Fireworks and fear

I rushed home from the Fourth of July festivities at my friend's house to be with my best friends before the real fireworks began. As it turned out, my kids had done the same thing. We all know that Molly and Judy Estrich are terrified of fireworks. The Fourth of July is their least favorite night of the year.

On the radio, while driving home, the ASPCA was issuing the warnings that motivated my rush: that dogs, because of their hearing, are particularly sensitive to fireworks, that if they are outside and unrestrained, they will run until the fireworks stop and then not know where they are. It's a big night for lost dogs and pound pickups. So we made sure Molly and Judy were safely inside, cuddled in our arms, watching an old movie, while the human revelers barked outside. When it was over, they each got a treat and went to sleep.

If only the fireworks that terrify us were so easy to survive.

London and Scotland may be thousands of miles away, but the terror that raised alarms there in recent days feels much closer than that. And unlike the fireworks, it's not over by midnight. You can tell little children that everything is going to be all right, but it's hard to tell that to teenagers who have grown up in the shadow of Sept. 11, much less to believe it yourself.

Sometimes I regale my kids with tales of how, when I was growing up, we used to rush to the "bomb cellars" &

aka the school basement &

for protection from a nuclear attack, as if going one story below ground would insulate us from weapons of mass destruction. We all laugh, both because of the ridiculousness of our faith in the protective power of flooring, and because it almost seems quaint to think of a time when all we had to fear was the Soviets.

That's not to say that the danger was made up. I wasn't old enough to really remember Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev banging his shoe on the table and promising to bury us, but I must have seen it replayed enough times to believe I did.

I certainly remember the Cuban missile crisis, the sense that danger and potential destruction were near, but I also remember the sense of relief when, seven days later, it was over.

Today the fear is never "over." It's just there. And there's no one to negotiate with. The enemy in those days had a name and a place and a government attached to it, and that made it possible to believe that the danger could be isolated and the problem ultimately solved. Today's terrorist could be the doctor who has pledged to cure you, and who might, when he's not trying to kill you.

When I first moved to California, and even more so when I lived through my first earthquake, I couldn't understand how people could stand it. I thought about earthquakes all the time &

when I left my children home alone, when I got stuck in traffic in an old underpass, when I was in one of those malls where the parking lot is on top and there's always a dull rumble overhead. But at least there were things you could do, like bolting your house to the foundation, storing canned goods and learning where the gas shut-off was located, not to mention keeping running shoes in the car so you could run home from wherever you were. Those things made me feel safer, even if it was partly illusory. Eventually, I sunk into the state of denial that most of my fellow Californians consider normal. I just stopped thinking of the faults below us.

But it's hard to stop thinking of the terrorists in our midst when they pack cars with nails and drive into airports wearing explosive vests. And besides, it's dangerous to do so. Be vigilant, we are told, and it's good advice. A vigilant public is our best protection against foreign objects, smoking cars, crazies in our midst. But there is a fine line between vigilance and fear, between living with terror and living in terror.

At the very moment when the world seems to be shrinking, when our children are growing up with the desire to go everywhere, see everything, explore places we've never been, I want to do nothing so much as keep them inside, with Molly and Judy, safe and sound from the fireworks that never stop.

To find out more about Susan Estrich and read features by other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate Web site at .

Share This Story