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Fear of Flying

A Commentary by Susan Estrich

Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Now is the time for those of us on vacation to start talking ourselves back onto the planes we have to board to get home. Here I am in paradise -- actually, the Grand Wailea in Maui, which looks like paradise to me -- and around the pool and on the beaches, almost everyone is squinting into BlackBerries and iPhones trying to figure out exactly what is going wrong in the rest of the world. Actually, I was going to write a column making fun of all of us for our crackberry addictions, even on holiday, but it stopped being funny when the news we were getting was of terror in the sky. It's the last thing you want to think about, and the first thing on everyone's mind.

I know all the reassuring things. Flying is still safer than driving (especially with me, according to my kids). The Maui airport is not exactly a hotbed of al-Qaida activity. There's no reason -- after all, this is vacation (my first in three years) -- not to get to the airport early, be patient with security and be thankful that, as always after a major threat, security will be at its most stringent. It couldn't be a safer time to fly, we tell each other over our "Breaking News Alerts" by the pool, and even if that's not really true, it certainly sounds good, especially to the children.

So how come I'm still nervous?

There's no way for many of us to live without airplanes. My daughter flies to get to school. I fly all the time for work. Vacations are actually a great thing, and getting away, seeing new places and meeting new people is part of what makes life fulfilling and exciting. Getting off airplanes is just not an option. Besides, trains and busses can be bombed even more easily, I suppose.

The problem with terror threats is not so much that they force us to live differently. I'd be almost happy to live differently, if it would make a difference. No, it's the inability to do much of anything -- other than get to the airport early and be patient in line -- that makes living with the threat of terror so frightening. For those of us who crave control, crave the sense that we can make things better by doing something, nothing is harder than doing nothing.

Of course, awareness is important. Thank God the passengers on Flight 253 were aware and proactive. But should we all sit alert on each flight, watching for false moves by men who look Muslim? I'm sure some people are doing just that, and all I can think of is all my young male students who are dark complexioned or Muslim and are the subject of hostile stares on their way back to school.

What makes it even worse, of course, is that terrorists aim for surprise. If we're all looking for Arab men, leave it to them to use a woman or a child. If we're focused on flights from Europe, leave it to them to find a flight from somewhere else. If we're looking on the plane, leave it to them to hit at the ticket counter. If you really want to be vigilant, you have to consider the unexpected, not the expected, which sounds a lot like walking around in a constant state of paranoia, knowing that even paranoids have real enemies, as America does.

So we must be vigilant but not vigilante, careful but not paralyzed, alert in situations where, by definition, we have almost no control.

This was not what any of us wanted to be thinking about on vacation, but terrorists don't take vacations. And because of that, Christmas holiday this year is not nearly as peaceful as I'd hoped. So it goes. In a world facing terror, you take your rest where you can find it. I'm grateful for my days in paradise. And I'm ready to sit in my seat without moving if that's what it takes to get home safely. If only it were that easy. Happy new year. And a safe one.

COPYRIGHT 2009 CREATORS.COM

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