorstep unannounced on Sept. 11. It was always here. This is something with which the rest of the world, undistracted by the illusion of distance, has long since come to terms. It's a truth we, innocent and strong, had largely managed to avoid.

That was then. Now we have a better understanding of our vulnerability, not simply to nations and armies, but to individuals, even juveniles. Consider it again: An adolescent armed with a telephone wreaks havoc 4,000 miles away in the capital city of the most powerful nation on Earth.

It illustrates a simple equation: As the world shrinks, vulnerability grows.

It wasn't supposed to turn out this way. From the horse and buggy to the Concorde, from the Pony Express to e-mail, the revolutions in communications, transportation and technology that shrunk the world were always touted for their potential to increase the peace, bring people together. The unstated assumption was that if brought closer, people would invariably recognize their common humanity and find ways to get along. That has proved, unfortunately, an overly optimistic assessment of human nature.

The Sept. 11 hijackers, after all, lived among us. They knew us. And still, they did what they did.

So how do we respond to a shrinking world? Well, we don't turn our backs on it, that's for sure. Granted, our historic inclination in times of peace - you saw this in Mr. Bush's first months in office - has always been to withdraw, turn inward, disengage from our neighbors. But that's no longer practical or possible, if indeed it ever was.

The Sept. 11 atrocity - visited upon one of the world's greatest cities by a group of men hiding out in Afghan caves - proves this. The April 15 schoolboy prank underscores it. We can no longer afford the luxury of our illusions. We live shoulder to shoulder upon a fractious and volatile planet where distance has become an irrelevance and where, for better or for worse, Disney has been proved right.

It's a small world after all.

Leonard Pitts Jr. is a columnist for The Miami Herald. He may be reached via e-mail at or by calling toll-free at 1-888-251-4407.

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