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“Post-Terror” People: Reclaiming Mundane Life

The Mundane Counterattack

Perhaps the least significant concern to Americans as the horrific events of September 11, 2001 unfolded was how ordinary life would be experienced into the future. The terrorist threat to the human, political, economic and social terrain of America appeared to overwhelm any sense of concern for how everyday life would be lived. But as the weeks have passed, it has become increasingly evident that the onslaught has severely impacted mundane life. All sorts of vulnerabilities and possibilities of disaster present themselves to ordinary folks, fueled by news reports, media commentators, and crisis entrepreneurs of all stripes. Ordinary people who formerly participated unreflectively in routine social activities may now be hesitant about everyday life events as their imaginations conjure up bizarre scenarios of doom. Thus, the mundane has been victimized by terror.

From crop dusters spewing toxins, to poisoned water supplies, to bombed out sports arenas, to a newfound fear of our mail, and so forth – everyone can imagine potential abominations. The uncalculated damage to those not immediately and directly affected by the attacks is their loss of faith in the regular activities of social life and the sanctity of the mundane. Basic routines associated with travel, work, entertainment and so forth have become areas of concern to just about everyone. The loss of mindlessness regarding the simple life patterns that we were so accustomed to and were never even considered have become oddly problematic. The taken-for-granted routines of social life will weigh heavily on persons who were virtually oblivious to such issues.

In its brief existence, Journal of Mundane Behavior has sought to promote awareness of certain kinds of un-self-reflective actions so that readers could become more appreciative of their significance. Now, that which eludes us–passive acceptance of mundane social life–will become ever so much more desirable. Just as illness or disability makes us mindful of that capability which has been diminished, disaster provokes in us a yearning for normalcy. However, the renewal of a normal sense of our lives will surely take some effort, particularly in view of the likelihood of further hostilities. So, what can be accomplished in this piece? How can scholars of the mundane contribute to adaptation to current circumstances?

This piece will examine the effects of terrorism on the conduct of everyday life. There are no objective solutions to the dilemma of whether Western peoples would do well to hunker down and resign to a future of fear and suspicion, or to carry on as ever with cavalier aplomb. However, this paper will suggest that a new mindset regarding everydayness is inescapable, one that emphasizes analytic awareness of the mundane in ways that were rarely considered outside of academic circles and, further, one that encourages a rational attitude toward threats to the mundane.

First, it appears that commonsense cannot make sense of the catastrophes, and that different thought categories or paradigms are essential to comprehend what occurred. Once it was argued that it was as likely for a mature professional woman to find a mate as it was to be killed by a terrorist. The unlikelihood of the phenomenon served as a metaphor that no longer rings true or humorous. To consider a future fraught with possibilities of extreme and sudden mass violence is, to say the least, unnerving. To routinize bizarre events as features of another kind of mundanity is to lose the essence of the mundane as a sphere of ordinariness. How can what happened on September 11 be assimilated into consciousness–it can’t. This is the prime objective of terrorism: to alter the texture of daily lived reality by injecting a blend of apprehension, trepidation, despair, and ruin.

The task of micro-social analysis is to focus upon everydayness as noteworthy, remarkable and problematic, and many of the pages in this journal have been filled with this kind of discourse. The agenda of the scholarship of the mundane was to dissect and, ultimately, reconstruct mundanity on firmer intellectual ground. Terrorism is an effort to appropriate and alter this task in ways that disrupt mundane social life. Perhaps the scholarly approach can counter this unsettling bent by reclaiming mundane life in ways that are neither reducible to utter fear nor oblivious to genuine threat. This will be the effort in the pages to follow, to offer a way of interpreting daily life that allows us to appreciate the comfort afforded by routine, while harnessing our productive awareness to the purposes of self-protection and maintenance of mundane community existence.

