Vigilance: Or Paralysis?

September 11th struck America in the heart, and our nation’s wound continues to ooze with ongoing terrorist threats.

Everyone seems to be on guard to varying degrees. Some appear more threatened than others. Feelings are mixed, uncertainty is omnipresent.

Day-to-day activities reflect new challenges. Many businesses have been hit especially hard, and pink slips often precede weekends. Few people consider air travel routine anymore. Heightened security slows travel considerably. Opening today’s mail reverberates last evening’s bioterrorism report. Saccharin and dry dairy creamers are disappearing from public view, and white powdery substances are no longer simply swept or blown away. Suddenly everyone knows about Anthrax. Overnight Cipro has gained more popularity than Prozac.

Terrorists are succeeding at what they do best – penetrating the very fabric of our lives. Even for the detached, the prospect of vulnerability at some level is stunning. Amidst ongoing threats each person is distinguished by two key factors: perception and response.

While some are vigilant, others are paralyzed with fear.

Merriam Webster defines the word, “vigilant” as “alertly watchful especially to avoid danger.” In contrast, “paralysis” refers to “a state of powerlessness or incapacity to act.” Vigilance implies action. Paralysis echoes helplessness.

It’s no surprise terrorists prey on helpless victims. Their success is measured in terms of our fear, anxiety, worry, outright panic and ultimately, our incapacity to act. Victims cease to carry on and enjoy their lives as the potential for devastation looms at every turning point.

As a result irrational behavior often develops. Avoidance of danger rapidly transforms itself into avoidance of living. Taken to extreme, some victims respond by assuming the offensive and striking out at any target. Unfortunately innocent people are harmed in senseless acts of retaliation evidenced by recent ethnic profiling.

Terrorists win not by the lives they take, but rather by the fear and doubts they instill. As William Shakespeare once said, “Our doubts are traitors and make us lose the good we oft might win by fearing to attempt.”

Fear has the tendency to lock us in a prison of deception.

While less than 300 Americans have been killed aboard planes this year compared to more than 40,000 in cars, many people remain afraid to fly. Despite the fact that only three people in our nation actually succumbed to Anthrax, many are afraid to open their mail.

While people all over the world are unnerved with the threat of bioterrorism, there are currently 1.1 billion smokers on the planet who are literally killing themselves everyday. According to Professor Sir Richard Peto of the Imperial Cancer Research Fund, “In the United States there are 50 million smokers: about 25 million will be killed by tobacco if they don’t stop.”

I suppose terrorists know these facts. They also recognize our vulnerabilities. If they did nothing, smoking alone would take a far greater toll than a bioterrorist threat. Despite the reality of 25 million potential US deaths associated with tobacco, panic has never set in.

Death is not the ultimate objective of terrorists – not in the overall scheme of things. The power they wield is intended to paralyze its victims. Fear has the tendency to destroy the quality of our lives along with the principles for which our forefathers sacrificed their lives.

Logic alone requires us to remain alert and vigilant in uncertain times. It is also our responsibility as a nation to avoid the pitfalls of paralysis which empower the foe.

The question of the hour is how?

The answer lies within each of us. It requires us to choose between living fully in the moment or spending our precious time worrying about tomorrow. Our choice depends on logic to a degree. Yet other considerations exist for each of us.

Bravery has very little to do with it as living fully does not mean deliberately exposing ourselves to danger. Realistic precautions do not preclude enjoyment just as a Sunday drive isn’t hampered by wearing a seatbelt. Remember vigilance implies active avoidance of danger. That’s where a judgment call enters the picture.

Shall I travel or not travel? Shall I open my mail or not? Shall I plan for next year’s vacation or put our plans on hold?

Ultimately you must decide. But remember to consider the facts. Perhaps air travel in our nation is now safer than ever before. As judged by the delays and the tight security I experienced this past weekend in Pittsburgh and New York, I support that notion. Yet my next trip isn’t to the Middle East.

How about the mail? It’s altogether possible that postal security has reached an all-time high. Yet I wouldn’t venture to open a letter without a return address. Actually I’ve become progressively more vigilant over the years. Deleting email attachments from unknown sources has become part of my daily routine.

Why not consider beginning by gathering the facts and discussing your issues of concern with those you trust. Stop overdosing yourself with the World News. Realize that today spent enjoying life or worrying is the same day gone forever. Keep your eyes and ears cautiously open, yet do not allow yourself to become immobilized with fear.

Perhaps its time for self reflection. Each of us has the capacity to take better care of ourselves and our families regardless of threat. Let us strive to move onward enjoying and making the best of every precious moment. Do not sacrifice the incredible possibilities of each new day that can never be relived again – Mind Over Matter!

©2001 Barry Bittman,
MD all rights reserved

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Written by Barry Bittman MD

Explore Wellness in 2021