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TWA CRASH

Heading Into Darkness Once Again

July 21, 1996|Richard Rodriguez | Richard Rodriguez, an editor at Pacific News Service, is author of "Days of Obligation" (Viking-Penguin.)

SAN FRANCISCO — The stranger sitting on the airplane to Paris may be a terrorist. Or that woman in Tel Aviv who got off the bus, just as you boarded, she looks suspicious.

Whatever else the explosion of TWA Flight 800 will teach us, this much is certain: The terrorist roams freely through the American imagination now. Immediately after the disaster, President Bill Clinton urged the nation toward caution: "Do not jump to conclusions." But that is precisely what we did.

After the explosion in Oklahoma City, witnesses reported seeing "Arabic-looking men in jogging suits running from the scene." This time, within hours of the TWA catastrophe, a "terrorism expert" on CBS supposed that the culprits were either Islamic militants or crew-cut freemen.

At the mall and in offices, speculation from the beginning was that it was a bomb. (This is what a friend first said to me, when he told me the news: "A bomb has exploded on a jetliner headed to Paris.") Then someone said that someone else had heard it was a missile. TV stations reported the news--there had been a blip on a radar screen.

The rapidity with which the imagination inclined to such scenarios was striking. The assumption implied a child-like faith in the machine. It was as though we could not believe that a Boeing 747 could fall out of the sky for mechanical reasons. The explosion of an engine or a ruptured fuel line seemed a more remote possibility than a heat-seeking missile.

If we trusted the machine, there was also menacing suspicion that the machine was explosive and bombs were the size of lipstick.

And everyone had stories to tell about the machine that failed. One woman said she had inadvertently carried a stun gun in her purse onto a plane--did not discover it until she reached Amsterdam and then realized the X-ray machine at the airport hadn't detected it. Another man said that his girlfriend has a necklace with a bullet as its centerpiece. "She gets on airplanes all the time--no problem."

It was easier to talk about incompetent security personnel (underpaid, inattentive) than to doubt the X-ray machine. After all, hadn't the machine also detected a "blip" colliding with Flight 800?

In the Joseph Conrad novel "The Secret Agent," terrorists are an odd group of sociopaths who work out of basements. After Arnold Schwarzenegger, we imagine terrorists in suits, in skyscrapers, a worldwide network.

After the bloodshed and the broken bodies, the most hideous aspect of the terrorist act is its anonymity. The terrorist does not know the victim. The victim does not know the terrorist. If the terrorist is ever seen, it is usually behind disguises (false beards, jaunty hats) or hidden by ski masks.

Terrorism is random. It is an attack on "women and children"--by which we mean civilians going about their routine lives.

Terror is, by definition, "overwhelming fear." Living in London some years ago, during a vicious season of IRA bombings, I was impressed by the British determination to carry on. The only defense against terrorism is the assumption of normalcy.

The terrorist tries to break down civic life. In Sarajevo, the terrorist succeeded. The terrorist makes it necessary that inconvenience attaches to every act of the day. One must stand in line to go to a museum or a church, be body-searched when going into a store. That way one is never able to forget the terrorist's grievance.

The terrorist's ultimate target is the imagination; it is there, in our mind, that terror lives or dies.

In the old order, the pre-Newtonian universe, humans imagined the regular movement of the sun and the planets to be regulated by God. After Issac Newton, the movement of the universe was assumed by many to follow a purely natural progress. God became the wild card, the unpredictable intruder into history. To this day, insurance companies refer to "an act of God" meaning the unexpected.

Now the terrorist plays the wild card. He governs the realm of the unexpected. We assume the Pratt & Whitney engines whirl as smoothly as Newton's planets; the terrorist is the unnatural intruder.

In the ancient past and the not-so-distant past, travel was a dangerous experience. Any voyage out implied dangers. Every age but ours has known that the journey is a risk. We alone assumed our destination.

Now the journey is not so certain anymore. We become like ancient people about to head into darkness.

This is what the terrible events of the week teach us. Before any official was willing to say the word "terrorism," before the FBI was willing to admit the TWA explosion deserved a criminal investigation, before any clandestine terrorist group claimed dubious "credit" for the tragedy, we assumed the bomb.

In that sense, terrorism is now part of our everyday life. The terrorist has won.*

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