One of the flight paths from Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport goes over my neighborhood. Several times this year, as I’ve watched the jetliners stream north-northeast across the Minnesota sky, I’ve wondered where they are headed. Several times this year, I have been on one of those jets, heading to Amsterdam, to Phoenix, to Washington, to Reykjavik (but not, unfortunately, to Rīga).
Perhaps no more than this year, the jet and its vapor trail have for me symbolized the freedom of travel, the opportunity to experience something new, something wonderful.
But no more. Since the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks in New York and Washington, the sound of the jetliners over my neighborhood—now that they’ve been allowed to take to the skies again—makes me nervous. I’ve caught myself thinking: "Please, don’t let it happen again."
And that’s just one of my fears.
The morning the hijacked planes slammed into the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, I was on my daily commute to the university where I teach journalism. Shortly after a radio news report announced that the Federal Aviation Administration had grounded all commercial air traffic, I peeked out my car window and watched as a jetliner made a graceful U-turn back to the Twin Cities airport. As more details emerged of what had happened, my initial reaction was clinical, journalistic. By the time I arrived in the parking lot outside my office, I had amassed several pages of hastily scrawled notes. The events of that morning were all we talked about that day in class.
It was only the following evening, channel-surfing through various television news shows, that a rare emotion came over me: Fear. Here in Middle America, there’s not much to fear. But as I watched stories of victims and their families, of confusion about who was being arrested and why, of the growing rhetoric of war, I was afraid. The last time I had this feeling was years ago when my young daughter convinced me to accompany her and a friend on "The Wave," a ride at an amusement park near the Twin Cities. I wasn’t afraid as the craft into which we were strapped slowly rose up an incline, turned and rose again. But as the craft was tipped over the apex, to be sent speeding downward and splashing into a manmade pond, I felt for a brief moment that I had absolutely no control over my destiny.
That’s the fear that came over me as I watched the TV news.
I fear that America—and many of the other nations that have offered political support—is girding its citizens for a war that may well be unlike anything many of us have only seen in the movies or read about in history books. I fear that talk of a coming "clash of civilizations" is just another way of saying "race war"—and that there are those who would use that talk as an excuse to harm their fellow citizens. I fear that, even while we focus on bringing those responsible for the attacks to justice, we will let one more opportunity slip through our fingers to address the injustices of which all nations are guilty. And I fear that I can’t do anything about it.
The morning after the attacks in New York and Washington, I received an e-mail from a relative in Rīga who was concerned about our family’s whereabouts and well-being. When she heard about what had happened in the United States, she wrote, her first impulse was to think that we should join them in Latvia.
Tempting though it is, I fear that’s too easy an answer. Better yet, I’ll spit three times and get back to work. There’s plenty to do.
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