Remembering Fear

I just cleaned out a cupboard in my kitchen that was full of food storage water.  I wanted to put away some small appliances in a more convenient place, so I decided to start drinking the water, but it was disgusting.  I checked the dates, wondering when I bought it, then realized it was about 8 years old.  Oh yeah.  I remember.  Living in Washington D.C. in the season of fear.  I moved to D.C. in the summer of 2001, studied for the bar, then started at a law firm located next door to the FBI building on September 1.  Two weeks into my adult career I joined people gathered around a t.v. watching footage of planes crashing into the twin towers.  When the plane crashed into the Pentagon, a sr. partner walked into the room and told us to evacuate.  “Don’t drive, the bridges are closed.  Don’t take the metro.”  Huh?  I had no idea what to do.  I walked into a friend’s office and just stared.  “I don’t know what to do” I gulped.  Ever the practical one, she called around and got in touch with a friend who lived nearby.  We grabbed our bags and started walking.  The streets were packed, and about a block away from the office, there was a horrible snarl with police lights flashing everywhere.  A van had been abandoned in the middle of the road, and everyone was nervous that it contained a bomb.  We walked past quickly.  Further up the road I ran into an LDS friend from law school.  He was just standing on the curb wondering what to do.  We invited him to join us.  We stopped to loan a cell phone to a sobbing woman who was trying to contact her children.  Finally we reached the house of the” friend of the friend of the friend” and sat in her living room watching t.v. for hours.  At one point my friend from work walked down to the CVS to buy snacks for the full house.  She still laughs about running into a gay couple who were also shopping for food, and says they talked about finding comfort in the fact that despite national security emergencies, it was still important to be a good host.  I finally made my way home by the now-running metro and like the rest of America sat glued to my t.v. all day. 

Suddenly having food storage seemed an imperative.  I bought the canned protein, veggies, bottled water, etc.   I also stocked up on duct tape, ready to make that airtight room before someone on the news said….”um, not such a good idea because you’ll suffocate.”  I still don’t let my gas tank get below half full, just in case I need to evacuate. 

Just as the sense of communal fear started fading a year later, the D.C. sniper attacks started.  In all, ten people were killed and three critically injured in the three week killing spree.  At one point a friend and I went on a road trip, and just as we returned to town the sniper hit again, this time in a shopping center near my house.  We both cried the rest of the way home, not wanting to enter in a zone of constant fear.  Everyone was calling in tips about white mini-vans they had spotted, because of a (now known to be erroneous) lead from eye-witnesses.  I bought more food storage. 

A few years later, my life changed dramatically when I accepted a job that eventually took me to Afghanistan and I stayed there two years.  On September 11, 2007 I found myself speaking at a memorial ceremony at the U.S. Embassy for a work colleague who was killed by a car bomb, and noted that six years earlier, none of us knew that the chain of events started on September 11 would lead to our lives being utterly changed to the point that we were living in Kabul.  As clear as my memory is of September 11, 2001, my memory is even clearer of receiving the phone call informing me of my colleague’s death.  That still makes me shake.   

So here I am, back home, throwing away the last of the food storage.  Ironically, most of it expired or rotted while I was in Afghanistan.  I remember what it felt like to be scared during that horrible year of 2001-2002, and I remember what it felt like to be constantly thrumming with adrenaline in Afghanistan.  But I’m calm and at peace now.  Is that odd?  I know more about terrorism than I ever did in 2001, having both lived in Afghanistan and having just completed a masters degree in International Security Studies including a class on Al-Qaeda this past semester.  I guess what I understand now is probably self-evident to many people–the chances of being killed in a terrorist attack are very low, but that’s not the point.  The terror is the point.  But life rolls on and we live and love and grieve and laugh and hopefully, eventually learn to be still.  What a blessing.


  1. The terror is indeed the point. Al-Qaeda certainly has no ability to actually be an existential threat to America, but they are quite capable of driving us insane with fear. Michael Moore made this point spectacularly well with Bowling for Columbine, in which he researched America’s fear factor, how we constantly instill in ourselves (through our media and politicians) this need to be afraid of the “other.” We need to stop being so afraid.

  2. Discussing it with my husband, he stated that it’s our inability to assess and accept risk that causes the mindless fear. We lived in suburban Maryland during 9/11 and the sniper shootings and it just didn’t seem to affect our daily lives that much, other than the kids not being let outside for recess. I still went to the grocery store, we still went to the park. It seemed silly that people thought that by zigzagging their way across the parking lot they could avoid being shot. Granted, there weren’t any shootings in our neighborhood and we didn’t know anyone personally hurt in 9/11 so that might also have helped lessen the personal-ness of the attacks.
    However, I believe in food storage, not to protect from a specific fear, but to be prepared for the inevitability of random bad events in our lives, whatever they may be.

  3. StillConfused says:

    I remember 9-11 because though I was a retired air traffic controller and in my fourth year of law practice, my then spouse was still a controller and worked in the traffic management unit.

    I had already gotten a bunch of dry food storage mainly because I thought that doing the “dry pack” was fun. However, it too expires very soon (if not already). I am debating whether to give it away, through it away or hold on to it even though it is expiring.

  4. This was a powerful post. Thank you.

    #3 — not to take away from the post, but before you throw dry pack stuff away, check this…they have found most of it actually lasts longer than first thought. FWIW.

