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Living in Death’s Shadow

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A nationwide Harris Poll of 1,016 US adults surveyed by telephone by Harris Interactive® between February 7 and 14, 2006 revealed that two-thirds (66%) of US adults think it is likely that there will be a major terrorist attack in this country in the next 12 months. This is a sharp increase from June 2005, when 55 percent of US adults thought this was likely.

Prior to 9/11, I think most Americans couldn’t conceive of a war being waged in our own backyard.

When I was younger and more carefree, I used to marvel at how Europeans in the Middle Ages had to face horrors such as the Black Plague and the realization that their already comparatively short lifespans might be blotted out in an instant.

I realize that in the past century there were other homegrown scares that haunted Americans—the pneumonia epidemic at the end of World War I; the scourge of childhood diseases like polio; and so on—and that of course in other areas of the world, untimely death was and is a daily fact of life.

But now Americans face the spectre of another possible (or probable) attack on US soil by terrorists. What is this knowledge doing to our collective unconscious?

In my case, like most other Americans, I have dreams and aspirations. I’m 48 now, and if I quit smoking and eat right, I might only be only a little more than halfway through my allotted lifespan.

After twenty years with my boyfriend and seven additional years after our breakup, we are at long last planning on selling our Manhattan coop and each getting a place of our own. Until recently, I’d been busy dreaming about how I would furnish my new place, scanning the New York Times real estate listings, and talking to realtors, realizing with delight that a spacious place in the Bronx — within walking distance of my current boyfriend — could be mine for the asking after the sale.

My passion for blogging has resulted in some problems in terms of living life to the full offline — at least during the past year — but I’d vowed to get back into the swing of things and start taking advantage once again of all that New York City has to offer. But I love blogging too much to dream of ever giving it up, so I planned to strike a healthy balance between the cyber world and the “real” one.

But now as the news of the world gets worse and worse every day, in the back of my mind I must face the fact that my life—or life as I know it—may be snuffed out at any moment, and that a majority of Americans are facing the same cruel possiblity. About the only comfort I have is knowing that not eating right, not exercising, and smoking may not make a damned bit of difference after all. I can only imagine what it must be like for those who have children and grandchildren when they contemplate what horrors may lie in store for us.

I’d be curious to know what others are thinking as we struggle through this dangerous and frightening time.

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About Elvira Black

  • Baronius:

    Interesting point! I suppose we are soft–especially since we’re not used to being attacked on our home turf–while the Brits et al actually were during WW II. So I think we may be among the least prepared for terrorism–both literally and figuratively, IMHO. Meaning that I don’t think our gov’t is sufficiently protecting us from threats, and this is what does concern me the most. I think the powers that be are either too complacent, lazy, inept, or all of the above to properly rise to the occasion.

    Thanks for the comment–it made me smile!

  • Baronius

    For some reason I’m thinking about bears.

    I don’t know anyone who’s been killed by a bear, crocodile, or rhino. We’re probably the first generation to be able to say that, and there’s a lot of the world where you couldn’t. Now, I’m not saying that cancer is fun, or that heart attacks can always be predicted. But there aren’t many things that can suddenly take your life anymore.

    That’s probably a big part of terrorism. We’re soft. If you live in a scorpion-filled desert, blowing yourself up doesn’t seem that big a deal. That must be shocking to a Londoner, whose biggest concerns are traffic and eating lousy food. Really, I can’t imagine how to terrorize a Haitian.

  • Christopher:

    Yes indeed, as JELIEL pointed out in comment 3, it is perhaps a bit presumptous to get into a lather about a poll with such a small sample. But hey, I was looking for something to blog about, and that seemed about as good an opening as any–lol. Plus the fact that sometimes these things can be self-fulfilling in a way, when folks (like me) take them even the slightest bit seriously (which I still do–sorta kinda).

    I’d love to stay in Manhattan but my ex b/f and I broke up seven years ago and as they say it’s time to move on. With half the sale money, there’s no way I could afford Manhattan anymore–well, maybe a broom closet if I was very lucky. So I’m planning a move to the Bronx which is right across the river from Manhattan and still very much part of New York City.

    Yes, I was born in NYC and never thought about leaving it. I just love it here too darn much. However, ever since I visited England (only once, years ago) I’ve fantasized about what it would be like to move there too. I’m hoping to go back and visit again at the very least.

  • Elvira, don’t waste your time worrying about opinion polls, they are usually fairly meaningless if fun, rather like polaroid photos.

    Personally, unless you have some compelling personal reasons, don’t even think about leaving Manhattan. I lived in London for over 20 years whilst it was regularly being blown up by the Irish, gay haters, et cetera and also survived three major urban riots but never even thought once about leaving my beloved Brixton ‘hood!

