In the last year and throes of the Soviet Union, I was strolling around Moscow with a university teacher whom I was interviewing. As we walked, on a bright blue September Sunday, I noticed that the people we passed were staring at me--lots of people, with a sort of scientific intensity. I asked my companion, Did I look so different from ordinary Russians that I stood out as an object of curiosity? She responded almost blithely, "You don't look afraid. Americans don't look afraid."
It was true, of course. And it was the first time I was made aware of this oddity in the American makeup. All other countries and cultures have been given good reason to know and show fear. But until lately, historically blessed America has sauntered about fear free. Now, as of last week, another case of anthrax was discovered, affecting a staff member of NBC News, and one was told that the FBI had "certain information...not specific to target" that more terrorist attacks are imminent.
In his press conference last Thursday, President Bush spoke of "our war against terror," which, when one brings it home, would suggest a war against fear. How does one fight such a war? On Sept. 11, an easy-gaited people became a shadowed figure looking over its shoulder. The President said one should "take comfort" in the FBI's advisory. Is everybody comfy?
But the focus here is cockeyed; it is not fear that one should fear--not fear itself. It is panic, which is the fear of the shapeless, of the enemy without uniform, the front without a front. The unspecificity of the FBI's warning tends to incite panic--so darkly imaginative does the mind become when it attempts to embrace the unembraceable. Cervantes said "fear is sharp-sighted, and can see things underground, and much more in the skies." He was really referring to that transitional state when fear, which is a sober and potentially useful attitude, becomes something out of control and wildly dangerous.
One of the things fear of the unspecified does is to broaden and shrink the context of one's life simultaneously. Because of Sept. 11, one is made jarringly aware of living in the wider world, and one's private vanities are properly discarded. At the same time, because that wider world means menace, one is also spooked into blanket-over-the-head thinking. Should I sit in a crowd at a ball game? Send the kids to school? Go down to the kitchen?
Unlike the Russians among whom I walked--and who lived with unspecific fear so long they incorporated it into a black comedic vision--Americans are not afraid of their country. But we are starting to be afraid of living in our country. However united one may feel about our war against terror, fear of the unspecific is divisive. Terrorism threatens to take away one's sense of country; thus it instills an every-man-for-himselfness that makes it more difficult to win the war.
But the worst thing unspecific fear can do is to seep into the bloodstream so that all of life is poisoned, and even in those moments when nothing is going wrong--sweet moments with family, walks in the park--one feels that life is on the verge of a mad explosion. For the entirety of its existence, Israel has lived with the fear of terrorism, and learned to alchemize that fear into resolve.