Susan wrote today: "Fear and risk and grief are now part of the rest of my life." I think in a way what's changed this past week for many Americans is not so much our levels of safety as our awareness of our levels of safety. We were always at risk; any one of us, even those of us who are sheltered suburbanites, could have been in an airplane accident, could have developed a fatal illness, could have been hit by a car while crossing the street. Death and pain aren't fair; they often come when least expected.
But we (or perhaps I should say I; I know this isn't true for everyone) like to believe that we're invulnerable. We like to think that if we're careful (look both ways before you cross, don't engage in high-risk activities, don't drink the local water), and good (say your prayers, pay your taxes, be nice to people—take your pick), that we can avoid the dangers. There are always risks, but we try to minimize them. We look at statistics, we figure that airplanes don't crash very often, we compare things to the likelihood of being hit by lightning, or a meteorite, as you walk down the street.
Risk was always part of our lives; I think most of us just try not to acknowledge that except when we're forced to by events. Which makes sense; living in fear is no fun. But we all choose what we consider to be acceptable levels of risk, and we like to believe that we have some control over those levels. Feeling that there's an inimical force out there that we can't predict and can't control, that could strike any time at random, is pretty scary.
But I think it's important to remember two things:
On the one hand, for most of us our risk levels for daily life haven't gone up that much this past week. (I'm ignoring the likelihood of upcoming war, focusing on terrorist attacks specifically.) There's a new kind of threat that we weren't prepared to think about, but (a) it's still unlikely for most of us Americans that we'll end up in such a situation, and (b) in some ways it's not appreciably different from similar risks that we already knew about. (Oklahoma City; ordinary airplane hijackers; gang violence in cities; guns in schools; and so on.)
On the other hand, reminders that the world is a risky and potentially dangerous place can help us to remember to do the important things now, because there are no guarantees. None of us can be sure we'll live to see tomorrow. Don't put off the things you need to say, the things you need to do.
A little over a year ago, my friend Alex apologized to me for not having written us an article for Strange Horizons. I told him it wasn't a problem; there'd be plenty of time for him to do that later. The next day, he was dead.
I still tell people, "Don't worry, there'll be another chance." Because it's hard to manage daily life if you truly behave as if each day is your last; and because chances are that there will be another chance.
But there isn't always. So if it's truly important, do it now.