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Fear goes sky-high

Many seem relieved that the plane crash of 12 November looks like an accident, not a terrorist attack. Either way, it's a disaster for America's national psyche.

Jennie Bristow

Topics Politics

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‘Oh my God, not again.’ Two UK tabloid newspapers splashed this headline across their front pages, claiming that this was the phrase on every American’s lips as the American Airlines Airbus crashed into the New York suburb of Queens, two months and one day after the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center and Pentagon.

It soon transpired that this was unlikely to be a terrorist attack happening again, but rather a tragic accident, and a grotesque coincidence. As evidence mounted of a mechanical failure, you could almost hear the collective sighs of relief. In an article headlined ‘Fliers take solace in absence of apparent ties to terrorism’, the New York Times quoted Sharon Romano, who was buying tickets for a Caribbean cruise at Logan International Airport in Boston. ‘Accidents happen’, she said. ‘But you don’t want another terrorist attack again.’ (1)

Given the nature of the attacks of 11 September, and the subsequent measures taken by the US government to prevent similar attacks, it is understandable that many Americans would prefer that something – anything – other than terrorism caused the tragedy of 12 November. But in terms of the impact on the national psyche, it doesn’t really make much difference whether the crash was caused by bin Laden or by problems with the plane itself. The fear-ball that has been sweeping through the USA since 11 September will gather momentum whatever its most recent provocation – and slowing it down will be no easy task.

The death toll of 11 September was huge; and at 266 and rising, the bodycount of 12 November is horrendous too. But the impact of both events has gone far beyond the initial grief provoked by the deaths. Within days of 11 September, the terrorist attacks came to symbolise the end of what some have described as American innocence – the intrusion of terror right into the heart of US society. The subsequent anthrax attacks deepened the suspicion that anybody, anywhere, could perpetrate such terror, and the sense of vulnerability springing from the sense that anybody, anywhere – from journalists to postal workers, from Florida to Washington – could be a target.

Coming on top of all of this, the crash in Queens will soon come to symbolise the extent to which the safe, smooth running of everyday life can no longer be taken for granted. This accident, burned into the American mind, gives focus to an existing fear that danger lurks around every corner, and that the most routine aspects of life should be treated with apprehension and caution.

Writing in the UK Daily Mail, Anthony Holden reports from New York that the city post-11 September ‘resembled a giant, collective patient on one of its thousands of psychiatrists’ couches’ (2). He contrasts the New York of Before, in which ‘the city’s residents believed themselves invulnerable’ and exhibited ‘a swagger, a taste for fun and enjoying the best life had to offer’, with New York After, where it was ‘as if every New Yorker had been personally attacked, personally wounded, personally bereaved’. No doubt Holden exaggerates the vibrant confidence of New York Before (why were there already thousands of psychiatrists’ couches?). But it is difficult to exaggerate the impact of 11 September in cohering the culture of fear.

It’s not just in New York, of course. After 11 September, governments across Europe debated and introduced anti-terrorism measures, and anthrax had the whole world jumping. When UK newspaper headlines say ‘We’re all New Yorkers now’ they do not mean that we feel their pain so much as that we share their fear. And it is not the specific events of 11 September and 12 November that society is reacting to, so much as a wider sense that everything is out of control, that everything is falling apart. As Henry Porter puts it in the UK Guardian: ‘Accident or terrorist attack, the catastrophic crash of the American Airlines flight…will leave New Yorkers feeling vulnerable and persecuted’ (3).

This general sense of anxiety and vulnerability means that, in the public mind, connections are drawn between things that are connected only by coincidence – or even, not connected at all. From a coldly logical point of view, there is no reason why the number of people on international flights should have plummeted after terrorists hijacked domestic US flights on 11 September. Rather, this represented a general fear of terrorism expressed through a superstition about aeroplanes. In a similar way, following the discovery of anthrax spores in US mail, everything from talcum powder to icing sugar to sand became the focus for an international panic. This reflects a set of more disparate fears about science, health, pollution and chemical warfare, expressed through a superstition about white powder. In a climate where we fear the worst, we become suspicious of everything. Life goes on – but not as normal.

That the 12 November plane crash was the result of an accident will not make people feel any better about flying than had it been a consequence of terrorism. It will just give another apparent reason to worry about taking to the skies. As Kevin C Mitchell, president of the US Business Travel Coalition, which represents corporations and business travellers, told the New York Times: ‘People will correctly or incorrectly associate it with 11 September.’ (4) They will make that association, not because of any direct link between the two events, but because both events feed into the prevailing mood.

An eyewitness told CNN that, when she saw the plane crash, she thought it was Concorde – because since the Concorde crash near Paris in 2000, we view this supersonic fleet not as a luxury, so much as the kind of planes that crash. Since the spate of train crashes in the UK, from Paddington to Hatfield to Selby, some still feel jittery when boarding a train. Some companies are seeking to move their offices out of the previously sought-after location of the Empire State Building; others are considering moving our of New York altogether, to places like New Jersey. Will working in tall buildings, opening the mail or travelling anywhere abroad ever be taken for granted in the same way that it was? Unlikely – when 11 September and its aftermath has effectively put everyday life into a constant state of high alert.

We all know, deep down, that this culture of fear and precaution can never eliminate risk. But it does put a significant pall on our ability to appreciate and enjoy life. That is the biggest tragedy of all.

Read on:

Plane facts, by Fran O’Leary

Fear under the flag, by Helen Searls

spiked-issue: After 11 September

(1) New York Times, 13 November 2001

(2) Daily Mail, 13 November 2001

(3) Guardian, 13 November 2001

(4) New York Times, 13 November 2001

To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.

Topics Politics

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