A few hours after I write this, I'm going to get on an airplane. It wasn't that long ago that such an event meant nothing to me at all. I saw an airplane as a high-speed vehicle which might develop mechanical problems or run into foul weather, causing it to crash. But that just about never happened.
As of September 11th, of course, we all have a different view of the airplane. It's now something which could be seized by evil people for evil purposes. Now I see a plane as a wonder of technology, a dangerous vehicle, and a potential bomb. When I see one, or even a picture of one, I also see that silhouetted plane smashing into the World Trade Center. I wonder if I'll ever get over that.
I sometimes wonder if we'll all get over this thing. In some ways, I fear we will. It may sound insane, but there are positives that came out of September 11th. Certainly, there were heroic acts that day and immediately afterward, but we also shared a lot of genuine feelings like togetherness, compassion, patriotism, and even good, healthy anger.
As we return to our normal lives, as we inevitably will, these feelings will fade, and we'll be left with the ugly aftermath of death, destruction, debate, economic troubles, and fear. But these things existed before. I don't buy the line that "the world will never be the same," because the only thing that changed on September 11th is that America got a dose of what humans the world over have faced for thousands of years. It's not even the first time we've seen it, just the first time in a long while. Hell, America has done things like that.
In other words, the world didn't change. It has hosted evil and inhumanity since Day 1. What changed was our attitude about the world and our place in it.
The potential changes to our traveling ways have been well-documented. We will almost certainly see fewer airlines, higher prices, closed attractions, tighter security, longer waits, and -- for a while, anyway -- fewer people flying. Our international borders will be a hassle, and I'm afraid "Arab-looking" people will face particular troubles. The hatred and ignorance of the terrorists will breed much the same in us, with our right-wingers and our military-industrial complex eager to take full advantage.
But what I find myself considering today, as I pack my bags for the airport, is fear. I'm not afraid of getting on a plane. Even in the post-September 11th world, the odds are overwhelming against any given flight being seized or destroyed by terrorism or anything else. For that matter, now may be the safest time to fly in American history.
What I am afraid of, to quote a real leader, is fear itself.
I'm afraid that people all over the world will decide the best course of action is to stay at home and worry -- or stew. People very close to me have already canceled long-planned trips out of fear and, as one put it, because the fun has gone out of it. I'm not saying these reactions are wrong, but I'm afraid they'll become the norm. I'm afraid that Americans, in particular, will withdraw from the world out of fear or, worse, hatred.
The reason I fear this is that I believe that our purpose here on earth is twofold: love each other and ourselves and pursue the beauty and magic that exist in the world. And for me, the key to both is to explore the world and get to know the people who live in it.
Think about it: If more Americans had been to more places in the so-called Arab world, more of us would know that the vast majority of people there are just like the vast majority of people here: good, kind, decent, hard-working, and compassionate people who want the best for themselves and the people around them and who are almost completely cut off from the real power and decision-making in their government. And when you know that, it makes it that much tougher to see them as people who should change their religion, rid their country of evil-doers, and overthrow their leaders, lest they become "collateral damage."
Travel also, by removing you from your normal surroundings, shows you that your identity is not defined by where you are and what you do. You are not your job, in other words, nor are you your hometown. Get away from those things for a while, and you'll meet your true self. You'll also see your home, job, and lifestyle in a broader, and therefore healthier, perspective. You might even begin to understand how the rest of the world sees America -- for better or worse. That kind of perspective has never been more important than right now.
Hatred and ignorance can only be defeated by compassion and knowledge -- certainly not by more hatred and ignorance and most certainly not by bullets and bombs.
The world has evil in it; no doubt about that. It always has. But it's also a big, beautiful place, made more so by your presence in it. Embrace that beauty. And in a more literal sense, go out and see it. Meet the other people in the world and try to show all of them compassion, tolerance, and love. You just might get the same back, beyond your wildest dreams.
Please don't give in to fear, depression, or withdrawal. The world, and all of us in it, need you. As always, I encourage you to explore this fantastic home of ours and get to know its inhabitants, from your own neighborhood to the farthest reaches of the planet. If nothing else, it will make you feel better, because you will discover beauty, magic, and who you and your fellow people really are.
And if you're worried about not making it back home, be sure to tell the people you love how you feel about them before you get on the plane.