It’s a scary little world right now. Such wars of careless words. Such panic on every breeze. If Eskimos have a hundred words for snow, we have let bloom a thousand words for fear. What bitter tests between power and the ideal, what varied options for doom. Loss of freedom versus loss of security. Osama bin Laden versus the CIA. Global warming versus economic collapse. Smallpox versus man-made strains of polio, mad cow disease versus West Nile virus. With such endless possibilities, we fear everything that moves.

The flags are out in force in my neighborhood, and I have been thinking hard about what unites us as Americans. One must think hard, just to block out the noise of George W. Bush proclaiming Congressional dissenters unpatriotic and Rush Limbaugh calling Al Gore a doofus and Dick Armey declaring liberals “just not bright people” and the Democrats just standing around too tongue-tied to call anybody anything. These days it seems to be fear and fear alone that ties us all together.

Lots of people are thinking like this, we’re told–the inevitable trail of paranoia that fills the wake of great disaster. New York Times columnist Clyde Haberman recently wrote about a couple who took a dinner cruise around Manhattan. They became unnerved by a woman seated at the next table because she was by herself and “extremely overdressed,” and “seemed to be a foreigner,” and kept checking her watch and carried a black canvas bag. The couple called the boat’s manager to report her as suspicious and to have that bag investigated. Nothing was out of order and the couple’s concerns were dismissed as overwrought, but Haberman ended his column with all the dark drama of an Edgar Allan Poe mystery: This time it was a “collection of random facts that add up to nothing. Still….”

It is the ominous “still…” that hangs over the nation like sickness, belying the bright optimism of all those fluttering flags. Haberman’s case, at least, did not end like the debacle in Florida, where a Shoney’s patron overheard three “Middle Eastern-looking” men discussing their plans to “bring it down,” so she assumed they meant civilization or at least a few buildings. The police closed off a major highway for seventeen hours and blew up their knapsacks before it was learned that the men were only talking about bringing their car down to Florida. Such great edginess eats away at our capacity to reason. A friend who’s an educator says that one of the questions they ask children on IQ tests is what they would do with a wallet if they found it on the street. The high-scoring answer is that you would find a police officer and hand it over.

But black children, especially boys, almost never say that. They’d take it to their mothers or other female relative to have them turn it over. They tend to avoid police officers, and try not to have their names or that of any man they know in any public agency’s files, especially police. But taking the wallet to your mother in the race-blind context of standardized tests is a sign of immaturity. Little boys run to their mothers. Big smart fearless boys take things directly to the men in charge. Thus “common” sense exists in complicated relation to value systems of coded fear, encrypted credibility.

As the fear that has gripped our nation metastasizes beyond the profiling that has so constrained ghetto life and spreads to women who eat alone in public places while checking their watches, I worry that we are all at risk of becoming more childlike, more intimidated, less able to deal straightforwardly with the big men in charge.

And so I worry about what goes into my trash bins. I decided to burn that little doodle of John Ashcroft as an alien of the Martian variety. Even high-functioning liberals like Christopher Hitchens might think that I think John Ashcroft is a bigger threat to the universe than Osama bin Laden, and, hey, I don’t care what the First Amendment says, that would be Wrong. I review my notes for a speech I am giving at a conference on patriotism and dissent. I comb through my words about how much I wish we could avoid war with Iraq so that they cannot be interpreted as an attempt to unduly influence US foreign policy sufficient to get me surveilled under Section 802 of the USA Patriot Act, which includes in its definition of “domestic terrorism” activities that “appear to be intended to influence the policy of a government by intimidation or coercion…” Got to be careful–just about everyone’s feeling intimidated by something these days.

I have a friend who’s a social worker who works with battered women. She observes that there’s a syndrome among some of them in which they actually provoke their abuser into hitting them. Legally, of course, it doesn’t make them less of a victim, nor the abusers less at fault. But as a psychological matter it’s interesting. However patently self-destructive, instigating a fight is an attempt to control the terms of abuse. People who have been consistently battered suffer not only the injury of the actual beating but extreme stress from not knowing when the next blow will fall. As irrational as it may seem from the outside, such provocation relieves that stress.

My friend the social worker said that she herself was feeling something like that urge in the weeks since the anniversary of September 11. Indeed, she attributed much of the American public’s enthusiasm for war to this traumatized emotionalism, this hunger for catharsis. She acknowledged feeling much the same herself–this intolerable sense that the other shoe is just about to drop. “I just want it to be over with!” she exclaimed in frustration–and loudly enough for a few heads to turn in the restaurant where we were having lunch. “Shut up or they’ll pre-emptively blow up that Prada bag of yours,” I said, alarmed, if overwrought.

Nothing happened. Everyone went on eating, perhaps recognizing that this was just a momentary lapse from civil society, the sort of thing that’s bound to happen when we suffer our lives to be underwritten by the imagined worst or the worst imaginable. Still…