The Mundane Work Force of Terrorism

Civilians become the tools of the terrorists once they start conjuring up scenarios of disaster based on prior events, but ordinary people need not be in the service of terrorism. The initial acts precipitated reactions, possibly overreactions, of policy makers who faulted airline security systems, reminding people of their collective vulnerability and presumably of their personal defenselessness. On the other hand, no one can propose that “under-reaction,” that is carrying on without appropriate precautions, is a solution.

The American public has been told to avoid complacency, be vigilant, be cautious. But isn’t that what terrorism strives for — to slow down commerce and social life, reduce freedoms, magnify fears, and ultimately, to create a kind of garrison state mindset? The people are also assured that intelligence officers, police, national guards and military are investigating, uncovering plots, securing sensitive areas, preparing to tackle terrorism at its roots. We are warned, yet reassured. We could well become besieged within ourselves, fearing to even fear terrorists because that plays into their hands. Options aren’t clear as of this writing, neither is our future course of conduct.

The question for everyone is: how do we respond without doing the implicit bidding of the terrorism by paralyzing ourselves with useless options? Common discourse frames the recent events as if the attacks were directed at persons and specific commercial and political entities. But those who use terror as a tactic are attacking the way people live their everyday lives so that large-scale social institutions will be hobbled. The ultimate goal is to compromise the exercise of political, economic or cultural power that is perceived as oppressive or alien. Most importantly, we must understand that the battlefield is the terrain of mundane social life and that the combatants are apparently ordinary social actors doing the usual stuff of their daily lives.

Both perpetrators of terror and defenders of everyday life utilize mundane resources for their purposes. The former camouflage themselves in the cover of plain sight passing as anyone and as no one in particular, scheming to wreck havoc by employing tools of the mundane — box cutters, knives, gasoline, vehicles of transport, mail and whatever other items they may reconfigure. Many defenders sustain their normalcy with apparent nonchalance insisting that they are not cowed by threat and fear, conducting business as usual. Others exercise caution and retreat from the public domain. Yet suspicion is all-pervasive in everyday life among both security personnel and laypersons, not to mention those bent on the use of terror.

Vigilant Mundanity

What is implicitly emerging within this matrix is a state of social life in which all are vigilant yet seek reassurance of familiarity. We nod and smile to establish ever more firmly our identities as being OK. Displays of fortitude, patriotism, and solidarity abound imprinting upon mundane activities a determination that demonstrates a transformed meaning. No longer are we placidly engaged with comforting routines–we are doing our duty to thwart terrorism.

In addition, an orientation of opposition toward terrorism, a willingness of everyman/everywoman to resist using simple means of self-defense is emerging. Soon classes in realistic resistance tactics to terrorist assault will become commonplace. Government-sponsored and private instructional programs training the public to recognize, report on and deal directly with threat using elements of everyday settings could galvanize, empower and encourage ordinary people.

Will a vigilant population turn toward vigilantism? So far, incidents of bigotry and hostility toward putative perpetrators of terror, that is, attacks on individuals who are thought to be like the terrorists in demeanor, have been met by stern measures of law enforcement. Many people go out of their way to indicate to trusted others that regardless of taint of ethnic association as Arab or Muslim, personal faith in their decency abides. In this very act of firming up relationships, the problematic becomes apparent–how does one reassure another that they are trusted without impairing that same trustful relationship?

Reason in Response to Terror

Regardless of reassurances, expressions of tolerance, faith and so forth, mundane social encounters of all sorts have been indelibly impacted by awareness of the events of September 11. The mundane mind is the most fertile ground for anxiety regarding possibilities as each event, act, media presentation or conversation stirs us to conjure up further heinous actions. Even stymied attempts suggest the might-have-beens that get us ever more disturbed. What we don’t realize is that even though the tragedies were immense with a huge death toll on September 11, the suffering affecting so very many, the actual chances of dying or being injured by terrorist acts is and will remain very low.

