We’ve all been a little on edge, so when a mouse scampered across our kitchen floor just after dinner guests had left, I shrieked. Like the classic cartoon of the fluttery female, I would have jumped up on a chair had one been handy. This didn’t say much for my ability to show fortitude in a crisis.
I understood in that second that what terrifies women at the sight of a mouse is not the clear and present danger a physically threatening animal might represent, but the mortifying implication of a deficiency in her domain. Suppose the little critter had chosen to show up while the guests were still there? Would our friends have, behind my back, rolled their eyes or made gagging motions over the sanitary quality of the meal?
It was something of a relief to discover that other tenants in the building had been similarly invaded, the result of a recently begun expansion project on a Catholic boys’ school next door. Apparently, construction had upset the pest ecology, destabilizing the region. The rodent population lurking beneath us had never been a pleasant one to contemplate, but at least it had been contained. Now it was unleashed, with who knew what destructive and vengeful impulses against us humans, its putative superiors in the hierarchy of species-sanitary to a fault, yet with the crumbs of our sybaritic culture everywhere. Exterminators were summoned, but how effective could they be against so elusive an enemy, hiding in nooks and crannies, with only one thing on its mind and no respect for our values?
In times like these, you start to wonder what you’re made of, to imagine yourself in the situations where others have shown courage or even just correct impulses. If I’d been in the south tower and an official had told me to stay put, that’s precisely what I-good little girl, obedient to a fault-would have done. Tackle hijackers on a plane? I panic and freeze when an elevator makes an unscheduled stop between floors, or even does a little jiggle. What if I were captured and tortured by terrorists? Would I relent and tell all if they took my Bloomingdale’s charge card, as Woody Allen imagines Diane Keaton doing in Annie Hall?
When a lecture engagement took me to Cleveland, I was glad to temporarily evacuate my kitchen and my beloved and grieving city with its many shadowy threats and anxieties. Cleveland was beautiful and the audience friendly, but the local newspaper had only one story on terrorism, and I began to feel withdrawal symptoms. I reached for The New York Times and its saturation coverage and began to long for the city, the way when you have someone sick in the hospital you want only to be there, sitting on benches in the hall, bonding with those waiting for news of their loved ones.
But at least I had gone. And in the company of other sparse travelers, felt a kind of weathering-the-blitz normalcy. If flying two weeks after the attack wasn’t exactly an act of heroism, it was my way of refusing to be paralyzed. Mice aside, I’ve noticed some latent warrior gene surfacing in me; I find myself responding to threats to our country with feelings of non-pacifist aggression I didn’t know existed. Take my reaction to the wimpy West Wing episode inserted after the terrorist attacks and the infuriating exchange between Leo, the show’s White House chief of staff, and a Saudi Arabian employee being questioned for a possible security breach. The irritated, well-spoken detainee makes a surly remark about the U.S. presence in his country, and Leo says maybe we’ll stay and teach the women to drive. The man stiffens in fury. At the end of the show, when he has been cleared, Leo abjectly apologizes for his remark. But why the apology? Why is it so terrible to think that Arab women-indeed, the whole Arab world-might be a little better off if women were behind the wheels? We who inhabit any area left of center have been so cowed by the idea that we’re colonizing the Other, projecting our values and ideas onto them, that we can no longer speak up for the moral and practical superiority of our Western principles.
In every country where women are brought into the society through measures that counter gender bias, such as literacy, health care and ownership of property, conditions improve dramatically for the culture as a whole. In the Sept. 17 issue of The New Republic, Nobel Prize winner Amartya Sen documents this case in eloquent detail, using India as a template. What I now feel so strongly for these women comes from those women closest to me. My mother, then in her 60’s and still playing tennis, said something funny and charming in one of those moments when her mischievous, sub rosa persona-spiritual, feminist and aggressive-broke through her normal, ladylike reserve. She had come to believe in reincarnation (though later, in her 80’s, when she was actually dying, it didn’t seem to offer much consolation).
“I’ve been thinking about it, and I’ve decided what I’m going to do in my next life,” she said, as I tried to compose my face into a neutral expression. “I’m going to Saudi Arabia and teach the women to play tennis.”
I tried to picture this rescue operation. Once they’d mastered the rudiments of racket control, what would the Arab women wear? Short skirts? Would Mother, always a stickler for tradition, get them into whites? Her desire to see women stand on their own two feet had been an abiding passion from my infancy, when she would send me on errands to test my self-reliance, to her years of being housebound from strokes and emphysema. During the latter, she not only taught the aides who cared for her how to perform the necessaries, but counseled them on how to stand up to husbands and bosses. Shriek at a mouse? Never. The mettle of her own mother was part of family lore: the night when, alone in the huge house with her three children, she’d tracked down a prowler with a shotgun and scared the poor intruder almost to death.
I’ve been struggling with my own intruders-first on Sept. 11, then in the kitchen; now, potentially, in the mail. But I won’t call the doctor for antibiotics, or join in the hysteria over anthrax that the media, now in full crisis mode and grooving on it, have blown out of all proportion. I won’t get hooked on fear scenarios. Refusing to be terrorized is a war strategy, too, and I can’t help thinking that we wouldn’t have purple mountains’ majesty and amber waves of grain if we hadn’t had the rockets’ red glare and bombs bursting in air.