Sunday, April 21, 2013

When Terrorists Come to Town

While Boston is celebrating the successful end to the hunt for the marathon terrorists, we can’t forget that four young people are dead, nearly 200 were injured or maimed, and we once again suffered a large-scale terrorist attack in an American city. The act of horrific cowardice at the Boston Marathon, ricin-laced letters addressed to federal officials, a massive manhunt, and the crazy ups and downs of the 24-hour news cycle are taking me back to a place I don’t want to go: 2001.

I remember opening the sunroof of my car as it crept across the 14th Street bridge that beautiful September morning and thinking about how incredibly blue the sky was.  I didn’t know it then but that trip in would be the last time I ever felt completely safe and carefree.  A few hours later I would drive back across the bridge with smoke filling the sky, creeping along to avoid the people fleeing the burning Pentagon.

We lived in a small house near the Pentagon and our street was a typical mix of D.C. families.  We were Navy, FBI on the corner, federal civilians next door, Air Force two doors up, Army across the street and Hill staffers next door to them.  We all checked in on each other that afternoon and shared what we knew.  That night the wind shifted and the smoke from the burning building wafted across our neighborhood. The metallic-plastic-toxic-smelling air had a weight and a smell I can still taste.

I woke up on September 12th bleary-eyed from too much TV and too many tears and drove to work late with my colleague who came home with me the day before.  We had a feeling—like many of us do now—that the “terrorists would win” if they changed one thing about how we lived, and the American way would disappear forever.  It was “United We Stand” back then.  Today, it’s “Boston Strong”.

Later that month, a tornado touched down on our little street, literally bouncing across the backyard, over our house, tearing down trees and cutting a swath across three streets before coming down in College Park, Maryland and killing two sisters.  It was such a freak occurrence after such a mass tragedy that I shook my head in disbelief, thinking “what next?”  Then a few weeks later, on a day I had been up on the Hill meeting with a U.S. Senator, we learned that there was anthrax found in a Senate office.  Terrorism of a new variety had come to visit.   
The weeks and months that followed are a blur.  D.C. changed overnight from a serious city with a fun side to a grim city with a sad side.  Every dinner out, every public event felt like forced fun. We had a moral obligation to fight terrorism by going out and living “normally” as we made our emergency plans and waited for the next shoe to drop.  I had friends who had their mail delivered to a bucket outside their door and others who made plans to move away. 

My husband and I had our first child and while we were absorbed in the joys of parenthood, we now had someone so precious to protect that at times it seemed overwhelming.  We “knew” something would happen, sometime, somewhere.  The new “normal” was not normal since there was always a color-coded alert to worry about or “chatter” to put us on edge.  My husband was expecting to get deployed—but didn’t—and we were mindful of his friends and colleagues heading to Iraq and Afghanistan to try and fight the “enemy” on their own territory.

The arrival of the D.C. sniper in October of 2002 seemed like the final straw.  A month of gorgeous fall days marred by the certainty of the next attack.  I learned the ins and outs of online shopping and decided that staying home and “letting the terrorists win” was okay as long as I didn’t die in the parking lot of the local Home Depot. The phrase “sheltering in place” became part of our vernacular.

As the years passed, terrorism continued to shape our lives. I started my second maternity leave a week early because my company was housed in an IMF building that was always on alert.  Chatter surfaced indicating that an attack was imminent, so it was decided that I should stay home rather than worry about becoming the enormous pregnant woman who blocks the stairwell during a mass evacuation.  By the time we moved to Rhode Island on Thanksgiving Day 2005, I was done living under the constant threat of an attack and glad to move back to a place where terrorism was unlikely to show its hideous face. 

Until Monday, New England felt like a safe harbor.  Traffic, lack of parking, a long line for a cannoli at Mike’s or a high fastball left up in the zone were the only legitimate causes of stress on a jaunt to Boston.  Those days are over, our security has been violated and a new generation of Americans will understand what it’s like to be terrorized.

As the “we got ‘em” celebrations come to a close, I wish I had something smart or particularly helpful to say about coping when terrorism comes to town and violates our sense of security.  The sad truth is that the terrorists—foreign and domestic—will always walk among us and try to take away things that are precious: the lives of other Americans, our freedoms, our trust in another.  But they will never win as long as our resolve to stop them is strong and our love for one another is true.  In a country full of first responders and heroes who run towards a disaster, they can’t win and we can’t lose.


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