High Places: Part II

October 1st, 2009

The following week, my mom took us all to the Sears Tower, now called the Willis Tower in Chicago, Illinois – yet another high place to peek out from. But, it was September 12 and all I could think about was a terrorist attack on the “tallest building in the Western Hemisphere” and how my grandmother would only have one daughter left. My paranoia reminded me of a new book I recently flipped through called The Science of Fear by Daniel Gardner (Review). The book’s introduction explains how after September 11, 2001, people stopped flying, fearing apparently that the previously unimagined episode of 9/11 would now happen all the time– trusting their gut before their head. So the following year, people took the roads instead where they crashed their cars, according to statistics, an additional 1600 times.


Chicago streets from top of Willis Tower


A foot above. This new glass case juts out above Chicago.

Things have changed since the time immediately following the infamous disaster. This year to Beirut alone, as of June, almost 800,000 visitors hopped in planes and by the end of the year the forecast stands at around 2,000,000. Some things have stayed the same – Israeli fighter jets were never deterred. They make their visits in Lebanon’s airspace, regularly breaking the sound barrier (google: “Israel breaks sound barrier over Lebanon”). The first time I experienced the breaking of the sound barrier was when I was 20 years old (1999). It was during the summer when I came to visit my grandparents in Ain el Delb, my mother’s home village, just East of Saida. It was a regular moment of life when the sound of thunder at a million watts roared across the tops of our homes. I was a pure virgin to war and its reverberations, so my instinct was to hit the floor where I crawled aimlessly. When it ended after a few seconds, I hobbled to the kitchen to drink water to wash down the scare. My uncle came in laughing at me. When it happened again, again I hit the floor. My grandparents and aunts seemed also undaunted, reacting as simply as if they had turned on the TV at full volume. It was just another regular moment.

One can compare these regular moments to the regular moments of caution that have ensued following that one infamous moment on American soil. Immediately following, Americans were made aware through constant media coverage that their security was in shambles. Still, 8 years after the fact, at O’Hare airport one will be cautioned through the PA system of the “terror alert level” – usually at ORANGE. (What does ORANGE mean? Well, for explanation, I highly recommend the following piece at McSweeney’s.) Where once people stopped taking planes, now they react by not budging from their newspaper article, continuing to roll their luggage along without a twitch, and boarding their flights. I always wonder what measures the “terror alert level” and why the wonderful colors of the rainbow must be molested so. But, most importantly, these regular messages have come to be a cruel actuality just the same as an Israeli fighter jet illegally and threateningly occupying their neighbor’s airspace. And though it seems everyone is desensitized, the reality is not so. As my friend Lina says while pumping her hands near her belly to describe, the roar of the breaking of the sound barrier, like a mnemonic device, stirs the gut-wrenching feelings born in wartime – even though it does not appear so. For, keeping those feelings shoved deep down, closer to the ground, is the choicest strategy toward a regular life.


Beirut corniche.

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