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Fear Itself

Learning to live in the age of terrorism

By Gene Weingarten
Sunday, August 22, 2004; Page W18

"The meaning of life is that it ends."

-- Franz Kafka

"They got what they wanted." The March 11 Madrid commuter train bombings influenced Spain's election. (Pablo Torres Guerrero - El Pais via Reuters)

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Post staff writer Gene Weingarten discusses his story about understanding the psychology of terror (Monday, Aug. 23; 1 p.m.).

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YOU ARE NOT AFRAID OF TERRORISM, REALLY. You have weighed the facts and have concluded, rationally, that even if terrorists strike again in this country, the chances are negligible that you or anyone you know will be killed or injured. You feel no special tension when you place your seat tray in the upright position. You are old enough to have lived through other supposedly apocalyptic times, or you've surely heard about them -- most famously, the silly spectacle of 1950s-era schoolkids giggling under their desks in anticipation of The Big One.

The recent warnings about terrorism during the election campaign have ratcheted up your concerns a little, but so what? You are going on with your life not as an act of defiance so much as a celebration of rationality. You will be fine.

So here's a question: Would you ride a bus in Jerusalem? Right now? Here's your 5 1/2 shekels, go take a bus to market, buy some figs. Pick a bad day, after the Israelis have assassinated some terrorist leaders and everyone is waiting for the second sandal to drop. There are lots of buses in Jerusalem -- the odds are still long in your favor. Do you take that dare?

A few weeks ago, I did just that: boarded a bus on just such a day, and rode for nearly an hour. I did it because I wanted to better understand the psychology of terror. Not the psychology of the terrorist -- the psychology of the terrorized.

After 9/11, Americans are concerned enough by terror to be waging a costly war against it. But, by and large, the fear of terrorism has not seeped into our bones. We are new to this thing. The Israelis are not. Terrorism creates a hierarchy of fear; theirs is greater than ours.

Hence, this trip. Call it a scouting report.

The bus I chose was the No. 18. Its route is a vital artery, traveling down Jaffa Road through the heart of Jerusalem. Twice in the last decade, someone boarded a bus on this route, reached into his pocket, thumbed a button and detonated. As is dictated by the grisly kinetics of suicide bombing, the bombers' heads remained intact, shooting skyward with the roof of the bus. But their bodies were frothed into pulp. Forty-six other people died. Some of those were torn apart; some looked almost unscathed, but their organs had been jellied by the shock wave, a medical syndrome common to bus bombings and almost nothing else. Dozens of other people survived, but were crippled or disfigured by shrapnel: Customarily, suicide bombs are jacketed by nails, nuts, screws and ball bearings, for maximum damage.

Like everyone else, I waited in line, deposited my fare, and stepped aboard the bus. Early afternoon. Sixty-odd people seated and standing, some with shopping bags, some without. Eyes forward, no one saying much to anyone else. It was hot.

TEN TIMES IN THE LAST THREE YEARS our leaders have told us that something was up. They didn't say what, exactly: ominous "chatter" of an undisclosed nature in unspecified channels of communication among unidentified individuals planning an unnamed atrocity of uncertain dimensions in an unknown location at an indeterminate time. So what should we do about it? Unclear.

When there was finally an intelligence breakthrough early this month -- a named source, a likely weapon (truck bomb) and five specific targets in three specific cities (New York, Washington and Newark) -- it was followed by the sheepish disclosure that the information was mostly four years old, which was followed by charges of political fear-mongering, which was followed by indignant denials, and at the end of it all none of us had any idea whether anything important had just happened. The day after the initial alert, I walked into one of the target buildings, the World Bank on Pennsylvania Avenue. At the front desk I asked a question about security. An important-looking man came striding up. He was the building's security manager. "How did you get in here?" he asked. "I walked in the door," I said. He escorted me out and began berating a subordinate.

Our preparedness, at least those measures we can see, sometimes seems almost comical -- from our Crayola eight-pack danger alert codes to those video displays on the Beltway urging us to report anything suspicious. (What is one likely to see on the Beltway to arouse suspicion? "I [heart symbol here] bin Laden"?) At the Gateway Arch in St. Louis, visitors are wanded, their backpacks fed through metal detectors. A sign stipulates what size and shape of pocketknife is permitted inside. A visitor from Washington takes this in, thinking: Someone is going to hijack the Arch?

Hierarchies of fear. Ours is worse than yours.

Interesting fact: In the year after 9/11, many people stopped flying. Road deaths spiked.

There has been terrorism in the world, more or less nonstop, since 12th-century Syria, when a persecuted Persian religious sect called the Assassins knifed people to death in crowds. Terrorism has persisted because terrorism works. It makes people crazy. It is a cost-effective method of waging psychological war by those who see themselves outnumbered or disenfranchised.

A disenfranchised minority cannot sack Rome, rape Nanking, burn Atlanta or firebomb Dresden. These are terror attacks by nation-states, military sieges with the primary goal of sowing despair among the enemy and weakening their will to resist. A disenfranchised people -- whether Palestinians in the Middle East, or Tamils in Sri Lanka, or Islamic zealots who see the spread of Western culture as an assault on their religion -- will use the means at their disposal. Amoral though it may be, terrorism succeeds in focusing attention on whatever cause its practitioners espouse. It does this in a particularly insidious way.

