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After Fear

"I will show you fear," the poet wrote, "in a handful of dust." The handfuls of dust have been appearing in Boca Raton and New York and Washington, and the fear is loose in the land. "The fear factor," the networks and the newsmagazines call it, when in truth it is not in the nature of fear to be just a factor. Instead it overwhelms all the contents of the mind. The combined awareness of our danger and our ignorance is hard to withstand. First the deadly planes, now the deadly spores. We are just beginning to entertain the thought that it is safe to fly when we must begin to entertain the thought that it is not safe to open the mail. Parents are tortured by the vulnerability of their children, to whom they must explain what they, the adults who know how the world works, do not understand. But then we do not know how this world works. This is not the world into which we expected to bring our children. We, after all, are Americans.

But suddenly this is what happens to Americans. A certain American exceptionalism lies buried, along with six thousand men and women, in lower Manhattan. Now bioterrorism, too, has happened here. The apparent sophistication of the anthrax that was directed at Capitol Hill has sent a shudder through the government. Congress has been closed for reasons of security. Just how inadequately prepared for this virulence are we? If the appearance of anthrax in our midst as an instrument of terror has not caused a panic, it is because the numbers so far are small: a few dozen Americans exposed, four Americans infected, one American dead. As a consequence of these small numbers, commentators are now instructing the American people on the commonplace realities of risk, and in this way offering mathematical solace: the odds of contracting anthrax from a letter are spectacularly less than the odds of experiencing almost any of the perils that may come to pass in ordinary life. We are learning to live with orders of magnitude; and if this enables us to stabilize our sense of what we are enduring, and to regard it more lucidly, then the arcana of risk will have helped.

But all this talk about "the odds" encourages also a strange passivity. Finally the odds are the gods: when we appeal to the odds, we are appealing merely to luck, or to fate, or to grace. This is not a frame of mind that is conducive to historical action. It is important to remember, therefore, that there is an essential difference between the bus that might strike Senator Daschle in the street and the envelope with white powder that was sent to Senator Daschle's office. The former is an accident, the latter is a plot. What is missing from the theodicy of risk is the sense that we are facing not only our odds but also our enemies. This is not a health crisis; this is a war. Dare we suggest that there is comfort in that fact? We have not been punished with a plague, we have been attacked by an adversary. The germs are not visible to the naked eye, but the fiends who visited the germs upon us are visible to the naked eye, even at night, even from the air. This mystery does not require philosophy for its solution. It can be solved forensically and militarily.

We must remember also that the feeling of American exceptionalism in this regard was always an illusion. It was an illusion that the tulip craze of the Clinton years made especially vigorous. Prosperity and triviality disarmed us in our spirits. But historical consciousness may buck us up. For there are precedents, even in our own lifetimes, for the interruption of American fun by American fear. The success of nuclear deterrence against the Soviet Union, if that is what succeeded in protecting us against a nuclear attack for fifty nervous years, should not blind us to the fact that that there was a basis in reality, in military reality and technological reality and political reality, for the cold war's weather of fear. We did not conquer that fear, we managed it. Until fear is conquered, it must be managed. And that, surely, is a definition of courage.

A brave man is not a man who is unafraid. There are circumstances in which only a fool is unafraid. No, a brave man is a man who acts as if he is unafraid. He carries his fear into his struggle, to show that he rejects it even as he recognizes it. The "as if" is a part of his equipment, a part of his arsenal. In the shattering weeks since September 11, it has been definitively proven that Americans have courage. The time has come to weaponize it.