  • SonnyD:

    Well, as a nice New York Jewish girl, I love to kvetch! (lol)…

    I also love to write, and it is very fulfilling to me–especially since I happened upon the Blogcritics site. But as you point out– and as I’ve mentioned here and elsewhere–it would behoove me to get my tuchus off the couch more often and venture out more into the “real world” again.

    Thanks again for your comments and best wishes!

  • SonnyD

    Elvira: If it works for you, fine, go for it. Just try not to internalize it to the point that you let it affect your health. Take some time to “smell the roses”, you know what I mean? Read a really good book, bake a cake, paint a picture. Do something, now and then, that takes all of your concentration and relieves the tension that tends to build up when we are upset about something.

    Some people thrive on stress. It’s like a runner’s high for them. If they don’t have something to rant about, they get cranky. But most of us need a little more balance in our lives. Only you can decide what is best for you, but from some of the things you said about yourself when you first started posting here, I’m just guessing that you are still trying to figure out what’s best for you.

    Anyway, here’s wishing you much success.

  • SonnyD:

    Well, here’s the interesting thing. I do think that bloggers (not me but some of the biggies in particular like The Smoking Gun et al) are becoming an influential force in our society–and the mainstream media is sitting up and taking notice. For once not only do the “little guys” get to see all the horrors and dramas of the world, but they get to open their mouths, “talk back,” and rail against it–and I don’t think it’s necessarily all in vain.

    As for me, I’m a writer and this is primarily a way to think things through, get them off my chest, and share viewpoints with others. To (badly) quote Casablanca, my little outbursts may amount to nothing more than a “hill of beans” in this crazy world, but it gives me some (perhaps absurd) sense of empowerment to mouth off against the powers that be.

  • SonnyD

    Elvira: I always said–Take heart things could be worse. Then sure enough things got worse.

    Just kidding. Things have always been this bad, the only difference is, now we know about it. In fact we are all suffering from information overload. Now that our information media are almost all run by people with scandal sheet mentality it’s hard to tell what to believe. Every time anyone in a position of any power screws up, it’s headline news and usually blown all out of proportion. Heck, people in government and business have always screwed up. The only difference is, now we hear about it-over and over and over-until we believe it must be something important that we should worry about.

    Then look at world news. Fifty years ago, if there was a natural disaster or some government most of us had never heard of got overthrown, we got some sketchy report on it a week or two later, if at all. We would think, “Oh, that’s too bad”, and go on with our lives. We didn’t see it in our living rooms as it was happening.

    You know, some people just shouldn’t try to carry the weight of the world on their shoulders. It’s too heavy for many of us. It’s OK to just concentrate on what any citizen needs to know to make informed decisions for their own life. The rest of the crazy stuff going on, we really can’t do anything about, anyway, so why worry about it?

  • For anyone interested, here is another example of a national security/safety issue that has made my blood boil.

  • Victor:

    Thank you for your thoughtful comments and well wishes.

    Although none of what I said was untrue, and I have been in a darker mood of late, I think my post was chiefly intended to provoke some responses (heh heh) by being somewhat provocative. I was genuinely curious to see how other Americans feel about terrorism and the possibility of another attack, because I think that, as I said, 9/ll has, like it or not, altered our collective unconscious. Not necessarily our conscious, everyday routines, but like any other historical shift, it has reshaped the contemporary zietgiest.

    I do have faith in everyday people and their willingness to help each other in times of crisis. What I don’t have faith in is our administration, which really holds most of the cards. Although I, along with many other Americans (and other nations) put their money where their mouths were when it came to Katrina, the fact is that our federal and local governments failed us.

    And no amount of flak seems to affect the arrogance of our current administration. The UAE has gotten Bush off the hook, so to speak, (if I’ve gotten the news reports right) by “graciously” putting their bid on hold so we have time to examine the situation more closely.

    I truly feel like Bush has treated us like a big daddy who keeps details from us “for our own good” and has even arrogantly tried to block our representatives from examining the port issue. This is just another in a long line of foolishness when it comes to homeland security–a real oxymoron in terms of what we have in place now.

  • I’m glad to hear you are not cowering in fear, Elvira. You deserve better from life. We all do.

    I responded to your initial article because of its overall fearful tone, which in my reading borders on a defeatist worldview. Another sign of defeatist thought patterns surfaces in comment #16, where you imagine a Mad Max scenario in which you state life would not be “much worth living.”

