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Paranoia: a new way of life


AT SOME point in our lives each one of us has had to deal with an irrational fear. As children, we might have been terrified of the dark, or by threats that the bogey man would get us, or by the awful suspicion that a monster was lurking in the closet or under the bed. As we grew up, most of those terrors went away, although almost everyone I know still has something -- a horror of spiders, heights, or blind dates.

Adults, however, are supposed to be sensible, logical and rational beings. Our maturity, theoretically, is sufficient to keep us from becoming paranoid that something or someone is waiting to hurt us.

Well, welcome to 1993.

What once was called paranoia may now have become a way of life for the thousands of people whose jobs take them to the World Trade Center at the lower end of Manhattan. Or how about people who use tunnels, particularly the Holland and Lincoln? After the arrests a few weeks ago of eight purported Muslim extremists who are alleged to have been planning to blow up the underwater connectors between Manhattan and New Jersey, I'd venture a guess that some people are thinking about taking a bridge instead, or a ferry, even if it means going miles out of their way, while others are scanning the want ads for something closer to home.

Then there are the people who work in laboratories, particularly for universities. How many do you suppose were afraid to go through the mail after a computer scientist at Yale University last month was the victim of a letter bomb? Irrational? Not really, considering that two days earlier a geneticist in San Francisco lost some fingers opening his mail at home. Law enforcement officials have suggested it might be the work of "unabom," a person who in the '70s and '80s sent letter bombs to university researchers and scientists.

Some of my colleagues have been showing signs of stress, too. They have yet to find the humor in bomb threats, but give them time. Not one of us, however, will ever laugh or joke about the pipe bomb placed at the foot of our boss' house. Journalists as a rule are maudlin, and we are no exception, but that explosive could have killed someone, including an 80-year-old woman next door who just missed being hit by shrapnel. Why? What had she done? For that matter, what is gained by frightening or hurting anyone?

When I was a child, several murder attempts were made against my mother. She was the target of a very unhappy, emotionally unstable woman who saw in her everything she wanted but lacked. My mother had a career, marriage and two adorable children. Today people call it a fixation -- a fatal distraction, to be contemporary. Somehow I managed until recently to block it all from my memory; at the time I was just a child, and I didn't understand my mother's terror when someone tried to push her off a subway platform in front of a speeding train.

The only incident I can recall now was the time my mother was ill and a young man delivered what he said was medicine from the pharmacy. It was poison, sent by the woman. My father found her and he dragged her to our house where he bound her to a radiator until the police arrived. I remember her screams. I also remember how frightening it was to go past that spot, and how I was afraid she would come back. I suspect that terror is what too many people may be living with now.

Sometimes we find it ironic that life imitates art. Well, the proposed plot to blow up the tunnels, the United Nations and the FBI headquarters was detailed in a 1980 novel. The author said he was pleased that the plot held up, but he hoped that his book had nothing to do with planting the idea.

It took quite a while before my mother's assailant was identified, but she was. She was arrested after the incident with the poison and eventually committed to an institution. Few people had compassion for her.

Far fewer have compassion for people today, sane or not, who try to hurt others. And law enforcement investigative techniques are light years better now than even five years ago, which means that identifying and arresting the person or people involved in these threats and bombings is just a matter of time.

There are better ways to make a point: write a letter, share ideas, criticize something or someone. That is something people will pay attention to and consider, not this other behavior. Life is too short and too important to waste. Think about it.

Deirdre S. Channing is editorial page editor of the Advocate in Stamford, Conn.

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