Of course, ordinary people have to stop mentally working for terrorism, accept the conditions of threat as a constant, mundanize (so to speak) the threat, that is, fear, yet carry on. As lamentable as it is, people in Western societies must integrate the possibility of terrorism into their daily lives, and yet still conduct daily business as if there were no ongoing threat. While we experience overwhelmingly grief when catastrophe actually strikes, our collective minds must resist being swamped with images of impending doom and disaster. The normal, and the tendency toward normalizing, must become intentional acts in the face of threat. We may even have to “pretend to be normal” for political purposes despite the pervasive sense of terrorist potential. But faking it sometimes helps people make it, as we have heard in other contexts. Maintaining at least the semblance of normalcy proves our mettle – it makes normality out to be a communal presentation that resists the attempts of terrorism to take over our personal orientations to the world and to those around us.

Mundane Life in the New War

We hear much about the new kind of war that we will be fighting and indeed, it is new, for the frontlines are our mundane patterns of conduct. The strategy of terrorism is not to occupy territory, take over major cities, destroy opposing armies or the like. The strategy of terrorism is to weaken the population’s support for government policies. If the people’s will to carry on their mundane social lives can be sapped, terrorism achieves its objective and the people demand retreat. The central issue of this new kind of war is all about the power people have to conduct their business, their courage to do everyday life. The struggle is over the mundane.

Routine is the cornerstone of mundane life and Journal of Mundane Behavior has and will continue to expose the myriad ways in which routine operates to implant a sense of the mundane. However, a new mode of routinization is called for in this environment: one that is mindful. Awareness of routine, reflectiveness as to possible meanings of conduct, a form of doubt as an personal orientation to the world is inevitable. Guardedness and preparedness will be required in the new mundanity. Security consciousness and suspicion will have to wrestle with the faith and trust that undergird relationships with strangers in public settings.

“They” (the terrorists) were among us, hidden in plain sight – neighboring, puttering around, socializing, passing as anyone, yet they schemed massive destruction of the innocent. How can we ever trust again? But to perpetuate mundane life, trust must ever be renewed. Rather than contradict, cynicism can well precede trust and yield a firmer ground for trusting the other in everyday life interactions.

Scholars have long pondered whether social life is predicated upon cynical manipulation or cooperative faith. Now, the current situation requires a synthesis in which skepticism and assessment serve as the foundation for proving oneself, showing oneself to be acceptable and worthy of trust. The “stigmata” of ethnic appearance must be addressed rationally and with clear legal protections, but there must be a recognition of the need for establishing okayness. So, security checks and all sorts of inconveniences will ensue, perhaps compromising civil and human liberties. Much work will have to be done to balance rights to privacy, personal liberty, freedom of movement, etc., with rights to security and safety. Mundane public life can endure the trauma of terror only if protection means ensuring the sanctity of the person while guaranteeing the conditions that sustain routine.

“Cautious but not cowed” may become the slogan of the mundane battlefield. Re-normalizing life in new configurations demands that the rights of dissenters to oppose security procedures or government declarations be upheld. Demonstrations and protests affirm the essence of how we conduct our everyday lives as authentic, intentional actors. We do not diminish mundane practices by exercising caution, and appropriate caution mixed with sanctioned dissent clearly does not indicate that any terrain has been ceded to terror. Put another way, that which the wagons are circled around – “civil society” – must be protected and not harmed by the wagon-circling.

Mediated Images of Terrorism

“News” of disruption is probably more disruptive of everyday life than terrorist threats themselves. If people use their firsthand experiences of reality, they will see that life does indeed go on. But feeding fears of terrorism both fulfills demand and sells because that’s what people want to hear about, even if consummation of supposed threats is unlikely.

While collective paranoia fed by media goes in many directions during periods of crisis, few Muslim Arab Americans have actually been harassed even though incidents have been widely reported. While some Muslim Arab Americans may be viewed with extra suspicion, the population is generally acting with reason and restraint in daily interaction. Perhaps this is because most Americans don’t know who, if anyone, should be harassed. There’s probably not as much actual hysteria regarding particular groups as the media tends to portray.