    The worldview I find more naturally suited to human nature in general, and to the American character in particular, rejects the possibility of any circumstance where life is not worth living. No matter how much we might lose of the material comforts we currently enjoy in our advanced civilization, we can never lose the ability to make moral choices, and that is the core of what makes a human life worth living.

    We can always seek to lend courage to one another in times of darkness and fear. We can always help one another to survive, to overcome hardships, and to rebuild after catastrophe, whether natural or caused by other humans.

    And in the times before disaster strikes, we can take thoughtful steps to prepare ourselves — physically, mentally, and socially — to make our communities more resilient so we will recover more quickly from setbacks. When we do this we can cast a light against the shadow of fear, and brighten the lives of all the good people we meet.

    That is what I have hoped to do in my responses to you. My apologies if any of what I’ve said has seemed to criticize you. My intent has been to support you, to recognize you as a person of good will, and to help you see the light through the darkness.

  • SonnyD:

    Thank you! Luckily for me, during the last NYC blackout I was safe at home rather than stuck at the office or out on the mean streets–lol. New Yorkers behaved themselves and I don’t think there was any looting–it was just hot as hell seeing as it was in the middle of summer.

    Here’s the way it really is for me: I turn on CNN and FOX
    and marvel at the constant barrage of bad news. It makes my little worries seem small in comparison, though they are large to me. Then a goofy commercial for car insurance comes on and all seems normal and non-threatening again. Rinse and repeat.

    I guess I’m just mentally preparing myself for the fact that we do live in a hazardous era, while at the same time marvelling at all the amazing things we are accomplishing technologically and culturally. I would grieve to see the latter being threatened or compromised, and I recognize that we are witnessing major history in the making.

    Isn’t it an old Chinese “curse” to say to someone: “May you live in interesting times?” Well, things sure are interesting nowadays.

  • Victor:

    The sad truth is that what truly disturbs me is our own government and its non-actions to protect us from harm.

    The seeming indifference, ineptitude, and maddening bureaucracy that cost us lives in New Orleans; my belief that we turned a blind eye to threats and infiltrators in our own land prior to 9/11; an appointed lackey who blithely tells us that rather than invest in a drug that could help us fight radiation sickness we can all just head to the nearest hospital if a bomb hits while he and his remain safe; the arrogant way our administration treats the American people like children who need not concern themselves with questions about issues like port security; and on and on. I think we are our own worst enemies when it comes to a defensive stance in the war on terror. All the macho bluster of our Administration won’t do us a shitload of good if we leave ourselves vulnerable in these ways.

    I’m sure if we’re sending any message to the terrorists, it’s not that we live in fear but that we don’t have the sense or wherewithal to protect our own country adequately against disasters–be they man made or natural; internal or external. And I think we’re sending that message out loud and clear, again and again.

    But no, in actuality I’m not cowering in fear. I just can’t be in denial about the state of the world and the state of our country–not anymore. But life, nonetheless, does go on.

  • Ruvy:

    I know that your advice is likely based on first hand experience to a large degree, living where you do, and I thank you.

    As far as buses, subways, and crowds, I don’t even think about a terrorist threat there. My tendency to stay indoors of late is related to my web obsession and just developing bad habits in part because of it.

    A weapon I can’t see being able to obtain because of NYC gun control laws, and…well…I just can’t see having one, period. But I guess you never can say never.

    I take vitamins every day and don’t get too many colds etc. so hopefully my immune system is not too bad, though smoking doesn’t help any health condition.

    Thing is, as much as I rail here, I haven’t done anything concrete to prepare for a possible attack, and I doubt many have. If the world becomes like a bad redo of a Mad Max movie, I don’t know that life is going to be worth much, or much worth living.

    Thing is, that we’ve already had a taste of what happens in these instances with Hurricane Katrina. If there’s any way we’re “showing” the terrorists how wimpy we can be, not being able to save our own during a natural disaster speaks much louder than our talk about not living in fear as a way to defy the terrorists.

  • SonnyD

    Why does it seem that the things we worry about most and lose the most sleep over never happen? Something else does! The things we don’t prepare for will catch us off guard. Like a major power blackout. It wouldn’t hurt to have some bottled water, some canned goods and some of your favorite munchies stashed away. Whatever you would be the most uncomfortable if you had to do without it for a few days.

    Elvira: Sounds like you are doing well at getting your life together. Good for you!

  • Terrorists will never win. They will always be pathetic losers in the game of life.

    Even if they succeed in all their goals, making civilized people live in constant fear, and goading us into giving up all our freedoms and dismantling every other element of the modern societies we hold most dear, terrorists will never be anything more than pathetic losers in the great game of life.

