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On getting back to normal after the attack

Posted on: July 29th, 2012

Potpourri: On getting back to normal after the attack9/11

At the end of the Vietnam War, American Prisoners returned to the U.S. mostly en masse. Many, like then Navy pilot John McCain, had languished for years in captivity. Most of us in the states did not really know what the captors had done to the POW’s. There were hints of mistreatment, but no outright accusations by our government. Officials feared revelations would create reprisals that would only worsen conditions for those still confined. Therefore, when the POW’s flew home to an uproarious welcome, we Americans were naive about what these thin, limping, grinning servicemen stepping off homecoming planes had just endured. We were about to find out.

Within days of their arrival, around the country, the POW’s simultaneously sat down in small groups with the news media near their homes, and began pouring out the awful truth of their imprisonment. As a young reporter, I attended one of those startling news conferences at Elon College.

Three of the POW’s, including (later U.S. Senator) Jeremiah Denton, whose son was student president of Elon, calmly described torture. They matter-of-factly described, killings, beatings, and assorted horrors leveled upon them. As Denton and the others revealed their experiences, I – who was supposed to take notes, ask questions and write a story – seemed frozen by the enormity of what these men a few feet from me were disclosing. For the first and only time in my life, I could not emotionally distance myself from their trials, could not concentrate, and could not muster sufficient energy to shout out questions. Veteran journalists had no such problem and asked plenty as they gathered the details. I just stood there.

Thankfully, my unprecedented shutdown was brief. A much-older colleague snapped at me, “Damn it, Amme, ask questions and do your job!” That did it. From that moment forward, I was fine – humiliated – but fine. I got my story.

I have never forgotten that feeling of paralysis. And it has always puzzled me. Why had it never happened before? After all, I was a military veteran who had experienced some disturbing events. And why has it never occurred again? I don’t know, but because it did happen I will always be sympathetic to those who are muted by fear, and more forgiving of my own.

I relate this quarter-century old story now because most of us have been feeling a bit of paralysis from fear in our gut following the September 11 terrorist attack. While we daily move more toward normal behavior, it has been a slow recovery that has put a serious dent into our economy, and especially air travel.

Within one week of the attack, I had to take a long business trip that required flying on six different aircraft over several days. Like you, I had seen, over and over, the hijacked planes exploding into the towers. There now seems to be a chip in my brain replaying the crashes. Boarding an airliner seemed unwise. Yet I did it anyway, partly for business, and partly to “get back on the horse.” I am glad I did. It was liberating to be airborne again, to fly over the green of mid-America, and to see this country as much more than single cities, tall buildings, and tragedy. I actually liked talking to edgy strangers and airline flight crews whose enthusiasm seemed a bit forced. Can you blame them? I didn’t mind the security checks either, even though my shoes didn’t make it past the detectors because of metal pieces in their soles. It was empowering to walk through airports, buy café lattes, write articles on my laptop at gates, and see people rushing about, even families with children. I understood what so many have been encouraging since the attack – that the best psychological and economic defense is to resume normal activities. When I returned home, much of that gloomy cloud that had clung since that awful eleventh had lifted. Simply doing business as usual had helped.

FDR’s quote about fear being the only thing to fear has taken on new significance, hasn’t it? It can paralyze. It stopped me once in Elon College and threatened recently, but I am determined that it won’t happen again.

What about you?

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