Most people probably feel that the bombing will have no real impact on their lives, and business or leisure travel plans. However, media portraits convey the impression that everyone is digging a shelter or foxhole. Media may well be magnifying popular fears while anomalously urging everyone to get back to “normal.” Most people, however, are doing their ordinary, normal things, i.e., work, school, social engagements, etc., though with changed attitudes.

The nation now is in pursuit of an enemy. Media, fed by all sorts of leaks, is putting the accused on trial. In order to avoid divisiveness in this time of peril, the media have chosen to selectively ignore certain culprits in this entire matter. Those who run the American intelligence establishment could be held responsible for the catastrophe for choosing to rely on technology, blinding themselves to simple observable and easily ascertainable information. Their failures have garnered little media attention, and there has been no open investigation of their shortcomings as of this writing. Indeed, this probably means that their budgets will be substantially increased. If the agency does the job, obviously it has adequate resources, but if it fails, maybe the answer is more funding.

Certainly, this is not the time to hold forged documents. It seems that many people with forged driver’s licenses, social security cards or other documents are being picked up. Some are possibly tied to something, but police and media reports position such individuals as instant suspects even though it is most likely that the vast majority of them are just carrying illegal documents.

Media have broached abstract issues such as the effects of increased security measures on civil liberties. But one might worry less about out the loss of such liberties, and more that we will become an inconvenient society, one in which delays and fears due to security will hamper everyday activities to the point where simple action becomes a hassle. Surely though, it is a bit too mundane to be concerned with inconvenience while fundamental rights are being abridged as we enter all sorts of portals. However, inconvenience in everyday life is hardly the stuff of dramatic focus in the glare of media, so it receives little attention.

The “Hunkering” Response

Much of what has passed for wisdom and insight suggests that we are doing the bidding of terrorism with excessive suspicion and even fantasy. The public is encouraged to have faith, be cautious, be brave, be judicious, be strong, exercise discretion, display solidarity, express patriotism, reaffirm values of hearth and home and, essentially, come together. We are urged, in effect, to “hunker down” – that is, to take prudent risks that aren’t all that risky, like fly or assemble in large venues, remain close to those whom we trust, cast a wary eye where warranted, and subsume personal pursuits to collective security. It’s clear that our worst enemy is our fertile minds. People may not generally admit to fear when asked, but many are afraid or feel depressed and will continue to consider threats–delaying plans, vacations, pulling back on investments, and not buying big ticket items; hunkering down so-to-speak is an expression of fear and it is not likely to dissipate as the government identifies, targets and attacks those whom it considers responsible. Thus, hunkering down pulls us away from those interactions that constitute public mundanity and diminishes our repertoire of ordinary life events.

Perhaps life appears to be continuing almost like before, but there is a tangible difference in terms of quality of mindedness. That is, people are far more conscious of dangerous or bizarre possibilities in daily life than ever before, even though these possibilities are diminished by the very awareness of them. The mood is not “let’s quickly assert that all’s ok.” The mood is more, “let’s act in ways that appear that we are carrying on in the same way despite the cloud that hangs above our heads.” If you feel that this attitude is warranted by the events, then you are essentially agreeing you are taking terrorism into account in the course of daily life. That is, you are performing as terrorists intended.

The way out of this is not clear, but we will have to emerge from the hunker down attitude or else our social, civic and economic lives will decay. Our models ought to be the heroism that marked the catastrophes themselves–people, as a rule, tend to sacrifice for the greater good–look at the firemen, the passengers on the plane who brought it down before it hit its mark, the people who carried the disabled down sixty flights of stairs, the teachers who stayed with children until the last minute before leading them out of danger–often at their own risk. Most Americans, especially, run toward the danger if they believe they can be of use.

