Everything Is Under Control

So I go over to the school to vote in the New York City primary, and I'm in the booth looking at all the names and the levers and the sign at the top that says information for voters, and it's deja vu all over again. This is where I stood, this is what I did, just after 8 on the morning of Sept. 11. And suddenly I think that if I just stand still, don't flip the levers, don't leave the booth, that time will move backward, the spool rewind. I will come out into the bright sunlight instead of the steady drizzle, and downtown those thousands of people will go about an uneventful day, those hundreds of firefighters get called to a few uneventful fires, those passengers have an uneventful plane trip, those buildings stand until the glitter of the sun on their surfaces turns to the reflection of the stars on their night-black glass.

This is what is called a control fantasy.

The country that once thought itself so different from the world, the city that once thought itself so different from the country, both are reduced to this: omnipotence dreams, endless what-ifs, sudden unaccountable outbursts of tears or temper and guilt about anything approaching self-interest or pleasure. "Is it too soon to laugh?" asks an AOL online poll. "Is everyone all right in your household?" every business call begins.

Those Americans born after World War II are accustomed to a sense of control. They live in houses that need never grow too warm or too cold, with seasonal food available all year long, with televisions that get more channels than there are weeks in the year. They have molded their bodies and rebuilt their faces and lowered their cholesterol and raised their consciousness. Their children became the heirs to educational toys, soccer camps, community service and universal college. When the facades fell to pieces on Sept. 11, those children were uppermost in all our minds: nightmares, flashbacks, tremors, problems with eating, problems with sleeping, problems with trust. But the children are dealing with this better than the parents. "They usually resume their normal lives--and often do so more rapidly than we adults," said the article by a psychologist handed out by several Manhattan private schools. Perhaps it's because children never feel as if they have control of their lives, much less this generation of children, micromanaged into play dates and SAT tutoring sessions.

"Don't you feel that the world is a much more perilous place?" I asked my 16-year-old son.

"Mom, I always thought the world was a perilous place."

They've had a new expression over the last year, the kids: "That's so random." Mom, that remark was so random. As always, the kids were ahead of the curve. Everything seems random now, the illusion of an ordered universe gone. Each airplane on the approach to Newark airport seems sinister, each siren a harbinger of doom. People cry on the subway; someone passes a tissue. Visits to Disney World are way down, but Kleenex sales have surely skyrocketed. Citizens of the world at last, we can now imagine Beirut or Belfast. A friend who was moving from his native London to New York once told me that the difference between the resigned pragmatism of the British and the arrogant optimism of the Americans was the difference between getting bombed during the blitz and buying war bonds.

So much for arrogant optimism.

The left-wing information superhighway of fellow travelers sends its offerings to my cyberdoor. There is an antiwar petition with a list of signators, saying, in part, "Another senseless act in retaliation will not repair the damage done, nor bring back those who were lost." There is a message from an old friend urging the recipients to join the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee: "This is one way of letting other human beings from the most despised and terrified minority in the country know that they're not alone." There's a great proposal from one man, headed bomb them with butter, which suggests sending food to the Afghan people, adding, "Seeing your family fully fed and the prospect of stability in terms of food and a future is a powerful deterrent to martyrdom." There's a feminist petition that says, sensibly, "We pledge to judge people by their acts, not the group into which they were born."

I agree with everything, and nothing at all. Part of the control fantasy is the notion that there must be some obvious way to respond to an act so enormous and transformative that it does not even have a name. (Tragedy? A play by Shakespeare. Terrorist act? Too clinical. Bombing? Incorrect and inadequate both.) But everyone knows that any obvious response is an oversimplification, that bombing Afghanistan to rubble is vainglorious, considering that much of it already is rubble, that the frustration with terrorism is that in terms of targets there is no there there. There's the temptation, too, to think that retaliation can mend what's broken here. After Tim McVeigh was executed, did the families of his victims feel more at peace? If Osama bin Laden and his followers are captured and killed, or if Afghan women and children die in their stead, will it quiet the ghosts of the dead downtown, carrying their briefcases and their takeout coffee?

There is a wonderful book for children by Lois Lowry called "The Giver," in which a stoic society assigns the role of feeling all the world's pain to a single individual. Sometimes it feels as if everyone in America has become that person. In almost every New York City store window there is a flier for a benefit, a relief effort, a fund. At the deli you can get one at the counter: "For relief supplies as needed: boots, gloves, dog food..." "To help police and their families affected by the WTC tragedy..." "Union fund to support the families of fallen firefighters." And as people pick them up you can almost hear them saying to themselves, Yes, yes. I can do something. Boots, gloves, dog food. One of my friends is on the waiting list for a gas mask. Another is getting some putative anthrax vaccine. Things are under control. That's the lie we tell ourselves.