Homeland Insecurity: Seeking Refuge from Ourselves

As a kid in the 1970s, I was shaped by current events like everyone else. A news junkie even then, I was glued to the TV:  Walter Cronkite, political conventions, Watergate trials, absorbed the details of the Viet Nam war, the Soviet menace, the Cultural Revolution, and the decline of America’s cities. Even though so much in the news was discouraging I was optimistic. I still was fascinated by government, I still wanted to travel the world (Nixon went to China – yes!), and I still wanted to live in New York City, bankrupt or not.

The only fear that took root in my heart was sown by Charles Manson and a murder case in which a local family was murdered in their beds on Halloween night. Random, hate-filled crime kept me up at night, paralyzed with fear. In an Iowa town where doors were always unlocked and keys left in the car, I drove my family crazy by locking all of the doors before I went to bed at night (as the youngest it can be assumed I regularly locked out most of my many siblings). I slept fully dressed sometimes, down to my sneakers.

My Mom hated herself for leaving the copy of Helter Skelter out on the coffee table that, with its graphic crime-scene photos in the center, triggered my not-so-latent anxiety disorder. She did everything she could to help me gain perspective, and, over time, the words of the Memorare  and Franklin Roosevelt’s  “we have nothing to fear but fear itself” lodged themselves permanently in my psyche. I recite them both regularly even now. Especially now.

DSC01780 - Version 2If the internet had existed then my head very well may have exploded.

And so what are we to do today, when the worst of humanity is on display 24/7? Plenty of people are writing about that. Understanding that electronic media is here to stay, I’ve tried to engage my kids about all that is happening so I can get a read on how they are managing the flow of information. It’s all a work in progress – I claim neither victory or defeat in the parenting wars. My kids seem to have a grip on what makes the current situation scary, but they are as confused as I am by how people who should know better are talking about it.

As an eleven-year-old it was understandable that, at one point, I feared the entire state of California because Manson was there. But my wise mother insisted on taking me there, plying me with Agatha Christie books for the plane ride so that I could see that most crimes were not random and that the perpetrators were caught and brought to justice – just as Manson and the local murderer were. It took a couple of years, but by age 14 I came to understand that I could safely exist in the world and that living with uncertainty was fine as long as it did not rule me. I grew up to attend a big city high school, leave home for college, live on my own and hold a job that required I answer security calls in the middle of the night in downtown Boston.

Why is it then, that my 14-year-old self seems so much more rational than so many people in positions of authority today? I came to understand that Manson’s insanity was not a reflection on the people of California, that most murderers have a coherent motive for their crimes, and that the political world is a complicated place in which what you hear on the news is, at best, only partially true. I even learned that people who run for President pretend to know things they don’t, and that being President bears little resemblance to running for President.

We have all watched events overtake every President when he entered office and seen them fundamentally change him – events that could not  have been predicted on the campaign trail. Nixon? Watergate. Ford? Being President and having to pardon his predecessor. Carter? Iranian hostage crisis. Reagan? Assassination attempt. Bush? Saddam Hussein. Clinton? Newt Gingrich and hubris (well, everyone should have predicted that). Bush? 9/11. Obama? Financial crisis and, well, this. Every modern President has had to face unrest in the Middle East, but none of them could accurately predict how they would handle it until they were sworn in.

Most Americans don’t have to dig too far back into their family history to find someone running from something. Religious persecution, potato famine, Nazis, war, poverty. People came here for freedom and shelter, and I don’t think all of them turned out to be model citizens; for every Dzhokhar Tsarnaev you can find a Sacco and Vanzetti. Every family tree has a bad apple if you look back a generation or two.

So why do we think that barring refugees from Syria – the few we have agreed to accept – is either justifiable or practical?  Plenty of Americans commit acts of terrorism against each other; how might we reduce the odds of that happening? Let’s see. Louisiana, Mississippi and South Carolina all have has a murder rates more than double the one here – can we stop the clearly untrustworthy southerners at the border of of my northern state? How is that less ridiculous than maligning an entire country or religion? What is the difference between opening fire on a theater in Paris and opening fire on a movie theater in Colorado? Mister Trump, we are our own Trojan Horse.

Hate has no home state – or country.

It’s not like the current refugee programs aren’t vetting the refugees from war torn countries who currently enter the US. The idea that up until now refugees from middle eastern nations have been flowing over the borders unfettered is preposterous. Even the translators who aid and protect US soldiers and journalists have a tough time getting the asylum they were promised. The current vetting process is long and security checks are required; it can take as long as two years (and once Congress is finished, will likely take longer). As reported today, of the 1800 Syrians who have been granted refugee status in the last two years, half of them are children and one quarter of them are elderly; only 2% are single men.

