January 5, 2011

Living With Terror (Or, The Perils of Monkeytown)

On Saturday we hauled the kids to Monkeytown. To make the trip more enticing (because frankly we just needed to get the kids and ourselves out of the house) we took the subway into town. Our destination? The American Indian museum. Despite the fact that it was a hit the last time we went - we had to drag them out after four hours - it fell flat this time around. Children, oh they are fickle. So we went to the Botanical Gardens across the street which we did not expect to be a hit but, surprisingly, was. Yay us. Then we strolled the grounds of the Capitol, checking out the Capitol Christmas tree which is always far superior to the White House tree.

Then all hell broke loose.

Cops surrounded the place, a few driving around with PA systems on asking people to leave as quickly as possible. Now, people in DC are used to road closures, motorcades and general unanticipated off-limitness. But this wasn't ordinary. We each picked up a kid and walked. Quickly. All the while trying to honestly answer their questions about what was going on without panicking them. We made it to our subway stop, hopped on a train and started searching news sites to see what was going on. It wasn't until we were in the car, almost home, that we got our answer - a commercial airliner wandered into the restricted airspace over DC and lost radio contact. Fighter jets were scrambled, buildings were evacuate, but it turned out to be no big deal.


(This will start off sounding unrelated but it isn't.) I was watching House Hunters the other night and a woman was looking for an apartment in Tel Aviv. She saw the obligatory three houses and automatically ruled out one because it didn't have a bomb shelter. I started trying to think what it must be like to live in a place where a bomb shelter is not a paranoid dream but a necessity. Do you compartmentalize the threat of everyday terror, dealing with it only when you have to? Or do you fully integrate it into the fabric of your everyday reality?

Most of us don't live in that kind of world with those types of threats. But racing out of DC, carrying our children, trying to keep them safe from some unknown threat, made me think. And scared me a little bit too, to be honest.

I honestly had this thought run through my mind: What if this is really and truly it and this is how it ends, no foreboding, no signs, just this...and I just yelled at my kids for not listening to me and it would suck if that was our last interaction so let's keep walking...fast.

I don't know where to go with this but here: most of you sitting in front of your computers reading this exist within some relative safety. You don't have to compartmentalize or integrate violence or terror; it simply doesn't exist, at least in abundance. But for many it does. And the little tiny glimpses into that world, the more it horrifies me.

Posted by Chris at January 5, 2011 7:02 AM

I think our generation does automatically factor in a certain amount of uncertainty. We have been exposed for the last 15 years or so. I can't even imagine what my children think since they literally were tiny babies when 9/11 occurred. That IS their normal.

Example: We went to Cancun for Christmas. My parents thought we were crazy to go to Mexico. I explained that there were no warnings for tourists in Cancun and that just because one thing happened in Mexico (its a big country) doesn't mean the entire country is under the rule of drug cartel (maybe only half) but it didn't matter. They thought we were nuts and foolish. My attitude is "be as safe as you can". Don't go into dark alleys (in any city), be aware of your surroundings and do your best to stay out of harm's way. Oh, and it doesn't help my parents fear that they watch FOX News 24/7. Don't even get me started on that....

Posted by: Debbie at January 5, 2011 7:47 AM

Epicenter of apeshit crazy made me giggle.

The rest did not. That's horrifying, man. It's stuff like this that makes me want to move to Des Moines real bad.

Posted by: Mr Lady at January 5, 2011 8:17 AM

I remember that episode of House Hunters! I can't even imagine what that must be like, although sadly I think (living in a big city) I can sort of relate to the goings on in Monkeytown. Which is just scary, really, that I've sort of normalized it. I guess after a while that's what happens, no matter how strange or horrifying it may seem to someone else.

Posted by: Fraulein N at January 5, 2011 9:47 AM

I grew up on USAF bases, and more specifically, SAC (Strategic Air Command) bases that were all on the USSR top 100 target list. We didn't really worry about nuclear annihilation, it was just sort of the backdrop of our lives. I suspect life in Tel Aviv is sort of the same way. The threat of violence is so pervasive that if you ask somebody that lives there, they probably would claim that it doesn't really impact their life. And the reality there is the same as here in another way too. The vast majority of people have never been a victim of politically inspired violence. Your odds are worse in Tel Aviv than in DC, but it's a relative. Both places are way safer than Somolia, and probably safer than SE DC.

