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September 22, 2009
Sir? Ma'am? We're going to have to clear the waiting room now. We have an unattended bag.

I turned to look for it, and there it was, an ordinary black backpack, such as a student would use. It looked harmless enough, but that doesn't mean much. We got up and walked briskly to the other end of the platform to wait for the train home.

You can't live or work in New York and not use mass transit -- well, I guess you could, but hardly anybody does. Many more people take the train than ever fly, but you take off your shoes and send your bags under a scanner to fly anywhere, while you and your stuff can get on a train without any scrutiny at all. We have random bag searches on the subways in New York, which means that once in a great while, the transit police will set up a couple of tables by the turnstiles, and we have to take our bags there so they can go through them. And Amtrak checks IDS before you get on, theoretically, but I've ridden lots of Amtrak trains without showing anybody anything. On the trains, we're pretty much on our own.

We've already seen how easy it is to hurt people who are just trying to go to work in other countries -- the post-9/11 bombings in Madrid and London, the germ warfare conducted by a group of homegrown terrorists on the subway in Tokyo, years ago. A guy with a backpack can kill a lot of people.

But he can't kill all of us. The purpose of such attacks is to ruin our ability to live our lives, and ordinary people can defeat it by refusing to give them up. Nobody is more experienced at this than the British, who endured nightly bombings for the better part of a year in 1940-41, losing more than 40,000 civilian lives, with almost half a million wounded. A red and white "Keep Calm and Carry On" poster prepared for that hard time hangs in my little grandson's room -- a relic, I believe, of an infant era when he was keeping his parents up all night every night. Say what you will about the Brits, go ahead and criticize them for being reserved, undemonstrative and not in touch with their feelings, but there is much to be said for simply going about one's business as a means of making it through hard times.

So go about your business. Buy one of those posters -- they're extremely hip. But it is still true that, while the guy with the lethal backpack can't kill all of us, he might get me or you. There's no way to know in advance. What can you do about that?

Just live every day as if it were your last. Have your affairs in order. Do what you do well, and pick up after yourself. Give some thought to the larger life, which contains this one. And make sure the people you love know you love them. Think twice before you part from any of them angrily, even if it's just to run out to the store. Those biting words could be the last you will exchange in this world.
Seen the poster? Visit
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