Manhattan Teaches Me How to Fight Terrorism

Here, among other places, is where I spent September 11th this year:

It's too bad the foreground turned out so dark.

It’s the north side of Washington square–that arch is where we saw that cool street musician–and it was tons of fun: covered in happy couples, lively, talented musical performances, and attractive sidewalk art, it was like somebody tossed several museums and theaters into small, outdoor frying pan and then gave them a quick stir.

In addition to an evening in Washington square, I had breakfast in upper Manhattan, cookies and tea near the world’s largest cathedral*, lunch at the shake shack in Madison Square, where I saw one of the best live bluegrass groups ever, and dinner out on the town in a little falafel place. And more importantly, it was all in the company of some of my favorite old friends, and a bunch of new new faces who all turned out to be great, friendly people.

It wasn’t on purpose that I was in NYC on September 11th, and it wasn’t until a couple days before that I realized it was going to work out that way. For some reason, the idea made me feel a little odd; I was worried that I would either find the atmosphere was tense and uncomfortable or that the “natives” were busy enjoying a feeling of solidarity I couldn’t be a part of, but instead, I had an incredible day, and barely thought about the infamy of the particular date until it was all over. And in retrospect, I think that’s just about the perfect way for things to have gone.

The thing about terrorism is that it differs from almost all other types of crime in terms of it’s intended goals. People get wrapped up in the deaths and injuries that result from terrorism (and of course, they shouldn’t be taken lightly) but these things aren’t the goals in and of themselves. The thing that elevates what would otherwise just be acts of murder and assault to the level of terrorism is the intention, not to be too obvious about it, to create terror. And that’s what makes responding to it appropriately so complicated.

There’s no doubt, for example, that we should put effort into securing ourselves against terrorism, and similarly, we should hold sacred the memory of the losses incurred in past attacks. But the tricky part is, ideally we must do these things in such a way that does not increase our fear, or ideally, in a way that decreases it. Because while security and vigilance suffice to defend against future terror attacks, the nature of terrorism actually allows us to conspire to defeat past attacks too, by downgrading them to simple acts of violence. Don’t get me wrong, of course such violence is still reprehensible and the causalities it inflicts are still tragic. But terrorists are not keeping score based on how many they can kill, they’re keeping score based on how many they can scare so badly that they ruin their way of life, and by that metric, New York City is clearly winning the war.

Everywhere I went in the city on September 11th I was surrounded by people going about their business, enjoying each other’s company and soaking in the warm, early fall sunlight. There was no sense that the attacks had been forgotten (indeed, as night fell, the beams of light from ground zero served as a constant reminder) but it was clear that everyone had something better to do than to cower in fear: namely, they had their lives to live. For all the pop-culture references that have taught me that the city was full short-tempered, self-absorbed loners, I was astonished at how welcoming the city felt, at how comfortably I was able to share in it’s vivacious spirit, and also how obvious it was that no one there was trying to take ownership over the evens of September 11th as anything more than a national tragedy. It made for a perfectly wonderful day, and it certainly helped bolster my faith that America is fighting a good fight against the tactics of terror.

Incidentally, I think the responsibility to respond appropriately to acts of terror is more of a two-way street than it is often portrayed as in political arguments, especially by people who lean to the ideological left. Don’t get me wrong; I do believe that there has been too much “fear mongering” in politics, and that some of the steps that have been taken in the name of “security” in the past few years have done little more than (at best) institutionalize a state of uneasiness and (at worse) undermine our pride in our essential American freedoms. But I since I believe that the way to beat terror is to show yourself to be unterrorized, and to prove that your way of life continues unabated for all their efforts, a burden falls on me to hold up my end of the bargain, as well.

I think about this always when I travel by air: it is always so tempting to let the new, draconian security measures drive me nuts, stress me out, and ruin the trip. And certainly, do I think it’s silly that I can bring metal scissors with pointed tips of up to four inches in length on a plane but not a knife of any size (what do they think you get if you take a pair of scissors apart? Because it seems to me like the answer is two knives). But at the end of the day, in that moment when I’m standing in line there’s nothing my anger or frustration can do to make the moment better, and in fact, it just plays in to exactly what the terrorists were hoping for: an erosion of our freedom, our good cheer, and our comfort in our everyday lives. And after this last weekend, I’ll be even more determined to continue enjoying myself in airports like I always did when I was a kid, because if the good folks of Manhattan can stay in good spirits even just a few blocks from ground zero, I can probably put up with a bit of TSA absurdity in exchange for getting to travel the world.

So here’s to us, America, for responding to the terrorists like our mothers always taught us to respond to the big-talking wannabe bullies on the playground: brushing them off, showing them they can’t phase you, and continuing to enjoy your chocolate milk. Nice try, terrorists, but nobody here seems terrorized to me.

