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.
Oceans still spawn hurricanes, but they don't stop ICBMs or terrorists. On 9-11, al- Qaida demonstrated that what the World War I generation called "over there" is nowadays very close to "back here." America -- according to its enemies -- is everywhere (a "pan-global" political and military phenomenon), but a computer keystroke will quickly find al-Qaida agitprop, Nigerian scams, North Korean warmongering and Sudan's hideous genocide in Darfur. An airline ticket, a sick tourist and 22 hours moves the Asian flu from Bangkok to Denver, or the avian flu from Hong Kong to Austin.
The upscale phrase is "technological compression," but the down-to-Earth 21st century fact is all of us live next door.
Technology has compressed the planet and created the Age of Proximity, with positive effects in communication, trade and transportation; with horrifyingly negative effects in weaponry. Decades ago, radio, phone cables on the seabed, long-range aircraft and then nuclear weapons shrunk the oceans. Sept. 11 demonstrated that religious killers could turn domestic jumbo jets into strategic bombers. For murderous zealots preying on a lax public, the oceans were not obstacles.
To return to an era where distance made a difference requires eliminating technology. Where do we start? Ban ICBMs? I'll listen, but it appears North Korea and Hezbollah have no interest in arms control. But do we ban long-range commercial jets and the Internet? Or do we police the murderers, tyrants and criminals who abuse them?
Hello, high-tech Pandora, for the good and the bad. "Technological compression" is a fact -- it cannot be reversed. To deny or ignore it has deadly consequences. Responsible citizens and public servants in New York, Austin and Miami considered those consequences.
Anxiety is one of the soul-altering afflictions explored by W.H. Auden in his Pulitzer Prize-winning poem "The Age of Anxiety." That classic begins in a World War II-era New York bar. No argument -- anxiety is destructive. Diminishing the threats posed by the Age of Proximity requires action. We're also doing that. We call it the War on Terror.