Posted by: COD at January 5, 2011 9:47 AM

I read a very interesting article yesterday about the Obama administration's return to the old "Duck and Cover" plan and why that is a good thing -- http://www.theatlantic.com/national/archive/2011/01/the-unexpected-return-of-duck-and-cover/68776/. I encourage everyone to read it.

Posted by: Pat at January 5, 2011 10:08 AM

Back when I was an academic, I did my master's thesis on Martin Amis (a fine author in his earlier days) and he was fairly obsessed with the impact of nuclear weapons on everyday life. He said the existence of such weapons automatically cheapens life. I agredd so much that my thesis is called "Living the Bomb" and lies dusty on a library shelf somewhere. I wrote it 5 years prior to 9/11 and it's safe to say 9/11 cheapened life some more. Hold the kids tight and let go of the anxiety because terror/violence/acts of war are mostly out of your immediate control.

Posted by: rebecca at January 5, 2011 10:15 AM

What is it like? Every decision you make, whether conscious or not, relates to your safety. By the time we left El Salvador, every night, my mother was deciding which room in our house was "safest." Sometimes it was the back rooms because the bullets would have further to travel, sometimes it was the front rooms in case we needed to leave in a hurry. From all that, what I learned is that you can't control everything. You can only try to make the best decisions and keep yourself as safe as possible.

Posted by: Patricia at January 5, 2011 10:46 AM

I grew up in the Hampton Roads area (it has a very high concentration of high profile military bases - the largest being Norfolk Naval Base) with jets flying almost every day...grew up during the Cold War so the threat of nuclear attack was on our minds but like COD, it was really just a backdrop... I think about it more now though... my husband's Monkeytown office is right there by the epicenter of apeshit crazy and mine is not far from the White House...

Posted by: Sue R at January 5, 2011 11:05 AM

NYC has similar random acts of lockdown. Every time I go to visit my family in Vermont my niece asks about coming to NYC to go to The Lion King with me, and I wish the family understood that at a moment's notice something could happen where we don't have time for a tantrum about how you want to stay where you are, you HAVE to GO, for your safety. It's frustrating. Last time I quietly mentioned to my brother "that's where the car bomb was, outside The Lion King". Didn't work, still not understood that if my niece wants to come here for Lion King she has to be prepared to do whatever I tell her at a moment's notice.

Until that lesson is understood I just can't be in charge of my niece's safety for something as seemingly simple as a broadway show in Times Square.

Posted by: Poppy at January 5, 2011 11:22 AM

My gosh, I am so lucky to have no idea what that is like. There are benefits to living in a small city in the middle of the prairies, even if it is really cold for a large part of the year.

Even though where I live is relatively safe, kids put everything in a new perspective. Last summer I took my neice, who was Mia's age at the time, to a pizza place downtown at night. To get to the car, the fastest way was to walk down an alley. It was somewhat lit and for myself, I didn't really consider it to be risky. However, when a 5 year-old was in my care, I looked at it differently.

I'm so glad it was nothing and you are all safe.

Posted by: Heather at January 5, 2011 11:51 AM

It is terrifying. I harken back to 9/11 when I (thousands of miles away) wasn't sure which city would be hit next or how, and was buying canned beans, a manual can opener, and bottled water. Because there is that small chance that in the blink of an eye our water or power supply could be comprimised.

If I had the time and money, I would live in a house with a fully stocked panic room. I don't live in a place that seems like a target, though we did have someone think he was going to blow up a building as a terrorist act, but fortunately it was an FBI sting. Even so...if I could be more protected, more prepared, I would. As it stands, I have lots of bottled water (thanks to the delivery guy), and I still have that manual can opener and some cans of stuff.

I rarely feel that 9/11 panic, but it creeps back from time to time, like when thousands of birds and fish are unexplainably dead in Arkansas. It's probably nothing, and the next thing and the thing after that will probably be nothing. But one of these days it might not be nothing. Am I ready? How scared will my daughter be? How can I best help her through whatever it will be? Now that I've typed this, it scares the bleep out of me, so I think I'll go back to putting it away.

So I guess I disagree with your comment about us not needing to compartmentalize this type of violence, because I do have to do that! It certainly doesn't exist in abundance - if it did, I'd probably handle it better, acutally. But the fact that it exists at all is enough.

