The kernel of what follows was part of my 9/11 anniversary blog, but writing has a will of its own and when I got to the end of “Belated 10th Anniversary” it no longer fit. I zapped it. In writing as in life, “reduce, reuse, recycle” makes sense. Nothing is ever wasted. What goes around comes around. Etc. In other words — it’s back.
As the official reaction to 9/11 developed, with the Patriot Act, invasions of Afghanistan of Iraq, and all the rest of it, I began to understand that the country’s “leaders” were seriously freaked out. I, however, wasn’t. Yes, I was shocked at first. A scenario I had previously considered strictly fictional had come to pass in real life. If something’s happened once, it can happen again. It passes from the realm of the literally inconceivable to the realm of the possible. I added this possibility to all the other possibilities mingling and tangling in my mind, and I walked on.
Three years later, in August 2004, with no warning a pale translucent disk eclipsed nearly all the vision of my right eye. That eye’s retina had detached from the eye wall. Until I got the diagnosis, I didn’t know enough about retinas to know they could detach and from what. Once I did know, I got jumpy: What if it happened again? As luck would have it, it did happen again. Between August 2004 and the end of the year, I made several trips to the ophthalmologist in Boston. I hadn’t been off-island since 9/11; I was barely aware of its backwash out there.
All that changed as I made my round-trips, by ferry, bus, and subway, to the ophthalmologist’s office. During those months, I thought a lot about risk and how we humans deal with it in our everyday lives. In the years that followed, I wrote and rewrote “My Terrorist Eye: Risk, the Unexpected, and the War on Terrorism.”
Sooner or later every female person learns that she’s at risk for rape or other physical violence. People of color learn at an early age that they may be beaten up or killed for their color. The less privilege you’ve got, the more at risk you are. The overwhelming majority of us learn to live with it. We take precautions, but we step out anyway. Rich, powerful white men, on the other hand, tend to take it for granted that they can go where they want when they want and no one’s going to get in their way.
When the planes appeared out of the sky and knocked their buildings down, the rich, powerful white men finally knew otherwise. And they freaked out. Because they’re rich and powerful, they had an option that the rest of us don’t: they set out to exterminate the ones who scared them so badly.
By the early 2000s, I’d been on Martha’s Vineyard long enough to be several strata down in its bedrock. The comings and goings on its surface usually didn’t touch me directly; I heard about them, if I heard at all, from friends and friends of friends, or I read about them in the paper. Toward the end of the decade, a school principal, speaking of a dip in enrollment figures, said that some families who had moved here after 9/11 were leaving. I hadn’t realized until then that anyone had moved here to get away from 9/11.
I did know that many people think of Martha’s Vineyard as a refuge from the real world, a safe place. Once upon a time I thought so too: it was the place I ran to when I needed a break from city life. For this left-brain self-control freak, moving to Martha’s Vineyard was like jumping into free fall. I only did it because I didn’t know what I didn’t know. I didn’t know what it took to make a living here, or make a life. Martha’s Vineyard doesn’t take no for an answer. If you want to live here, you do what she says even when you know you can’t.
So lately I’ve been involved in this fight to stop the rush to roundabout the blinker intersection (verb that noun, girl!). Most proponents want you to believe that it’s all about safety, even though they aren’t producing any statistics to prove that the four-way-stop intersection isn’t already pretty damn safe — four or five accidents a year, mostly fender-benders. At the public hearing I blogged about two weeks ago, we had much speechifying about how the roundabout would make it easier for emergency vehicles to get to where they were going, all with no evidence whatsoever, and one woman even said it was worth $1.2 million to prevent one hypothetical fatality. (According to several islanders with long memories, no one has ever been killed at that intersection.)
When people around here talk about “the character of the island,” as people around here love to do, they usually mean slow-paced, bucolic, a little dull — safe. But the island’s real character has surely been shaped by the island’s history, and that history is one of risk. Whether they worked on sea or on land, islanders were — and in some cases still are — at the mercy of forces much greater than they are. Our lives may be far less dangerous, but we’re at the mercy of those forces too and we can’t reduce the risk to zero.
The challenge is to acknowledge that uncertainty is part of life, and learn to live with it.