Busytown by Jolisa Gracewood

Anatomy of fear

For a while there last week, it felt like we were all living in Baghdad. I'm pretty good at living day by day, more or less oblivious to the fact that New York City has been on "orange alert" for the last year and a half. But the latest warning got me rattled. Someone posted to a mailing list I'm on with helpful info on how to prepare a disaster response plan. At that point, my disaster response plan consisted of running round the apartment saying "holy shit" repeatedly while shutting all the windows and counting the disposable nappies and cans of beans. I actually went out and bought bottled water and spare batteries. The duct tape was sold out, although it turns out that mightn't be such a good idea anyway – I heard someone say on the radio this morning that duct-taping yourself into a room is a pretty good way to die of suffocation... eventually.

I've been here before, in a way. A sharp early spring morning in Tokyo; I'd farewelled my partner and settled down to write for the morning. On the radio (the English-language U.S. Armed Forces radio station: "Serving You, While You Serve In the Pacific"), there was a sudden burst of the bleep that usually heralded warnings about impending typhoons ("secure your porch furniture and stay indoors"). But it wasn’t typhoon season. I listened carefully but couldn't quite follow what was being said, even though it was all in English. Something about the subway, something about terrorists, something about being advised to stay at home, but I was already halfway to the door, tugging my shoes on, to call my partner back. The next couple of months (until the police finally busted the nutty sect that was behind it all) were not great for nerves already shredded by the huge earthquake in Kobe.

So, remembering what it once felt like to choose a subway car based on a quick scan of the people inside and the packages at their feet, I've not been using the subway much recently. I confessed my jitters to a very level-headed friend, who confessed in reply that she had scoffed at her husband when he ordered potassium iodide tablets online, but is now kinda grateful to know they're in the bathroom cabinet. Hmmm. The scientist in the family reckons that the tablets would be useless for anything other than a nuclear explosion in the not-too-immediate vicinity (apparently they don't work for the fallout from "dirty bombs"). Oh well, that's all right then!

So I'm having 80s flashbacks, and they don't involve fishnet stockings, Haircut 100, or hot-pink blusher. Remember the TV series Threads, a British counterpart to the American nuclear holocaust film The Day After? If you saw it, you won't have forgotten. There's a famous scene where a woman looks up from a busy city street to see a mushroom cloud forming in the sky; the camera pans down to the puddle forming at her feet on the footpath. Striding south down Broadway last week, looking down the familiar canyon it forms all the way down the island, I wondered if I'd have similar occasion to wet myself in fear one day soon.

Or not. The thing is that images are contagious, and so is fear. Combine the two and even if you've never witnessed destruction first-hand, you've got a mild to severe case of what we might call virtual shellshock. Wilfrid Owen, or was it Siegfried Sassoon (one of the Great War poets, anyway, and probably most of their fellow combatants too) was haunted by visions of injured and dead friends as he walked the streets of London on sick leave. Some days -- especially slightly cold, perfectly still, blue-sky days -- this city is shadowed by stunned and dust-covered survivors walking away from the wreckage. Even those of us who didn't witness it first hand see their faces.

There's a different haunting happening this week though, courtesy of the Baghdad Snapshot Action. It's a brilliantly simple idea. A New York artist fresh back from Baghdad, has posted on the internet some of the many photos he took while there. A mother and child. An old man (grandpa?) and two cute kids. Two tough little boys posing in nifty jerseys. Everyone's smiling. The pics are free to download, and the idea is that you print them out and display them anywhere you feel like.

It's working. All over New York – and, I hope, other cities too – ordinary Iraqis smile out from bus shelters and telephone poles and newspaper vending boxes. The faces are in some ways an uncanny echo of the smiling faces on the heart-breaking "missing" posters that gazed out at us from walls and bus shelters all over the city in the days and weeks after September 11. It's a beautifully literal way of putting a face on the "enemy," something I think the Bush administration doesn't want people to do...

You know, if I had my way (speaking as a scholar and sometime teacher of language & literature here), it would be illegal for a person to declare war on a country whose language they don't speak and whose major literary works they haven't read. Like maybe George and Colin and Condi can get back to me after they've spent four full-time years at the Navy Language School mastering just enough Arabic to get by in daily situations, and then we'll talk about this war thing. Hey, it's not a perfect proposal by any means (Pol Pot studied French Literature at the Sorbonne, and let's not even get started on the Austrian artist), but it's a thought.

Anyway, I think I'm going to print out a few of the pictures and put them up in my neighbourhood, especially since I didn't make it to the march on Saturday (I wimped out at the thought of subjecting a small, slightly under-the-weather child to sub-zero temperatures and large crowds, although several friends successfully took their wee ones along). I'll be watching out for plain clothes cops, though, like the ones who arrested a pregnant artist and her friend for putting up the same pictures in Soho the night before the march. Yeah, yeah, it's technically illegal to post flyers on bus shelters and telephone poles in this city – quality of life, zero tolerance and all that. But you don't get a stint in the cells for sticking up a "Futon for Sale, Best Offer" poster, so how come the city is jailing people for asking "What Price War?"