Life in Target Town: War Looms, We Brace and Wait

New Year’s Eve in Times Square: Cops with metal detectors manned all entrance points. Mailboxes were removed. Snipers were at the ready on rooftops. On NPR, a reporter sounded out the security measures in calm, reporter-y tones. Leaving work near Grand Central, I said to my officemate, “Happy New Year-watch out for the snipers, ha ha!” Then I walked outside to get on the subway with my newspaper and bland New York commuter face.

With almost two years now of scary scenarios at my fingertips, I’ve become used to imagining catastrophe. Like everyone else in this city, I calmly expect the worst when I turn on the TV. I listen for strange sirens and rumblings. I casually watch jets to see if they’ll diverge from their flight pattern through my bedroom window. “What if a bomb went off right now?” I think to myself in my seat on the W train, on my yoga mat at Om, at the bathroom stall in the Phoenix. In all the years I’ve wondered and worried about the threat of mass destruction, I never thought I could be so functional in the face of it.

Last week at 3 in the morning, I was at Odessa with my friends, arguing about the One Day To Come like expert-predictor pundits on The O’Reilly Factor . As we ate our pierogi, we imagined various apocalyptic scenarios.

“I bet they’ll hit us on a subway, because that will halt all activity,” Carl said.

“No, it’ll arrive on a cargo boat in Red Hook,” Larry said.

“Well, if they want to cause widespread panic, they’ll hit another city,” Matt said.

But none of us believed that. We’re true New Yorkers-we assume not only that we are the center of the world, but that we’ll be the center of the end of the world, too.

“Well, I’m hoping we’ll all just be vaporized, thank God,” I said, under my breath.

“Not quite,” Carl said. He had just gone onto a Web site where you can pinpoint a location, drop a megaton bomb and see how far the damage and fallout will travel in “zones of destruction.” That night, I ran home and logged on. The results helped color in my nightmare thoughts-since all we seem to be getting these days are vague reports of “terrorist activity” and “Iraqi noncompliance” and crusty Senatorial warnings to watch out but go on with life.

The Web site, in contrast, is morbidly comforting. Dating from the bursting-with-content 90’s, before our Terror Era, it was an educational companion for the 1999 PBS documentary The Race for the Super Bomb . Along with a world map of nuclear-test sites, a panic test and excerpts from the Limited Test Ban Treaty, the site lets users “Map a Blast.”

I dropped a megaton bomb in midtown. A little map came up on the screen with a yellow jagged blast icon in the middle of Manhattan and several rings emanating from it. Nothing recognizable remained within about 3,200 feet (0.6 miles) from the center. At 1.7 miles, in a radius enclosing midtown and part of Queens, only some of the strongest buildings still stood. “Ninety-eight percent of the population in this area are dead,” I learned.

At 2.7 miles, which includes Central Park and all of Chinatown, virtually everything was destroyed. “The bare, structural skeletons of more and more buildings rise above the debris.” Fifty percent of the population was dead, 40 percent injured. At 4.7 miles, covering all of Manhattan and most of Queens, “The windows of office buildings have been blown away, as have some of their walls. The contents of these buildings’ upper floors, including the people who were working there, are scattered on the street.” Five percent of the population are dead; 45 percent are injured.

Where I live, on the edge of downtown Brooklyn off Flatbush Avenue, I would suffer that horrible half-alive state I had hoped to avoid. Buildings would be moderately damaged and, I’m informed, if I wasn’t injured by flying glass and debris, I would be injured from thermal radiation.

Growing up on the tail end of the Cold War, in the soft padding of the suburbs, I had only my imagination to help me picture war and disaster. Now there’s so much to inspire me. I can turn on any media outlet and soon hear about George W. Bush readying the troops or hear some senator warning us about the inevitable “spectacular” terrorist attacks to come. My apocalyptic thoughts flourish.

The last time I felt this full of doom was in seventh grade, after watching The Day After , the 1983 television movie that scared me out of my tapered jeans. A nuclear bomb is detonated in Lawrence, Kan. (Yeah, Kansas !) I remember the special effects were extraordinarily top-notch for a TV movie. I watched it with my parents and, after the end-in which Jason Robards returns to the charred, dead Ground Zero of the city and sobs in a stranger’s arms-I went outside and cried to myself on the mowed front lawn.

The Day After was a major media event of the time. No sponsors bought commercial time after the point at which the nuclear war occurs, so the last half of the show was aired straight through, without commercials. ABC set up special 1-800 hotlines to calm people down during and after the original airing. Immediately after the film’s broadcast, a special news program aired featuring a live discussion between Dr. Carl Sagan, who opposed the use of nuclear weapons, and William F. Buckley Jr. It was during this heated discussion, aired live, that Dr. Sagan introduced the world to the concept of nuclear winter. I remember that that week at school was very solemn, with many discussions of the evils of nuclear weaponry.

I can’t imagine civically responsible programming like that now. News and information providers have found that it’s more effective to keep us in a constant state of tension. Red-hot bomb talk keeps us running around like an attacked anthill, which in turn keeps us lucratively tuned in. Little reminders that I could die soon dink in front of my face like the balloons in Pop-Up Video : CNN online newsbites when I turn on my computer, Post headlines at newsstands, narrow-eyed news anchors on TV, reports scrolling over every screen and surface.

Corporate tie-ins may be delicately handled, but they are always there. You may remember that last winter, when CBS aired the heart-clutching 911 documentary shot by those two French brothers, it was billed as “a Nextel Presentation.”

And yet, underneath all the anxiety, I find that there is something surprisingly comforting about life here in a target town. Everyone around me seems to be taking the very real possibility of impending doom relatively calmly. I know I’m less physically afraid than I was in seventh grade. Back then, the pure abstraction of the threat was somehow more frightening than this feeling of concrete possibility. It’s not TV-movie pretend this time, but the way we’re coping, it seems, is to let all the threats flap and fly and honk around us, and just get on the subway anyway. Life in Target Town: War Looms, We Brace and Wait