A Nation's Fear of Flying

Even discussions of architectural esthetics have taken a strange turn. The Bloomberg Tower is now finished, dominating the skyline in one area of midtown Manhattan; love it or hate it, it's quite a building. "I just wish it wasn't so tall," someone lamented at dinner.

The citizens of New York, who live in the spiritual home of the skyscraper, now fear the office tower and the high-rise. In San Francisco they build structures that are earthquakeproof. But there's no structural steel, no reinforced foundation, that can ward off fear. And there are always the aftershocks: the Madrid trains, the London Underground and now news of yet another terrorist plot to blow up American planes. Hair gel may be the new nail clippers, but the sense of peril is just déjà vu all over again.

It's been nearly five years since an area in the southernmost part of Manhattan was renamed Ground Zero. On September 11, 2001, New York became a city of survivors. That's on a sliding scale, of course: it would be an insult to claim otherwise. There are the children who lost their parents when the towers collapsed, and the parents who lost children. There are those people who will always have an empty seat at their table.

There are those like Pat Mazella, who worked in the World Trade Center, got out in time and still wonders why. "We are the ones who are still on a heightened sense of alert--who cannot walk under construction scaffolding," she wrote in an e-mail. "We are the ones who live with the sights and smells and sounds of that day--who still cringe at sirens and want to crawl under the bed during a thunderstorm. Many of us still work in the same area as the Twin Towers, and we have the hole in the ground as a constant reminder. We are the ones who walk the burial ground every day."

And then there are the millions of horrified bystanders who remember the fighter jets overhead, the fire stations with their black draped doors, the fear of being cut off from friends far away, the greater fear for those close by. Our children's schools now send home instructions for cataclysm--families that will shelter students, ways that parents can be in touch. Want to gaslight us? Blow smoke through our heating vents while a dozen ambulances wail by on the street.

Sorry, Oliver Stone, but for New Yorkers, the remembered reality of the day the World Trade Center fell to earth far outweighs anything a director could conjure up on film. Actually, it's the movies of the '80s and '90s that get to me, those stories about making it in the big town. Sooner or later they use one of those panoramic skyline shots as a transition, and there they are, the towers still pointing skyward, ghosts on celluloid, like John F. Kennedy waving from the back of a limousine in Dallas.

There are concrete barriers in front of federal buildings, and most big corporate offices require visitors to proffer a picture ID and send bags through a scanner. That's supposed to make us feel safer. But, unlike the museums, the theater or the shopping, safety is not one of the reasons people choose to come here. New York is a city of locksmiths. We were peering over our shoulders long before a tidal wave of dust was roaring down Church Street.

But we're amateurs compared with those in other parts of the world, the places in which bombs go off all the time, where burial grounds that were once buildings are everywhere. Not coincidentally, those are the countries in which today's children are likely to include tomorrow's terrorists. Why would the sons and daughters of commonplace carnage hesitate to visit it upon others, especially those they've come to associate with their misfortunes and to detest accordingly? The Heathrow plot to blow up planes in midair makes it clear again, if anyone needed a reminder: there are people out there who want us to die.

Instead, we live amid a facsimile of their own troubled world, more than we ever would have believed a mere five years ago, on the day that mass murder by aircraft blew a hole in our naive sense of security. Terrorist attacks that leave mangled bodies amid the rubble, messages of jihad and religious hatred, the threat of random explosives and the fear of yet another bombing at any moment: the Middle East has come to Bloomsbury and Tribeca.

Living with ever-present danger is scarcely new, although we like to make it sound that way. In ancient cultures it was always a constant: danger from the weather, the wild animals, the warring tribes. Part of progress and prosperity lies in insulation from attack; Wall Street, don't forget, is named for a fortification the Dutch built to keep enemies out. The great shock to the American system is realizing that no fortress is inviolate, no wall tall enough and no place really safe. Metal detectors, random searches. No toothpaste in that carry-on. Safety is a useful illusion, as modern--and as vulnerable--as a skyscraper.