    (By the way, this applies equally to Muslim terrorists, atheist terrorists, and any other kind. My contempt for them has nothing to do with the religion they falsely claim to uphold.)

    I do not feel safer just because I live in Oregon. I have never felt safe at all, anywhere, ever. My entire life has been lived in the shadow of nuclear annihilation. No place on this planet has ever been safe, in all the years of my life, from the tens of thousands of nuclear devices in the combined arsenals amassed by the United States, the Soviet Union, Britain, France, China, India, Pakistan, and probably more governments. But now I’m supposed to be afraid because some crazed morons might get their hands on a couple of warheads? Give me a break!

    Taking a bigger picture, no place on this planet has ever been safe, in all the millions of years humans have ever lived, from the threat of impact by an asteroid or comet.

    Fear of death has no rational place in a well-lived life, whether we live in “good” times or “bad” times. Death is the one thing that comes to every life, without fail, without exception. I reject anyone who tells me to let death’s shadow rule my life, whether he is wearing a turban and concealing a suitcase nuke or wearing an Armani suit and advertising a hair loss prevention drug.

    I certainly don’t want even one American, or anyone else for that matter, to die at the hands of terrorists. Of course if I ever happen to come across credible, specific information about any terrorist activity I will do whatever I can to stop it, informing the authorities if possible or risking my own death if necessary.

    But I absolutely refuse to start living my life filled with vague cringing fear of what the terrorists might do.

    The terrorists won’t win if I do that. But I will lose something far more valuable than anything they could take from me by force, if I start to choose fear instead of defiance.

  • Ruvy in Jerusalem

    Elvira, while fear is worthwhile, the chances are that you are unwilling to do the things you need to in order to increase your chances of survival in a situation where New York were to be targeted.

    First of all, you cannot allow your willingness to ride a bus or be in a crowd or go downtown be affected by the threats of terrorists. No matter what the odds are of an attack occurring, cowering in your room will not decrease them, riding in a cab will not help (the chances of getting killed in a car accident are much higher than dying in a bus bombing), etc. etc. You’re a duck in someone’s gunsight. And so am I. Quack quack!

    But understanding that is the easy part.

    Now comes the hard part. Learning how to use and obtaining a weapon and some ammo will be very helpful to you in the event that order breaks down and you have to shoot it out over a loaf of Silvercup bread. But keeping a weapon means putting away the liquor – permanently.

    Setting aside in some secret place a horde of gold coins – or silver coins – will help you as well. We’re not takling stock cerificates. In a real breakdown they’ll be good for toilet paper – along with the hundred dollar bills. Though real Charmin is easier on the soft parts…

    Understanding how to cope without electronics – like the screen you’re staring into right now – will be of value to you. But the biggest and best thing you can do now is to build up your immune system in case the bird flu does come squawking into our lives – it’s the only cure available. That and prayer to G-d.

    Oops!, I shouldn’t have that. I hear the atheist thought police trooping in already to assert that religion is the enemy of mankind and the opium of the masses…

    Screw them.

    Remember the words of Rav Nahman of Bratzlav:

    The whole world is a very narrow bridge – the point is not to fear at all!

    Shavua Tov from the City of David

  • Bliffle:

    As much as I hate to move from downtown Manhattan, I think living in the Bronx (though it’s a stone’s throw away and still in NYC) will be safer. It’s a poor borough, and there’s nothing to bomb except maybe the Botanical Gardens, heaven forbid.

    BTW: I used to be able to see the very top of one of the World Trade Center towers from my bedroom window. Here’s hoping the rest or the skyline remains unscathed.

  • Bliffle


    Just remember, if there’s another attack on NY get out of town quickly and don’t breath the air, no matter what the dimwitted EPA says.

  • Baronius:

    In a sense, I feel luckier and safer living in NYC than I might elsewhere, since our mayor and police commissioner have established an international security initiative that is so top notch the feds might do well to examine it more closely. And of course when disaster or the threat of it strikes New Yorkers have proven themselves to be determined to go about “business as usual” as much as possible, precisely for the reasons Victor has stated above. But at the same time, we are on constant terrorist alert behind the scenes, which I think is a much wiser approach than complacency. In a sense, 9/11 was a real wake up call which made it all too clear that we must have a good offense as well as defense in the war on terror.

    I’m certainly not cowering in the closet–hell, I’m not even stocking up on canned goods and water–lol. I think most people have no choice but to go on with their day to day existence and hope for the best. To do otherwise would paralyze us. But I don’t think we can turn a blind eye to the mess our world is in either, and the very real dangers it presents for us all.