Americans and peoples throughout the world must follow those heroic models, even if some were foolhardy. It’s important for all to get back to daily life and to reclaim mundanity in its emerging forms in order to deny terror its fundamental goal. If this is going to happen it should well happen within the coming time frame. If we accustom ourselves to the hunkered down approach, a mundanity will emerge that will seem to be a life, but so infused with contradictions that comfort, the essence of mundanity, can hardly be a part of it.

The New Mundane

To delineate mundanity in the post-terrorist world is to emphasize the significance of the mundane as a field of debate. Scholars of the mundane can be of service in the struggle to reconstitute this domain by promoting awareness of the meanings provided by the now questioned and even contested ground of everyday life. Recognition and appreciation of the comfort and usualness of the mundane, previously unscrutinized because it was so obvious, means that the effort is well worth the dangers. Mundane scholars can reveal how the underlying codes of mundanity can be modified to promote security while preserving its essence, and to promote small-scale changes that, when aggregated, may very well serve the function of eliminating terrorism as a possible battle tactic.

Surely, as we observe the new social terrain and take into account popular apprehension and the subdued mood of a threatened people, we will offer understandings that enable ordinary people to adapt to the changed circumstances. No longer will taken-for-granted dimensions of mundane life function in the same manner as previously. Situational awareness and even analytic consciousness will become more common in the commonplace. More investigation, more security, more concern for what truly passes as ordinariness will prevail.

Everyman and woman may be considered as potential fiend before we can be certain that he or she could be a friend. Perhaps we will purposefully overhear mobile phone conversations of “suspicious” characters in public. Certain dates will hold special fears for us as we anticipate retaliations on anniversaries of particular events. We will scrutinize, assess, make determinations and be ready to report variances in everyday conduct to authorities. Who will want to be the next neighbor who fails to detect a terrorist passing as a decent sort? Who will want to kick him or herself afterwards for overlooking a possible discrepancy in mundane behavior that, if noted, could have averted another disaster? Who would not want to be the hero who turns in a would-be terrorist thwarting another nefarious scheme?

Everyday activity on the Internet will be impacted, not only the with the flurry of copycat viruses and hoax photos from the WTC observation decks, but also with the sense of being scrutinized. Pre-existing Internet snooping protocols will be beefed up, and ordinary people may feel secure and that it is acceptable for their emails to be read, their website hits to be tracked, and their essential privacy to be violated. But their cyber-lives may be dampened.

In the midst of all these suspicions and fears, it is not impossible that perceptions of mundane life will turn bleak and fatalistic. Will the sense of buoyancy, lightness and optimism with which everyday life has been conducted in Western nations give way to grim visions of constrained, sharply bounded ways of behaving? Is it possible that the trivia of social life that has made the pages of Journal of Mundane Behavior such a pleasure for the editors and writers to produce turn into another heavy, sad academic endeavor scouring the depths of the human project with a sense of futility about its prospects?

We believe to the contrary that the post-terrorist mundane sensibility will incline toward a reasoned and moderate approach toward everydayness. This sensibility will encompass the virtues of consciousness directed at the everyday while serving as a reassuring anchorage in practicality that holds fear at bay. The tools for the preservation of a secure mundane world are within us as creatures prone to habit and ritual. Examples abound in the historical archives of sturdy peoples resisting despair in the face of immense devastation and turning to routine to salvage their existences. Surely this people in this time will prove resilient regardless of the nature of the assaults. With confidence in mundane analysis and in our celebration of the ordinary, scholars can play a public role in the post-terrorist era. We can facilitate the efforts of common folks to reclaim a mundanity that can sustain the very soul of civic life by our studies, by our commentaries and by our teachings.

Author: Myron Orleans is a professor of sociology at California State University, Fullerton, and Founding Co-Editor of Journal of Mundane Behavior. Currently nestled away in the metaphoric bunker of sabbatical leave, Myron still yearns for people to say “hello” to him as he walks down the street.

Published in9/11 and Everyday LifeIssues
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