The governors and congresspeople say they want to stop the already glacial flow of refugees so they can look to see if our laws and procedures are sufficient to protect Americans to threats from abroad. But most of them are not the least bit interested in protecting us from the threats from our fellow countrymen. Regardless of heritage (or religion), there are more American citizens murdering other Americans now in the space of a year than terrorists have, ever. We all know there are few barriers to anyone who wants to procure an assault weapon in the US. I’m all for a review of the laws and procedures that affect our national interests and personal safety –  as long as gun safety is on the agenda.

I hope we can learn from history and look at the facts about what and whom we really have to worry about. Meanwhile, I’m saying a  prayer for the world.

Remember, O most gracious Virgin Mary,
that never was it known that anyone who fled to your protection,
implored your help or sought your intercession,
was left unaided.

Inspired with this confidence,
I fly to you, O Virgin of virgins, my Mother;
to you do I come, before you I stand, sinful and sorrowful.

O Mother of the Word Incarnate,
despise not my petitions,
but in your mercy hear and answer me.


The Age of Anxiety: Is This the Legacy of September 11?

Over the summer I asked an education professional if she had any insight into the increased diagnosis of severe anxiety disorders in teens. We aren’t talking about teenage angst – these are kids who can’t bring themselves to leave the house or enter a classroom. Her answer surprised me: “It’s the 9/11 generation.” I hadn’t thought of it that way before, and I don’t think I agree completely, but it’s an interesting theory.

One thing is for certain: the 24 hour news cycle and the widespread use of video and cell phone data made the sights and sounds of September 11, 2001, some of the most recorded and repeated events in history. I have to wonder if constant exposure to those images, along with all of the other disturbing and readily available content on the internet and cable TV, has created worrisome static in the minds of vulnerable children. Whether it creates the worry or amplifies it is up for discussion.

For my part, I have had bouts of worry since day one. If you took my life apart piece by piece you may or may not find events that fuel my worry, but I am convinced that the original spark was organic, part of my DNA. I was very young when I told my baffled mother I was afraid of both the dark and eternity as I played tea party on the floor near her desk. But I can remember the day my worry went from ember to bonfire with a single act when, aged 11, I picked up a copy of Helter Skelter from the coffee table in our living room, and read only the captions below the photographs embedded in the center of the book. They described in vivid detail the grisly crimes of Charles Manson and his cohorts against people in their own homes (none of the links here lead to those photos). What sent me into a tailspin was the randomness with which the houses and victims were chosen – the ultimate case of being in the wrong place at the wrong time. I stopped sleeping and started locking all of the doors in our big house in a small city. I stayed up until all hours watching the late show, hoping to fall asleep, only to be awakened by the test pattern or the national anthem. Lucky for me the late show in those days consisted of movies like The Old Man and the Sea and Jerry Lewis and Peter Sellers comedies. It took years for me to go back to reading books in bed, and when I did I took to reading the same books over and over – Gone With the Wind, The Long Winter, The Little Silver House, A Little Princess, The Lion, The Witch, and the Wardrobe. New books were only for daylight hours, and more often than not they were Hollywood biographies – glamorous and gossipy, the ending already known.

I’m willing to bet that the images broadcast eleven years ago today have stayed with some children more than others – why should they be any different than those of us who cannot forget that day and look warily at a too blue September sky? It isn’t as easy for us to protect them as it was for my mother to get rid of that book and replace it with more appropriate reading – she settled on Agatha Christie for some reason, probably because the mysteries were all solved neatly at the end. She was none too thrilled with my own choice of Judy Garland, Clark Gable and Marilyn Monroe books but those tales were less lurid than they are now, and in comparison to the Mansons they were almost wholesome.

My organic worry is still with me and I see it glowing beneath the surface in my children, but we have plenty of tools to help address it. Diet, exercise, prayer and sometimes medication and therapy all play a part, as well as a constant effort to beat back the media beast. I am grateful to J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter for providing such sublime distraction via books and movies at this key period in history; it is an especially remarkable gift to the generation of children coming of age now. The TV and the internet allow us to revisit and access disturbing content but they also allow us to curate (and password protect) what we and our children see – I love that my middle schooler can fill up on recorded episodes of Good Eats, Dr. Who and Top Gear when he’s done with his homework (I don’t care to discuss Family Guy, thank you).

Real life, of course, presents fearsome challenges of its own that have nothing to do with media. For thousands of people it is the stark reality of the lives of loved ones lost senselessly and horribly (or in brave service as first responders) on September 11, 2001, and not just the images of it, that have altered their lives. We would all like to turn back the clock and not have known it, not have seen it, and protected our children from it. But just as the generations before us endured the tragedies of their times, we can hope that our sorrow and the worry it can engender allows us to learn in ways that bind us together – if we can just tear our eyes away from the screen.

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