A quarter-century ago, a cultural anthropologist named Ernest Becker wrote a Pulitzer Prize-winning book called The Denial of Death. For a time, during the primacy of Freud, it was huge. It's not about terrorism, it's about the psyche, and its central thesis is one of the most disturbing analyses of human behavior ever set in print.

Everything we are, Becker argued -- our personalities, our attitudes, our very being -- is an elaborate lie, a carefully crafted self-delusion constructed to avoid having to face a fact so terrifying it would drive us mad: Not only are we certain to die, but death could come at any moment, followed by an eternity of nothingness. Lower animals, blessedly unaware of their mortality, plod thoughtlessly through their lives on instinct alone.

Lacking their ignorance, Becker says, we compensate by making ourselves stupid. We tranquilize ourselves with the trivial; we make friends, raise families, drink beer, follow the Redskins, find comfort in religions promising eternal life, all of which takes our minds off the potentially paralyzing truth. We deceive ourselves into believing -- not literally, but emotionally -- that we are immortal. Paranoiacs and depressives are in some ways the sanest among us, according to Becker, because their layer of denial is so fragile it fractures. Most of us, though, are able to retain our sanity so long as our anxiety is held at bay, and our anxiety is held at bay so long as our bold illusion remains manageable. This is not exactly the anthem of romantic poets or motivational speakers, but no one has ever successfully challenged Becker's central thesis. On some level, we attempt to smother our elemental fear of death with a grand lie.

That's where terrorism comes in. Terrorism penetrates that self-deception in a way that few things can.

During the Cold War, Americans knew that the Soviets had missiles pointed at us, and we at them. And yet, paradoxically -- applying Becker's paradigm -- this gave comfort. Mutually assured destruction seemed to offer an anodyne, a plausible measure of deterrence and thus a toehold for our state of denial.

It would take something truly diabolical to dislodge that toe, something that existed only in fiction. Remember SPECTRE, the shadowy international organization that was James Bond's nemesis? The acronym stood for "Special Executive for Counterintelligence, Terrorism, Revenge and Extortion." It was an absurd concept, really -- an entity of no fixed address, affiliated with no state, answerable to no constituency, diffuse, elusive, nihilistic, unavailable for negotiation, promiscuously cruel, fueled by hatred, with no comprehensible agenda other than mayhem, destruction and death.

You know, al Qaeda.

With al Qaeda, however, there is an additional fillip, a small, elegant frisson. It was probably best expressed in a quote attributed to Osama bin Laden himself, a few weeks after 9/11: "We love death. The U.S. loves life. That is the big difference between us."

SPECTRE, with a suicide wish.

My terrorism field trip had destinations other than Jerusalem. The itinerary would take me to Madrid, to ride the same train route that al Qaeda blew up on March 11, killing 191 and injuring nearly 2,000. Then, Jerusalem. And then I would fly home on British Airways Flight 223, the one that kept getting canceled because of reports that terrorists were going to bring it down. There was really nothing to worry about, from a rational standpoint. Just a few days on vehicles of public transportation.

I brought The Denial of Death with me. Also, Kafka.

AWAITING TAKEOFF FOR THE FIRST LEG OF MY TRIP, Dulles to Heathrow, I found myself seated on the aisle watching the last of my fellow passengers boarding the plane. It looked as if I might luck out, with the middle seat beside me unoccupied. But at the last moment a man arrived, struggled to stuff a large duffel bag in the overhead compartment, then plopped down next to me. I nodded, smiled, and looked away to compose myself.

A few months after 9/11, I told a co-worker that I thought the Pulitzer Prize for news photography for the year 2001 should go to a machine. I couldn't decide which machine -- the overhead camera in an airport in Maine that caught a shirtsleeved Mohamed Atta passing briskly through security on the morning of September 11, or the ATM camera in Maryland that snapped hijackers Hani Hanjour and Majed Moqed withdrawing cash. Both photos were riveting for their grainy banality, and for what they say about the duality in all of us. Here were ordinary-looking people engaged in ordinary-looking activities, indistinguishable from any of us, with dreadful secrets in their head.

I hadn't thought about those photos in a long time, until now. I gathered my thoughts, prepared my face, and looked back at my seatmate. Hani Hanjour.

In the ATM snapshot, Hanjour -- the Saudi national believed to have piloted the plane that hit the Pentagon -- is standing behind and to Moqed's right, both looking placidly down as their money plops into place. I had pretty much the same view of him, here in the plane, to my left. Small guy, lithe build, olive complexion, angular face, sparse goatee, hard eyes.

If you Google "Hani Hanjour" you will find a spider work of conspiracy theories speculating that he is still alive -- a demonic Elvis who has recently been seen walking the streets of Riyadh. He wasn't on that plane at all; his piloting skills were too feeble to have maneuvered a 757 through a hairpin turn at breakneck speed and bring it down onto a target that was, comparatively, the height of a Necco wafer.

"So," I said as cheerfully as possible to my new seatmate, as the plane taxied for takeoff, "where are you from?"

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