Posted by: Teresa at January 5, 2011 11:55 AM

I personally think that the worst of all of it are the dangers inherent in the home and in neighborhoods. We consistently shake our heads at other countries, but what about Compton? What about foster kids getting kicked out of the system at 16 and being expected to even graduate high school on their own, let alone have productive lives. It's just not going to happen.

We want a change? We need to make it happen. We fix some of this mess, and the world becomes safer. This makes me want to lobby for children not old enough to vote, but old enough to have to face the world completely alone.

Posted by: alektra at January 5, 2011 12:26 PM

Being in the midwest we certainly have a different feeling of security than the coastal cities. However, I keep trying to explain to my children that when I was a kid, we only practiced tornado drills in our schools and that lockdown drills weren't even conceived of yet. The possibility of violence in my kid's schools scares the heck out me but at the same time it has become a part of our lives.

Posted by: Mary at January 5, 2011 1:33 PM

I was reading something yesterday that made me think about this: Most people in the world *can't* take for granted the kind of security Americans felt pre-9/11. How many other countries have never suffered attacks on home soil eve in wartime? I know it doesn't seem like it, but I think we've had it pretty good. Which doesn't make it any less terrifying, but clarifies the rest of the world's perspective a bit.

Posted by: Jess at January 5, 2011 3:13 PM

That would be indeed very scary. I'm glad you all got out safely. Also, your arrows on the map? I keep seeing penises. I am very mature.

Posted by: Heather at January 5, 2011 7:04 PM

I'm so sorry to hear about your experience this weekend, that must have been awful. I also live in the Monkeytown suburbs in VA, moved here in early 2002. I've been thinking about your post all day (I have a 1+ hr commute between the office and my kids, and I couldn't not think about the risks of the DC area, thanks, lol). But your post made me think hard, and I thought I'd share my reflections.

The most nervous that I've ever felt in Monkeytown was the DC Sniper experience. I was a wreck--shaking everytime I had to wait for a bus, avoiding gas stations, staying inside. That was an awful time. Luckily I didn't have kids then--I couldn't imagine what I would tell them. But do you know what, that was a crazed American who did that to other Americans--and it could have happened in any other city. Another scary situation was the anthrax scare, my office's paperwork had to be irradiated. And although that case hasn't been solved, signs point that it was an American that did that. There's been that recent serial stabbing thing, the VA Tech killings, the crazy guy at the Discovery Building in MD this year, etc. So I guess the points that I'm trying to make are that (1) we never really are as secure as we think we are and that (2) other Americans may be the ones reducing our sense of security, not foreigners.

It's a scary, scary world. But what can we do besides keep our eyes open, heads up, be brave, protect our kids as best we can, maintain a calm demeanor, and carry on? I guess my philosophy has always been, when your number is up, it's up.

Posted by: laurs at January 5, 2011 9:31 PM

I'm glad you and the family are good. Scary. As unfortunate as it was, I feel we need to get used to more of this. The last blackout in NYC caught everyone unprepared. It made me think just how dependent we are on so many things that in emergencies, we just don't have like lights, power, ATM machines and such.

Posted by: One Mom's Opinion at January 5, 2011 11:46 PM

Eep! Scary!! So glad to hear that all of you are safe :O

Posted by: Eliz at January 6, 2011 1:06 AM

I think I agree with the "get a panic shelter" if you can afford it, but at the very least build the best one that you can. If things do fall apart for a while, being able to hunker down ( or bug out ) is a better alternative to trying to figure it all out now. Human numbers were once down to about 2,000 a long time ago, and it could easily happen again; but at the same time, we are a resilient little species, and as long as there are enough of us to reproduce then we'll build the numbers back up.

Posted by: metawizard at January 6, 2011 9:47 AM

It's the reason I stay informed about the rest of the world. I'm very safe. Yet, I wouldn't appreciate it if I didn't know what some people endure on a daily basis. If I can help them, or help shape our country in a way that prevents a fate of an unsafe USA, I want to.

Posted by: Brad at January 6, 2011 9:48 AM

Wow. That would have scared the crap out of me. Thankfully we, in this country, are allowed to live in relative safety but the idea that that one day could end is one hell of a thought. Hopefully not in our or anyone's lifetime.

Posted by: Dianna at January 6, 2011 6:48 PM