  5. When I was watching the tv all day on 9/11, at first I was very proud that the WTC towers were still standing — that the planes didn’t knock them over. It was a sign of resilience, even if they’d have to be totally rebuilt after the fires. When they went down, I was angry, but I’m happy to say, never afraid.

    There is nothing to fear from terrorism. The people who have resorted to terrorism have done so because they are opposed to civilization. But civilization is a far more powerful force and because of that, we will win. We all need to stop giving terrorists the time of day. They’re nothing except what we give them.

    The true defense against terrorism is the full embrace of our values of openness, liberty, due process, separation of powers, and republican democracy.

  6. I have been mulling this post tonite. Again, I love the contrast of the fear you once felt and the peace you now feel. I imagine you didn’t mean it this way, but I think someone could read this and come away thinking that an underlying message is that food storage is a program only for the fearful. It probably goes w/o saying that that isn’t the case. If anything, it’s another something that can help as a hedge against fear — and protect against the fear of others in these crazy times. (I’ll never forget how long it took the shelves in the stores to really get back to normal after a huge storm where I lived years ago. Or to get rubber gloves or hand sanitizer or masks when H1N1 hit. Or to get rice back when there was a shortage. The panic that comes during unusual times can sometimes be significant.)

  7. Ironically, I was in Saudi Arabia on 9/11/2001. While friends and family worried about my safety, I felt just the opposite – strangely relieved that I was not at home in the US experiencing the turmoil reported in the news media. Of course, we expats lived under increased security afterward – but I suppose the fact that we had always been somewhat on our guard made the events surrounding 9/11 seem to us somehow less unbelievable than to those here at home. Perhaps we had already learned – and accepted – that life cannot be lived in fear.

  8. Thanks all for your comments.
    m&m: I certainly wasn’t meaning to denigrate the idea of food storage. For me, the food storage was more of a jumping off point to remember a certain time in my life, and be grateful that I’m not experiencing that particular time in my life anymore. It makes me sad that all that food went to waste.

    John H. I agree with you up to a point, but I think that terrorists, and these terrorists in particular have a political message that resonates with larger populations. If not, they could not survive. By just dismissing them as anti-civilization we’re not really understanding the problem and that makes us less able to deal with it.

    Finally, I just wanted to note that upon re-reading this post, it may come across as me being scared of my shadow and so anxiety-ridden that I can’t live my life. Not so much the point I was trying to make. We all experience a range of emotions throughout our lives. That’s okay. We also move, grow, develop, and change, and I’m grateful for that dynamic aspect of living.

  9. Karen: Dismissing is merely what we need to do in our normal lives. In late September of 2001 I had a co-worker ask my advice on getting the plastic sheeting and bottled water. Initially I was shocked that her question was actually serious and earnest. I had to assure her that we live in a small, Midwestern city that has no chance of being targeted, except at random, for which reason our chances of dying by this cause were totally negligible. That doesn’t mean that I think the state department should just dismiss these guys, but normal people should dismiss them.

    In terms of resonating, of course these guys have a lot of things that resonate mixed in with their overall message. Part of the resonating message are just old saws we can’t do anything about. (Isn’t it unfair you’re poor when others are rich? Wouldn’t the world be more righteous if it was ruled by scripture and God’s law?) However, other points of resonance occur where we abandon our principles in foreign policy (support of democracy, the rule of law, and constitutional liberties) for various reasons — either legitimate national self-interest issues, or much more frequently, domestic political issues. The same thing was true with our fight with communism. There was nothing we could do about the “big lie” (isn’t it unfair you’re poor when others are rich, communism fixes that), but we didn’t need to be helping the messengers out by giving them legitimate evidence of our insincerity. I.e., look at how the American government is propping up imperialist stooges around the world, they are a bunch of liars when they said that they supported democracy.

    In eliminating resonance, we can’t do much about the big lie resonance, but obviously we should cease doing several things that the terrorists can point to as legitimately rotten. If we did, we would not be giving into the terrorists; we would be ceasing to do legitimately rotten things and consequently undercutting the message of the terrorists. Unfortunately, nobody’s interested in addressing root causes, because they already have given into the terrorists by creating this mass fear delirium.

  10. Karen,
    I love this post. Thank you for sharing your experiences online.

  11. Thing is, Roosevelt (Teddy, if I remember correctly) was right in saying that we have nothing to fear but fear itself.

    When the s&*t really hits the fan, much more destruction will be created by panicking people than any other single factor.

    I remember listening to a FOAF relate their money problems (their security deposit was getting below their targeted 150% of monthly expenses due to unexpected losses), and was hesitant to call them to realize how minor their problems seemed to billions of people — myself included, who was on the verge of the bankruptcy that came later.

    We should not have taken the totalitarian steps that have been taken in the West.

  12. A striking post, Karen. Thank you.

    I remember how freaked out everyone around here got during the rice shortage in Asia–the grocery store shelves were empty not because our normal supply was compromised, but because normal supply couldn’t meet the sudden fear-based demand. We didn’t need that rice, but the prospect of not being able to have as much as we want whenever we want drove us to clear out the adequate supply nearly overnight.

    Terror is indeed the most powerful weapon of all.

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