The only thing we have to fear is fear itself," said Franklin Roosevelt in his first Inaugural Address in 1933 to an America alarmed by the Great Depression and the growing Nazi war machine in Europe.
Sixty years later, another fear grips New York City, and indeed all of America, again troubled by economic matters and unsettled in a still turbulent world. Now something has finally penetrated our seemingly sure defenses.
"Fear: an unpleasant, often strong emotion caused by anticipation or awareness of danger." That's Webster's clinical and emotionally detached definition. To the 50,000 workers in the World Trade Center who last week were forced in darkness and choked with smoke to descend in some cases scores of floors, chain gang-like, fear was more than a detached feeling. It was real. It was personal.
Time was when one felt safe in one's own home and work place. Now, double locks, burglar bars and alarms are our insurance at home, and coded identification cards and metal detectors supposedly protect us on the job.
Classes in personal defense are now big business. Mace is advertised on television with a catchy little slogan: "Mace, just in case." We are the best armed citizenry in the world, exercising our constitutional right to keep and bear arms. Do so many guns bring a feeling of security, or do they accentuate our fears?
The slaying of a police officer was once as rare as snow in Houston, but now is becoming as common as rain in London. In the often-denigrated "Ozzie and Harriet" days, children and adults had unrestricted access to the U.S. Capitol. Regular visitors knew the few police officers by name.
Now, concrete and steel abutments regulate traffic and metal detectors are used at each entrance. There are so many police it looks like a law-enforcement convention.
Within the recent memory of many, people could walk down the streets of our major cities, even late at night, without fear of being mugged or molested. Now, most women clutch their handbags tightly in daylight, and men scan the faces of those approaching them, regarding even panhandlers with suspicion that here might be a serial killer. People who venture out alone on downtown streets at night are thought to have taken leave of their senses.
Americans have had the "luxury" of vicariously witnessing on television the bombing of public places and other acts of terror in faraway places. Most believed we would never experience here a real-life towering inferno, car bombs and other terrorist acts inside a huge office building.
As officials ponder how to guard against such acts in the future, we remain reluctant to adopt the heavy-handed tactics of some other nations because of our openness as a society. Yet that very openness makes us attractive not only to those yearning to breathe free, but also to those yearning to breathe fire. It is a difficult choice to make between being as free as possible and as invulnerable as practical.
We seem to expect bombings and innocent deaths and injuries in the Middle East, even in London. While we may be shocked, we are not surprised. When such things happen in America, we are shocked and surprised. And fearful. Even the horror of a Pan Am 103 occurred outside American air space. As awful as it was, it was still "up there" and "over there."
Now the explosives have come home to roost in an underground parking garage, in America's biggest city, its media center, guaranteeing the type of coverage only a terrorist act in the World Trade Center could bring. Whoever committed this indefensible, immoral and cowardly act has succeeded in capturing this entire nation's attention for a message he has yet to deliver.
Reacting to the bombing, President Clinton spoke of the "right" of every American to feel safe. But that is not a right the president or anyone else can guarantee. Not with certainty. Not consistently.
The fourth of Franklin Roosevelt's "four freedoms," contained in a message to Congress in 1941, was the "freedom from fear . . . anywhere in the world." The World Trade Center tragedy shows that that freedom continues to elude us.
Cal Thomas is a syndicated columnist.