This week’s terror hit home for me.
And what to do? That is always the question.
Do you stop going to sporting events? Cultural events? Outdoor rallies?
I was raped around the corner from where the bombs hit. I did not stop going out, didn’t quit my job working nights as a bartender. (I was raped during the day, anyway.) I was determined not to let the crazies run my life. I was younger then.
An even harder question: What do we want the government to do?
How much of our liberty and privacy are we willing to give up in the hopes that it might stop terror?
My answer to that now is also different from what it would have been in the days when I lived around the corner from the bombings. Maybe it’s because I’m older. Maybe it’s because I’m a mother. Or maybe, probably mostly, it’s because of the horrors we have seen. The two planes that crashed into the World Trade Center on 9/11 took off that morning from Boston (my old home) en route to Los Angeles (my current home). Until my children were born, I commuted on those flights from Boston to LA.
So this is my answer: I’d give up a lot. You want to put cameras on every corner? Fine with me. I don’t care who pats me down at the airport. Pat away. Keep the confidences of my clients, but otherwise, my email is an open book. Mine my data; listen to my conversations. If it will keep my children safe, I don’t care.
But of course, that’s not the question, either. I’m a middle-aged, well-dressed (mostly), respectable-looking white woman. No one is really interested in me, terrorism-wise.
So when I ask myself or my students how much liberty we’re willing to give up, I’m not really asking about us. I’m asking about “others” — and we all know which others I mean. As I write this, Monday night, I would not want to be a Muslim going through security at Logan Airport. Just for instance. And I don’t blame the TSA if they pay more careful attention. I just want the planes to take off and land.
I ask my students: If there are two security lines at the airport, and one has three white businessmen about to whisk off their jackets, and the other has three Muslim men, which line do you join? I know what I would do. Is that racist? Are we?
As I write this, we don’t know who planted the bombs that tore off limbs, took innocent lives, disrupted a race that celebrates “Patriots Day” every year, a race where this year the 26th mile was dedicated to the 26 who died in Newtown. But the media are reporting that a Saudi student was being questioned after the bombings because of his proximity, the nature of his injuries and, yes, his nationality. Racist?
How do you avoid being a racist when you’re afraid?
How do you avoid offering up your privacy and liberty — or, more likely, someone else’s — when you are terrified of terror? How do you maintain a free society when you see limbs flying?
It’s true these events are rare. It’s true that, compared to other countries, we are indeed remarkably free and safe. And perhaps we also are spoiled to believe that in this day and age we can have it all: freedom and safety, privacy and security, not to mention equality.
When I was a kid, we worried about the Russians. We practiced going to the basement of the school in case of a nuclear attack. How odd to see those as less terrifying days — and to long for them.
I hope the Saudi man had nothing to do with it. I hope the culprits, when they are found, will not add to our collective terror of “others.” I hope this will not be a case that makes us even more afraid of those who are different from us, even though 99.9 percent of them mean us no harm. I hope.
Susan Estrich is a law professor in California.