In 1949 an editor put together in book from a collection of memorable articles that appeared during the years between World Wars I and II. The result, she hoped, would be a chronicle of an extraordinary, troubling era, what she called The Aspirin Age .
"We seem to have fluctuated between headaches," Isabel Leighton, the editor, wrote in her preface. ". . . During these throbbing years we searched in vain for a cure-all, coming no closer to it than an aspirin bottle. Hence: The Aspirin Age."
They were gaudy and fantastic years, she believed, filled with "fantistic news events" that characterized "a strange, uncharted period." However one described it, the world clearly was entering a new stage marked by new experiences.
That thesis seemed to hold as The Aspirin Age was followed by the fearsome dimensions of The Atomic Age, with all its night-marish terrors and possiblities. Scientific advances, bringing both curse and promise, were the hallmark of new era.
Now we have another label, convenient but inadequate, to apply to a traumatic period. But this time, it isn't the new that bedevils us, but the old. We are slipping back into the mindless violence of the dark ages that tears at stability, destroys faith, dashes hope. We live in The Age of Terror.
A friend, reacting to news that the pope had been shot, said: "I was shocked, of course, but not surprised. Nothing surpirses you any more. But I found this one the scariest of all, because this one was apparently done by a bona fide terroist, one of the people you read about in the papers. And if an organized terrorist group is bold enough to try to kill the head of the Catholic Church in the world, then we're really facing a scary situation."
Whether that is true remains to be determined. The would-be assassin of Pope John Paul II had, indeed, been a member of a terrorist group, but that doesn't mean he was part of an organized conspiracy. At this writing, his motivations are as unfathomable as those of most of the assassins who command attention worldwide through their murderous acts.
Organized or not, we all know terrorism exists.
The organized brand has become stamped on public consciousness around the world: the hooded assassins launching sudden, cold-blooded attacks on athletes at the Olympics, the kidnapping and killing of heads of state, the marking of political opponents for public execution and then the carrying out of those boasts, the taking of hostages from seized airlines or trains or office buildings or embassies and then the issuing of political demands.
But even more invidious than the machinations of the organized groups, of whatever political stripe, are the random, individual assaults on world leaders that we are witnessing increasingly. They are the ultimate terror, for they strike with no apparent reason at figures people most respect in such disparatge fields as culture (John Lennon), religion (John Paul II and Martin Luther King Jr.) and politics (the Kennedys, Ronald Reagan).
The common denominator of these targets seems to be fame and distinction. The common impact of these continuing assaults is both immeasurable and profound. At the least, we are becoming conditioned either to expect the worst, or collectively, accept the unacceptable.
That attitude is the most distressing of all. What is being destroyed is the best in us: the capacity to hope, to believe we can control our destinies by our own actions instead of being in the grip of inexorable forces about which we can do nothing.
Acceptance of acts of terror as something approaching normality in public affairs breeds another response: a form of secret guilt and fear that cuts across a wide range of life.
We hear that the pope has been shot, and think, "I hope to God an American didn't do it."
We hear that the president, this one a "conservative," has been shot, and think, "I hope to God it wasn't some deranged 'liberal.'"
We hear that another black body has been found in Atlanta, and think, "I hope to God it isn't a white man committing those crimes."
We hear that another Catholic has been killed in Belfast, and think, "I hope to God the IRA doesn't retaliate with the final bloodbath."
In the end we are reduced to a feeling of impotence. Worse, all these acts of violence that keep interrupting our daily lives lead to a numbing of emotion. We lose our capacity for shock, and withdraw to the sidelines as distant observers of terror at work.
Hand-wringing aside, the question is what can be done about it? Here the distinctions between terrorism and terror are critical.
Society, worldwide, can combat organized terrorist groups that strike at authority everywhere, hoping, through their acts, to create anarchy and then to fill that void themselves. Can, that is, if it chooses. They can be fought and destroyed with the same ruthlessness of purpose necessary to win any war. Not that that is likely to happen, but self-interest and survival are powerful weapons in forging strange wartime alliances, whether in conventional warfare or another form.
Dealing with individual acts of terror, from the shooting of popes and presidents to the mindless assaults on individual human beings, becomes infinitely more difficult. The world has been seeking a solution to that kind of behavior for more than 2,000 years. As the latest events in St. Peter's Sqaure remind us, the answer still has not been found.