Like many college students, I chose to spend the second semester of my junior year abroad in London. I wanted to explore the culture and heritage of another country while learning about myself in the process.
One of the many lessons I learned was the reality of what it means to live with terrorism on a daily basis.
Over the past three decades, Londoners have become accustomed to car bombings and daily disturbances in the subway system at the hands of terrorists associated with the troubles in Northern Ireland. Powerful nations with imperialist pasts have enemies, and Great Britain is no exception.
While the lack of trash receptacles in the London Underground proved to be an annoyance, I soon learned the necessity of their absence. I do not mean to suggest Londoners live with a constant fear of terrorist aggression; I simply want to acknowledge that awareness and precaution have become routine in response to the threat of such violence.
After hearing about a bomb planted outside the BBC headquarters by the Real IRA, one of the aforementioned terrorist groups concerned with Northern Ireland, I was among the American students who incredulously questioned the relative composure of the London natives around us.
In response to our disbelief, our contemporary Britain professor explained how Londoners have come to terms with such incidents. In this case, the terrorists targeted an individual organization that had angered them through its actions. Attention — not casualties — was their motive.
While obvious differences exist between this terrorist organization’s goals and methods and those of the al Qaeda network, one element remains the same: fear is the greatest weapon.
Our fear of anthrax attacks, whether sent by bin Laden’s followers or by domestic criminals, has the potential to severely paralyze us and prevent us from continuing with our daily routines. Even though health and law-enforcement officials appear to be doing everything they can to counteract this paranoia through quick emergency responses to potentially hazardous situations, we are becoming a changed people.
Two months ago most Americans probably thought of gas masks as strictly military equipment. Now some are seriously weighing the merits of owning one.
Two months ago we bought antibiotics to fight off everyday infections. Now we are contemplating buying them to ward off terrorist attacks.
Two months ago we opened our mail without reservation or anxiety. Now we warily unseal it, diligently looking for any traces of a suspicious-looking powdery substance.
We are no longer the boisterous Americans that Londoners informed me we were. Our confidence and optimism has been curtailed by the knowledge that our geographical distance, economic power and military preeminence cannot necessarily protect us from those who wish us ill. Our celebrity-loving, material-obsessed culture has been at least temporarily transformed into a globally alert, safety-conscious society.
As cliché as it may sound, America has had a rude awakening. We have become painfully aware of our vulnerability and weaknesses. We have had to reevaluate our domestic security measures as well as our practices abroad. While some meaning can clearly be gleaned from such responses to terrorism, one reaction by the American people remains senseless and illogical.
Panic will not help us become a better nation; it will merely weaken our ability to respond effectively to real dangers.
It would be foolhardy to say that we have nothing to fear; we are a powerful nation with intensely devoted enemies, and we have already experienced attacks of biologically hazardous agents — whether from terrorist sources or not.
However, by going on with our lives despite that lingering fear, we will show the world our tenacity and resilience.
In the months and years to come, I hope our country will come to resemble our allies across the Atlantic who have resigned themselves to the acceptance of a terrorist threat but who continue to live without overwhelming fear. After all, when the panic subsides, we are left with little choice but to continue living.
In an ideal world, there would be no pain or suffering. But we are not blessed with such a utopia. As a result, we must work with what we have and enjoy it as best we can.