How Fear Kills The Soul

by David Grossman

The Age, Melbourne, Australia, Sept. 27, 2001

(World Press Review, December 2001)


As an Israeli who has lived his entire life in fear of terrorist attacks, I can say quite simply: Terror embitters life. It imposes a military mode of behavior on a person, places him in an unending state of stress. These factors slowly percolate throughout one's life and foul it.

The terrorists don't have to make too much of an effort. From the moment they inject fear into the hearts of the citizenry, from the moment they persuade the populace that they have no limits, they can make do with occasional attacks, here and there. Fear will spread everywhere like a flesh-eating bacterium.

The combat aircraft now flying over New York are only the beginning. Gradually, Americans, Europeans, and others will find themselves surrounded by an endless number of security systems. These systems are meant to defend people, but actually make them feel more upset and less secure. Myriad policemen, security guards, special forces troops, and overt and covert detectives will be stationed at the entrances to cinemas, theaters, and shopping centers. Guards will check those who enter schools and preschools.

But are there enough guards to oversee everyone who goes down to the subway? How many hours before the football game will we have to be at the stadium, so that the guards can examine the bags of each and every fan? In Israel, if you lose your handbag or if you leave your suitcase for a minute to go buy a bus ticket, chances are that they will be blown up by a police sapper robot. Dozens of streets get closed off in Jerusalem each day because of suspicious packages. Every Israeli knows that he must allow double the normal time to get anywhere because of these security controls. Boarding an El Al plane is a complex matter involving interrogations and personal searches. It's almost like trying to get into a prestigious college.

Large parts of the work force serve in security-related jobs. Huge amounts of energy and creativity that could have gone into science or technology and into improving the quality of life are channeled into security. Personal freedoms and rights are restricted in order to protect life.

You can presume that at this very moment every Western state is extending a dense web of private telephone wiretaps and e-mail surveillance. Thousands of innocent civilians are being arrested, and will continue to be arrested, in an effort to prevent the next attack. An army of secret agents will be allowed to invade every private, intimate area. In years to come we will see more people carrying firearms in the streets of the United States, England, and Europe. This massive presence will affect every little friction and confrontation. The rates of violence and murder will rise. "I thought he was a terrorist" is an acceptable justification for shooting people in terror-stricken places.

It's not only countries that will be enveloped in a dense security network that has as its purpose the defense of normal life (except that life long ago stopped being normal). The individual soul also will become enveloped by this coarse, stiff veneer. That is the immediate result of living in fear, in suspicion of every unfamiliar person.

It is the way every normal person defends himself against the pain of what is liable to be taken from him at any moment. It is the inability to believe in routine even for a minute. Every such situation, every routine, is but an illusion, and he who is tempted to believe in it will not be prepared for the final blow when it comes.

It is painful to admit, but in a certain sense terror always succeeds. The war against it, and the process of becoming accustomed to what it does with our lives, slowly perverts all that is precious and human.

The frightened civilian quickly composes his own internal mechanism that identifies and catalogs strangers by their racial/national/ethnic traits. Like it or not, he becomes more racist. It is not hard to predict that, under such conditions, the political parties that feed off racism will flourish. Nor is it hard to predict how bitter the lives of minorities will be, especially those who outwardly match the profile of the suspected terrorist. Just a few weeks of life in the shadow of fear will show every nation how rapidly it can turn needs into values, let fear determine its norms.

Terror humiliates. It rapidly returns a human being to a pre-cultural, violent, chaotic existence. It determines where society's breaking point is. It entices certain groups, not small ones, to join it, and actively to seek to use force to destroy and crush everything they hate.

Terror contains something that acts like a decomposition enzyme-the decomposition of the private body and the public body. Terror also sharpens one's awareness that a democratic, tranquil way of life requires the true goodwill of a country's citizens. That is the amazing secret of democratic rule, and also its Achilles heel. All of us, when it comes down to it, are each other's hostages. Terrorists act on this potential and so unravel the entire fabric of life.

I regret having to write such harsh things. They are unbearable for me, too, because as I write them I realize how great a price I pay in each dream at night, in each morning farewell to my children. But it is now, when we are still overcome with shock, that I want to reiterate something.

We all have so much to lose. That which is most precious to us is so fragile. A country that fights terror fights not only for the physical security of its citizens. It fights also for their reason to live, for their humanity, for everything that makes them human and civilized.

September 11th, 2001 - New York City

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