  • David:

    I’ve often thought that if I were of a more religious bent, I would see the state of the world today as signs of the Apocalypse. In any case, whether I believe a disaster would be caused by our personal immorality or lack of religious faith/fervor or not, the end result–annhilation–could be the same in either case.

  • Victor:

    I have to say I’m a little puzzled by your response. Though I do agreee that living in fear is in a sense giving into terrorism, I still think that current events in the world point towards some frightening possibilities that we ignore at our peril.

    Our response to Hurricane Katrina alone shows how complacent and unprepared our national and local government are for even a domestic disaster. The current port controversy indicates how potentially vulnerable we really are. To just say, as Bush implies, that we should not worry about it does not sit well with me or with many other Americans. If one of our major ports is compromised, at the very least it could paralyze our economy.

    Nuclear materials are being bought and sold internationally, and the threat of nuclear terrorism in coming years is very real. Biological and chemical weapons could wreak havoc as well.

    Perhaps you feel safer in Oregon, but I live in NYC, and unfortunately, as bad as 9/11 was, that could very well be a walk in the park compared to what could happen in the future. The fundamentalist Muslim world hates us, and I don’t think these maniacs are concerned about “running the risk” of doing anything in their power to destroy us, since they don’t fear death.

    As far as the likelihood of me personally perishing in a terrorist attack within the next year, that may or may not be slim, but I think even one more death of a fellow American at the hands of terrorists is something I would want to strenuously avoid.

  • Baronius

    Victor, you said that the terrorists win if we live in fear. And I guess that’s right. But if I spend the same money, and don’t go all Spain in the voting booth, does it matter if I’m afraid? Obviously, I’d rather live courageously and happily. But I wonder if a nervous Ohioan really affects the Middle East.

    Elvira raises the question, but she deliberately doesn’t answer it. While a New Yorker is more likely to be a victim of terrorism than I am, even Elvira’s life decisions seem to be driven by rent, time online, relationships; in other words, the usual. So my suspicion is that a little anxiety really doesn’t affect the big picture.

  • Living in death’s shadow is a choice. We obviously continue to carry on “business as usual” since I don’t see any hopeful signs that the United States has become more serious before God, repenting of our idolatry and immorality that further fuel such enemy threats and attacks as exposed within:
    Death to America: American Cities Targeted by Terrorists

    We have yet to be scared straight.

  • It’s totally needless to feel any sense of impending doom over the possibility of a terrorist attack. Even if we had an ironclad 100% guarantee that another attack as major as 9/11 was going to occur in the next week, somewhere in the United States, that fact would fail to make even a minor blip on the chances for any one person to suffer a premature death in the next seven days.

    Fear of dying in a terrorist attack is one of the most irrational fears in the world today. You’d be far more rational to fear driving or riding in a car. Your probability of dying on the highway, even on the day of a major terrorist attack, are always going to be thousands of times higher than your chances of dying at the hands of terrorists.

    Letting such fear affect our lives in any significant way grants would-be terrorists far more power than they deserve. Worse, it gives them progress toward their goals, and they don’t even have to carry out any more actual terrorist attacks. If all they have to do is release more blowhard videotapes to keep most of us cowering in fear, why should they take the risk of doing anything else?


    Yes, this is indeed so…however, somehow someway the pollsters claim that these samples are representative. Who knows?

    I suppose one could approach it a few ways:

    If you asked all your friends and acquaintances if they thought the US would be attacked this coming year, and two out of three said yes, would it give you pause?

    The poll only measures people’s beliefs and expectations–rather than being a predictor of the future per se. But in many ways perception can shape reality in terms of how we think and behave, so it can be a self-fulfilling prophecy up to a point in terms of “acting as if.” .

    My intuitiion tells me that this feeling of impending doom is far from farfetched. But at the same time, the routine of life goes on and I, like many I’m sure, put the thought to one side. But the side’s still there nonetheless, pinching me in the ass.

  • Mmmm not to pee in the cornflakes here, but 1000 people is a VERY small sample with a high error margin.

    “No one can promise you tomorow” – The Buddha

  • Lisa:

    Your point is well taken–and as a matter of fact, the paradox of all this is that since it’s hard to be complacent in today’s world, I am trying to treat each day as a irreplaceable gift. When you think you’re going to “live forever,” it’s easy to let the years go by–as I have in the past–without trying to pursue all the things that really matter most.

  • Interesting stuff, Elvira. I guess what I’m thinking is that life is an ephemeral thing for all of us, regardless of age, health, or socioeconomic status, the only thing we’re sure of us this very moment, and life is always too short to waste much of it worrying about that which may or may not come to pass.