Tuesday, May 01, 2007

9/11 Should Have Changed Things for the Better, Not Worse

Security is mostly a superstition. It does not exist in nature. Life is either a daring adventure or nothing.
- Helen Keller

The middle sentence of the quote is the key to understanding how we fit into nature and what we should expect in our lives. "[Security] does not exist in nature."

Every living thing in our world is eaten by something. The question is not whether, but at what point. Even those at the top of the food chain, such as tigers or humans, are eaten by microbes after they die. It's not only inevitable, it's necessary so that we don't have bodies of dead biological organisms lying all over the place and nothing for us to fertilize the next generations of living things that grow in the ground and supply food for the life that makes its living above ground.

In nature there is a mechanism in the brains of sensate prey animals whereby the brain shuts off when it is about to be eaten by a predator. For example, the gazelle that is brought down by the cheetah does not suffer the kind of torture we might imagine by being eaten alive. When the brain of the gazelle accepts that it cannot escape the cheetah, it effectively kills itself, rendering the antelope totally without sense or feeling. The gazelle is effectively brain dead after the first bite.

Something similar happens with humans in crisis situations where our brain believes that death is inevitable. We panic by shutting down our senses, the human equivalent of the deer in the headlights.

However, few humans face that kind of life-threatening or life-ending situation. What we face frequently are crisis situations where we aren't certain how to proceed. With the frequency with which we face situations such as relationship conflict, being fired from a job or the death of a spouse, common sense tells us that we should have been prepared for these crises beforehand, maybe even by being taught coping skills in school. But we weren't, most of us.

With the frequency with which the people of Jerusalem were being struck with suicide bombers until recently, you would think that most would want to stay away from restaurants and open markets. But they don't. The citizens of Jerusalem are mentally prepared to accept that death could await them on any given day, but committed to carrying on with their lives as if there were no risk.

In Baghdad today with the frequency of suicide bombings you might think that the millions of people of that city would want to stay home unless going out was absolutely necessary. Yet they do go out to do errands, look for work and even do pleasurable things as well as going to work and to their places of worship. They accept that life must go on despite the fact that some killers make their way through the streets every day.

The people of London have not stopped taking their tube (subway) to work and other activities just because bombers killed dozens of them underground a few years ago and a second bomb plot was foiled. To them, their underground railway is the only sensible way to get around their city.

It has become accepted wisdom that "everything changed on 9/11" in the United States. Because so many people died when the World Trade Centers collapsed? Not even the suicide bombers who flew their planes into the skyscrapers that day had any idea that the buildings would collapse. The designers of the buildings didn't know that a plane crashing into them would send them to the ground. 9/11's greatest impact was shock from something that was not even expected by the perpetrators.

Life didn't change after the Oklahoma bombing. It won't change after the Virginia Tech massacre. It hasn't changed after the deaths daily of so very many people from shootings, beatings and traffic accidents. What caused life to change, then, after September 11, 2001?

What changed was that the president of the United States told everyone that from that day forward they should be afraid every day of their lives.

A few relatively minor threats have been halted on US soil since 9/11, but they were almost juvenile by comparison with the WTC. What makes Americans continue to be afraid? Continued warnings from their president and Homeland Security that risk levels have been raised. As if that had any effect on the life of the average person riding the subway to work.

While I am not certain that everyone could be convinced that life should be a daring adventure or nothing, as Helen Keller said, a strong case can and should be made that most people in the world have nothing to fear from terrorists. There are 6.5 billion of us and almost all of us will survive any terrorist attack, no matter where it occurs, no matter how devastating it is.

Understanding that life is a risk is something we should all be taught. We should also be taught coping skills for when tragedy strikes. When a shooting occurs in a school, psychologists and therapists descend on the school to offer assistance to students and even to parents of students who might otherwise not be able to cope. That kind of reaction is worthy, but better preparation of all students beforehand might be better.

When a suicide bomber attacks a school or a market in Iraq, does the US send psychologists and therapists to counsel the students and family members of those who were in the school or market? As horrible as the thought is, we accept that the people of Iraq have prepared themselves for the tragedies they experience and should not need further help from us. We may be right.

If so, we should prepare ourselves in our own countries so that we do not become psychiatric patients or Prozac gulpers as a result of fear imposed upon us by people who have something to gain from our continually being afraid.

Life is not and cannot be a daring adventure if we are afraid. In most cases, the fear that prevents us from leading a more active and daring life is preventable, even unnecessary.

Bill Allin
Turning It Around: Causes and Cures for Today's Epidemic Social Problems, striving to put life into perspective before there is little of it left.
Learn more at http://billallin.com/

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