Sunday, August 20, 2006

The Joy of Terror

British passengers on a holiday flight freak out and refuse to let the plane take off until the staff gets rid of two freaky-looking Asians. I can't say that I haven't considered doing the same thing to avoid sitting next to bratty children. What's interesting about the article is that it pretty much leaves the story there. Did the guys get to fly later? Weren't they passed by security in the first place? Did they turn out to be terrorists? Apparently, they were searched twice. I wanted to know what happened later.

But, I'm not even sure that these news stories are really about , so much as about the experience of being afraid. Entertainment media like newspapers tend to focus all of their stories on experiences. What was it like to be afraid? What was it like to 'experience fear', or 'experience racism'? I don't even think the terrorism aspect of it matters at all. We just have two experiences- the experience of being afraid and the experience of being singled out and ostracized. Readers can decide which experience they want to imaginatively project themselves into and thus who they want to identify with. Either way, it's entertaining.

I forget what a blast people are having coping with terrorism. In upstate NY, most people could care less- what terrorist would attack Utica or New Paltz? Who would notice if a bomb went off in downtown Buffalo? But, when I was back home in the DC area, everyone followed the news stories. Every day, my boss would come into work flushed and breathless and say something like: "Did you hear about the trash truck that the police have stopped because they think it might contain a bomb?!" Woo-hoo! Excitement! Then, I'd never hear about it again, and have to assume that the police had been wrong. Last week it was the cell-phone bombers, who turned out to have been dopey kids trying to sell cell phones and not bombers. They don't print corrections to these stories. What's the point? Again, the stories aren't about terrorists, or terrorism. Any logical study of these stories and their follow-ups would have to conclude that the threat of terrorism is being exaggerated- and that's no fun. The point is the experience of being afraid. People keep saying that we need to stop being so afraid of terrorists, but they're missing the point. Terror gives life a focus, and makes it participatory again. It involves us in cloak and dagger interaction. Our mediocre and boring lives are suddenly very meaningful- we have a reason to pay attention again, and that's a valuable thing. So, who can blame us?

We're having too much fun being afraid to actually stop.

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