Austin Bay

The Age of Anxiety isn't a new phenomenon -- but the Age of Proximity is. And with good reason, the Age of Proximity is a dangerous, challenging era.

Monday, Jan. 8, 2007, provided several uncomfortable illustrations. Take New York City first, since it's the definitive "Ground Zero" for terrorists on our technologically "downsized" planet. As a noxious odor spread through Manhattan, reasonable people feared either an extensive natural gas leak or a poison gas attack.

Meanwhile, in Austin, Texas, police discovered five dozen dead birds on Congress Avenue, just south of the Texas Capitol Building, where the Texas Legislature convenes this week. The dying "canary in the coal mine" serves a blunt purpose: It warns miners of poison gas in a shaft. On the Earth's surface, a mass die-off of birds may indicate a nerve gas attack or the presence of a biological pathogen.

The Port of Miami's Monday incident is less prone to either ill-considered satire or accusations of overreaction. In Miami, a suitcase destined for a cruise ship tested (and retested) positive for C4 plastic explosive. The Miami bomb scare followed by one day an unfortunate misunderstanding involving three truck drivers of Middle Eastern origin and Miami port security personnel. Guards became suspicious when one of the drivers failed to produce "routine paperwork."

In Miami, the suitcase ultimately passed inspection. Local police released the detained drivers once they provided solid bona fides. It now appears New York's wretched stench blew in from wretched factories in New Jersey. Preliminary tests in Texas suggested Congress Avenue's deceased flock of pigeons and grackles were victims of poisoning, described by authorities as either "purposeful or accidental."

Do these incidents represent a sad display of frayed nerves and national paranoia?

No. They are very public and potent examples of apt responses to the dark side of globalization, of genuine threats in The Age of Proximity, where both citizens and governmental authorities must balance the weight of responsibility with the freight of fear -- and responsibility for the protection of innocent life puts the thumb on that difficult scale.

Austin Bay

Austin Bay is the author of three novels. His third novel, The Wrong Side of Brightness, was published by Putnam/Jove in June 2003. He has also co-authored four non-fiction books, to include A Quick and Dirty Guide to War: Third Edition (with James Dunnigan, Morrow, 1996).
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