*I know, I couldn’t believe it was true either. And it only is because of a technicality. To be a cathedral in a technical sense, you have to be the seat of a Bishop. And even under that definition, it’s title is disputed.

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About Colin West
Colin West is a graduate student in quantum information theory, working at the Yang Institute for Theoretical Physics at Stony Brook University. Originally from Colorado (where he attended college), his interests outside of physics include politics, paper-folding, puzzles, playing-cards, and apparently, plosives.

3 Responses to Manhattan Teaches Me How to Fight Terrorism

  1. Pingback: I Still Hate Petty Partisan Sniping, Double Standards, and Bad Faith (In Order of Ascending Hatred) « WLOG blog

  2. Tyler says:

    Colin,

    It’s cool you got to go to NYC. I would love to go there and hopefully will be able to do so soon!

    I liked reading about your experiences there and I don’t think anything you said here is necessarily wrong. Just a couple of thoughts (which you probably know and I don’t have to tell you) that I didn’t see represented in your article.

    People shouldn’t live their lives in fear. This would mean the terrorists have won and have accomplished their goals. This being said, the world we live in requires constant attention to our surroundings. Constant vigilance if you would. Don’t be scared. Be ready.

    It is wonderful that most people live in a personal state where they can live in peace; a country where they can forget or ignore the evil both in far away countries and next door to their house. This is the world you describe in 2010 New York City. Its awesome and we should all be glad to hear it. However, I think it is extremely important (and should be mentioned prominently in any serious musings on the subject) to to remember that the reason most people can live this way is because rough men (and women) are always there willing to do violence on their behalf (to paraphrase Orwell). Also see Grossman’s work regarding Sheep, Wolves, and Sheepdogs.

    Again, I very much liked your article; and I am thrilled about what you saw in New York City. Just some thoughts I had which I think would make your article more complete.

    Tyler

  3. Colin West says:

    Tyler, you make an excellent point, of course, and also demonstrates that I haven’t been clear enough in my intended point here. Clearly, something that’s implicit in my suggestion that we should not live in fear is the assumption that we are, on the whole, fairly safe. Although I suppose you could argue otherwise, I suppose, I certainly wouldn’t personally suggest a state of denial about a danger that exists.

    In this way, I’m glad glad you’re reminding us all that “feeling safe” doesn’t have to mean “being oblivious.” Of course I would also advocate constant awareness of the world around you on other, more aesthetic grounds, so between the two I think it obviously makes sense ;-). And more importantly, I’m glad you’re reminding everyone that one of the key reasons people can legitimately feel safe is because hundreds of men and women are working every day to keep things that way. And ironically, of course, they are often remembered the least when they are doing their jobs the best– if nothing bad happens, we don’t have to think about them. Or worse, sometimes we scoff at them– I almost fell for this trap myself, actually, as I was getting on the subway with my laptop bag and a policeman doing random bomb checks stopped me to do a quick sniff for nitrogen compounds. It took about 30 seconds, but, since I was in a hurry, my brain’s first reaction was “Seriously? When was the last time there was a bomb in a NY subway?” But of course, much of the reason I can’t remember any such thing is because of precautions like that very one. I still hear rabidly libertarian people whine about things like this a lot, and I just think it’s counterproductive. I’m all for making sure our attempts to secure ourselves do not cause us to abandon fundamental liberties, but I don’t have a fundamental right not to have somebody wave a bomb sniffing wand over my bag. And if I let little things like that ruin my day, it’s just as bad as if I were cowering at home in fear, and it gives terrorists the same kind of power, even if somewhat indirectly.

    I do want to clarify one thing though, not so much for you but for anyone else reading this. I don’t mean to describe a world where people can forget evil or ignore it. I can’t be sure, of course, whether that’s what people were doing in New York the other day, but what I’d like to think instead is that they were simply acknowledging it. I don’t think it’s ever healthy to lose sight of the fact that the world is not free from the stain of malice, just as I don’t ever think it’s healthy to ignore any demonstrable fact about the world we live in. It’s an affront to life itself to pretend it’s something that it’s not. But simply because we acknowledge that evil exists doesn’t mean we should let it control us in any way. Instead, those of us who are not actively engaged in fighting crime and protecting the country as a way of life should make our own private stand against those who would like to break our spirits by showing them they can’t trick us into thinking the world is less safe than it really is. In that respect, it would actually be worse to pretend there was no evil, because it would rob the act of it’s meaning. You can’t be brave if you have never acknowledged the dangers you face.

    I’m sure you knew all that, but, as I said, I wanted to clarify it in my own words since it’s clearly not spelled out in my post above. So think of this as a big thank-you to yourself and your brothers in blue for helping make the world a more secure place, and an exhortation to everyone else to validate the risk such people endure by making good use of the freedom and security they’ve helped bring you.

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