The Guardian
Tuesday October 2, 2001


We are all frightened.

There is no safety without risk. What you risk reveals what you value

by Jeanette Winterson

My agent in New York tells me that in the city of no eye contact, people are sharing cabs and talking to each other in the street. The conversation is about what happens next; not military action or fresh attacks, but how to plan for a life where all plans have been put on hold.

The uncertainty principle is having a strange effect on us. I hear on the radio that while people are buying gasmasks, they are also having affairs. Is this basic instinct, or the kind of recklessness we usually keep at bay? Perhaps it's just about having a good time while there's still time left. Nobody knows what's going to happen, and danger and pleasure stand in curious relation to one another.

While politicians insist that the financial markets can be kept stable, job losses and industry crashes are happening at an alarming rate. Insurance companies admit that risk management is a thing of the past. Having been told to insure against everything from early retirement to deathwatch beetle, we find that the important things cannot be insured.

I feel naked and exposed. I feel as though I cannot protect what I love - people, ideas, values, culture. Then, while I am grappling with the absurdity of renewing my personal insurance, which no longer includes a hefty death benefit if I die while travelling as a passenger on a commercial airline, I realise something else: Protection is limitation. It may be possible to limit my exposure to damage, but I cannot limit my exposure to life. I do not want to become an expensive prisoner. I don't want the kids around me to grow up made so scared and kept so swathed, that they never explore the alliance between vulnerability and exhilaration.

Being open is difficult enough. Amazing that it took a disaster of World Trade Centre proportions to get New Yorkers talking to each other. Right now, there is a feeling of openness alongside the fear. My anxiety is that as we close up the wounds, we will close off ourselves - seeking more and more protection, more guarantees, more certainties, though there are none to be had.

It would be easy for America to opt for isolationism and protectionism. The threat from the Middle East has temporarily disguised the growing tension between America and Europe. While Britain is happy to be a US satellite, other European countries are less impressed with America's wholesale export of its way of life. We might not want to be Americans but, after Bin Laden, will the simple rhetoric of 'Are you for us or against us' be too tempting?

I have only just discovered that 95% of Americans do not have passports. Convinced of the superiority of the American Way, a new-take-it-or-leave-it world order could emerge. In Bush's mind, and probably Tony Blair's, we're all Americans now.

Protecting yourself from difference is a natural response to fear. It is a response that a civilised society must avoid. We need multi-culturalism, pluralism, an acceptance of other faiths and values. The Second World War changed our understanding of social relationships. Since then, we have worked hard not to label and stereotype others. We should be proud of what we have achieved - it is a real step forward for humanity. To lose that now - to make Muslims into hate figures, or to retreat into the narrow box of Us and Them, will be a move back into barbarism.

Our fight is against terrorism. It must not become a fight against difference. We are all frightened, and with good reason. What we can't do is to make the world a safer place by closing our borders, increasing security until we become a police state, and vigorously rejecting any way of life not our own. Reactionaries and Christian fundamentalists, as well as Islamic terrorists, prefer this small ugly version, because it is easier to control. We need more openness and more dialogue. There is no safety without risk. What you risk reveals what you value.

When the twin towers collapsed, they collapsed a fantasy. We had told ourselves a story about safety, about certainty, about prosperity, about the future. It was a good story, and now it's gone. Part of our psychic panic is that we don't have a story at all - only fragments and guesses. Humans need a narrative. Our best chance is another story - made from the rubble of what has been lost. This time, we have to tell it better.


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