New Artifacts of Fear
Last week, while I was passing through the English department office on campus, I noticed that they were getting rid of some books. I can never resist this. So, when I happened to stumble upon a copy of The U.S. Government Guide to Surviving Terrorism, I took it. And while, at that moment, it just seemed like a quirky thing to have, after actually opening the thing up I quickly realized how special the guide really is.
I remember laughing at stories my mother has told me about the atomic bomb drills she took part in as a schoolchild. This was when the threat of communism and the Russian superpower influenced nearly every piece of American society, from federal policy decisions to elements of daily life. Now she can laugh too, recalling how dumb it really was to tell students they’d be safer if they knew how to duck and cover under their desks as quickly as possible. The whole idea of comically foolish, government-sponsored media created in the name of national security seems quaint and dated now, evoking images of black-and-white instructional videos and, I guess, little kids ducking and covering. Or, it makes us think of the various autocratic regimes we’ve been in conflicts with over the course of the past century. While we all like to criticize the America we live in, we generally stop short of acknowledging any chance that our society might still exist within that frame of mind.
Which is why it was so interesting for me to open up The U.S. Government Guide to Surviving Terrorism (published in 2003) and read this, in an introduction by the modern-day stooge, H. Keith Melton:
Is a terrorist threat ‘real enough’ that extraordinary measures for survival may be necessary? The answer is an unqualified ‘yes!’ Communication intercepts about impending terrorist attacks against the United States and her allies are received daily. The question is not if future attacks will occur, but rather when and where the next attack will happen. If you don’t take precautions, you may become a victim! You’ve been wise enough to purchase this manual. Now, use it thoughtfully and deliberately to prepare each member of your family with the information they will need to survive.”
The guide then defines terrorism (“the calculated use of unlawful violence or threat of unlawful violence to inculcate fear; intended to coerce or to intimidate governments or societies in the pursuit of goals that are generally political, religious, or ideological”), and gives detailed lists of the types of potential terrorist attacks and ways to prepare for all of them. At times it actually seems like a practical informational tool — until it shifts into fear mode, and it becomes clear that government-sponsored paranoia, down to the most mundane parts of daily life, isn’t as dated as one might think.
The book goes on to essentially divide the American population into two groups: hard targets and soft targets. Hard targets, we learn, are “inaccessible, unpredictable, and aware.” Soft targets, on the other hand, are in grave danger of becoming victims of a terrorist attack. They do things like this:
“ –Arrive at work, go to lunch, or depart work at the same time every day.
–Pick up the newspaper or mail at the same time every day.
–Attend church services at the same time of day and place each week.
–Earn the reputation of always lending a helping hand, e.g., aiding victims at roadside accidents.”
Sounds dangerous. But, all things considered, I guess this is what the Bush era was all about. This is the Patriot Act; it’s the color-coded terrorist threat level alert. And while we always like to think that even the most absurd government policies never impact our lives if we remain sensible people, books like this remind us that we can’t really escape the onset of a culture of fear. With every new threat our country faces comes a new defense mechanism, and it becomes immortalized in print and image just as quickly as it enters our collective consciousness.
So although it marks a very recent public craze, and although it was written when I was 13, The U.S. Government Guide to Surviving Terrorism feels, in some ways, like an ancient artifact. Holding it in my hands and perusing its funny little diagrams and instructional pictures connects me to a very long legacy of national fear. It tells a story of the psychological tension of my generation, but in a few decades, it and things like it will be treated the same way we now treat the texts of McCarthyism, or the grainy, black-and-white videos telling kids how to survive the inevitable nuclear apocalypse. It will be laughed at.
The real problem is that I don’t know how to feel about that. While I know that I never really bought into the idea of a life dictated by terrorist prevention and disaster preparation, the young people with whom I talk about it one day — my own kids, maybe — will associate me with that world, and those fears. It’s strange but undeniably true that we don’t get to choose the defining moment, or the defining sentiments, of our youth. But I did choose to keep this book. I might like to think that I’m saving it from the trash just for the irony, but in the end there’s something inside of me that needs to own it, because it truly does belong to me.