Thursday, September 14, 2006

There Is Everything to Fear, Including Fear Itself

For the better part of my life, I have been a news reporter. Until I became an editor about six months ago, I most recently covered breaking news. Or, as my friends liked to call me, I was the Unfortunate Death Reporter.

People smushed by trains, buses, big-rigs; toddlers fallen down elevator shafts; decapitations; plane crashes; burned alive; you name it, I've written it. I use humor to distance myself from these victims, and to remain objective in my writing.

There have only been two times when I have cried over a story.

The first was when a lovely woman who lives in Merced went out for her morning walk with her best friend a few years ago and returned home to find that her ex-husband had shot to death her four children and then killed himself in her bedroom, holding the youngest girl to him.

I visited the mother a year after the crime and interviewed her in the home where she remained, because, she said, that's where they had made their memories. I used the bathroom outside of which her oldest daughter had surprised the ex-husband, where there was a hard-fought, bloody battle, and the girl got shot twice for her efforts.

I think of that woman a lot. And I think of what she told me at the time when I asked her how she could go on living, how was she to heal? She said that she had given herself a certain amount of time to regain some sense of pleasure in life, but she wouldn't reveal her deadline. If her life was still bleak when that time came, she said, she would end it. And, she said having that light at the end of the horror that was her life was a comfort to her.

The other time I cried was sitting in a darkened auditorium on the UC Berkeley campus shortly after Sept. 11 at Mark Bingham's memorial. He was killed when Flight 93 crashed in Shanksville; he has been one of the men credited with taking over the airplane from the hijackers.

This week, when Sept. 11 rolled around, I noticed how the city has changed since 9/11. There are no more flags. No more bumper stickers that read "God Bless America." And not enough viewers clicked on the 9/11 anniversary coverage on our Web site to place those stories even in the top 15. Readers were more interested in the death of Anna Nicole Smith's son.

And I started to think: what a laugh, that motto "We'll never forget." We've already forgotten.

Then I made my daily visits to my favorite blogs and found that many of you hadn't forgotten, and that heartened me. Of course, a lot of you are on the East Coast, and I think that makes a difference.

I remember my brother calling me that morning, telling me to turn on the TV, and the dawning realization that what had happened hadn't been an accident, and that there was more on the way. I called my friend Erica, who was crying. "Why are you crying?" I asked. "The people in those buildings," she said. It wasn't real yet, that those huge skyscrapers were filled with thousands of people.

Later in the day, the silence from the absence of airplanes in the sky became a noise itself.

I was the most scared I have been since I was a kid during the Cold War, and movies like The Day After fostered a consistent underlying feeling of doom. I remember dreams in which I would be walking home from the busstop in grade school and I would hear a noise, turn around and see a nuclear missile headed toward me, the sky already beginning to turn orange with the annihilation it carried onboard.

I called my father, who had served in World War II, and asked him if it was the end of the world. He assured me that it wasn't, and that it was the same fear people had felt when the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor.

What 9/11 and the Merced multiple murders triggered in me was a fear that had no respite; a fear that the most mundane of life's pleasures or chores -- taking a walk with a friend or flying out to see your family -- could be cloaked harbingers of death.

Recently, we've had two "talkers" of crime stories here in S.F.: In one, a man went to a popular park not too far from where I live, where hang gliders enjoy their sport, and shot two people, one pointblank in the head, for no apparent reason. When his gun jammed, he pulled out another and killed himself. One of the other men died.

In another incident, a man went on a hit-and-run spree, starting across the bay where he killed a man with his SUV, then came to S.F., where he injured 19 people. One of them, a woman, is paralyzed from the neck down.

A fellow editor at a meeting voiced his fear that we no longer could feel safe anywhere, and what kind of a world is that in which to bring up kids? When a visit to a park, a walk down the street, could turn deadly at any time?

It's terrifying, but it has a flip side. I think of all the times that kind of thing hasn't happened. That no one has struck me on my bicycle, or mugged me while I hiked. Things go right more than they go wrong in my life.

The evil in the world defines the good. And there's more of that than I usually take into account -- and more than I think I, and my recovering Cold War childhood neuroses, even deserve.

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