We don't want to admit it, but we've become complacent in the decade since the September 11 terrorists attacked us. We all did a great job of maintaining a sense of hyper-vigilance for a few months, with extra airport precautions, family evacuation plans and those basements full of duct tape, blankets, bottled water and canned food. But no one can keep up that level of uber-sensitivity.
For weeks after those horrific events, the buzz of constantly circling military jets was the background noise of my every day life. Then, one day, I noticed that constant hum was gone. Each of us has a story like that -- we were continually on our guard until we weren't. Until we couldn't be anymore because it was too much.
At some point after September 11, 2001, we all went back to living our "normal" lives with that level of ambivalence that keeps us from going insane. That's just how life is, at least for Americans -- we can only keep our guard up for so long, and then, a little bit at a time, we slip back into our usual zone of comfortable deniability to keep things going.
When the Earth's rumbling tectonic plates gave those of us on the East Coast a major wake up call this week, it was hard not to have thoughts that whipped us back to the visceral moments of 9/11 when, as with this 6.0 earthquake, people streamed from their office buildings, confused and scared, praying that the command to head for the streets didn't have anything to do with a terror attack. Traffic out of the nation's capital was log-jammed. Public transportation wasn't an option to get to a safe place because the infrastructure couldn't be trusted to get us out of town safely. We were all stuck wherever we were without many options of getting to a place of safety.
Just as it was ten years ago.
We were all just as unsuspecting with the earthquake as we were with the terror attacks. Before my house started to shake, I was working at my laptop and PunditGirl was reading away in her room as we were in our "school will be here soon" mode, trying to make it though the last days of summer. "Hm, that load of laundry I just threw in really got unbalanced," I naively thought as the floor shook mildly beneath me. Then, I was annoyed because I assumed the fleet of Pepco trucks I had seen up the street were now on a rumbling convoy through the neighborhood.
And then I didn't know what was going on, as I felt the pressure building beneath our suburban Colonial and I knew something was terribly wrong. I felt a power underneath our house that I didn't understand and, not ever having been through an earthquake before, I believed that our house was about to explode from some sort of gas line issue. That's when I used my best mean mother command voice to get PunditGirl out of the house. And there was no tween push-back. Somehow, she also knew she should make a beeline for the door and grabbed my hand as we bolted into the front yard.
That's where all the the neighbors were, too. All the moms who work at home -- another author, an architect, a social worker -- outside looking worried and bewildered, and, finally, after minutes of trying to make sense of what was going on, we all realized we had lived through an earthquake.
And we breathed a sigh of relief that it wasn't a bomb or a terrorist. At least not this time.
It took me a few hours to process what had happened and whether I had reacted well in terms of the safety of myself and PunditGirl. Mr. PunditMom was trying to make sense of his own experience in downtown D.C. with thousands of other workers, wondering why their buildings had been shaken and what had been the cause.
So with all of that, I find myself asking whether this major earthquake (OK, California, I know it's nothing like what you have to deal with, but this was the biggest for us in 100 years) is a wake up call for us to remember we need to be prepared for another 9/11. We don't want to be. We want to believe that it won't happen again. But it will at some point and we need to be ready in whatever ways we can.
Of course, we can't have an episode like this without a little bit of irony. That was provided by the Congressman from Virginia Eric Cantor, the uber-conservative Republican leader who cut funds for U.S. Geological Survey (the earthquake scientists) including for his Virginia district, which ended up being one of the hardest hit from this quake. Cantor felt that spending funds to keep up on possible earthquakes was a waste of taxpayer money -- something better left to the private sector.
Political poetic justice for Congressman Cantor, though not his constituents, if you ask me.
As I listened to the reports of traffic gridlock, public transportation breakdown and mild hysteria after the earthquake, I couldn't believe that in the decade since one of the greatest tragedies we've experienced as a nation, that we hadn't learned how to keep ourselves safe or how to get away from the danger, and that we were still in the same place of denial that we were ten years ago. And I wondered what kind of parent I was raising our daughter in a world where those who run it turn their backs on the obvious dangers for mere political gain.
Joanne Bamberger is the founder of the political blog PunditMom. She is the author of the just-published book, Mothers of Intention: How Women and Social Media are Revolutionizing Politics in America (Bright Sky Press 2011), the first book to examine the rise of women creating political and social change through social media.