NPR logo

Nuclear Nightmares Give Way To A New Terror, Seen On Paris Streets

  • Download
  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/456008522/456017564" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript
Nuclear Nightmares Give Way To A New Terror, Seen On Paris Streets

Nuclear Nightmares Give Way To A New Terror, Seen On Paris Streets

Nuclear Nightmares Give Way To A New Terror, Seen On Paris Streets

  • Download
  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/456008522/456017564" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript

Mourners arrange candles at the gate of the French Embassy in Berlin. Hundreds of people came throughout the day to lay flowers, candles and messages of condolence to mourn the victims of attacks Friday night in Paris. Sean Gallup/Getty Images hide caption

toggle caption Sean Gallup/Getty Images

Mourners arrange candles at the gate of the French Embassy in Berlin. Hundreds of people came throughout the day to lay flowers, candles and messages of condolence to mourn the victims of attacks Friday night in Paris.

Sean Gallup/Getty Images

Millions of people grew up in a time when we had nuclear nightmares. We worried that a few huge bombs might blow up the world, and we rehearsed how we should hide below our school desks if sirens ever sounded.

They'd test those civil defense sirens every Tuesday morning in Chicago; I've heard of other times in other cities. In time, they became just one more city sound, like the screech of a subway train or the flapping of pigeon wings. But every now and then, the siren could make you think, and chill a sunny morning. They could sound like small, mournful screams to remind us that we'd been born into a world that could disappear in a flash.

We couldn't see what frightened us; maybe that's often the way. The menace was overseas, in the skies, out of our hands. Powerful men were thought to hold our destiny in theirs, but we believed what held them back from pressing a button — the single button we thought would unleash a fireball — was what was pretty candidly called MAD: mutually assured destruction. Presidents, premiers and generals didn't want to die any more than ordinary citizens.

Children don't have to go through nuclear war drills now. We don't think of our world disappearing in a flash. But in our times, almost anywhere, it's hard not to think about the world being blinded by a thousand different flashes that take people by surprise as they go about their daily lives. In fact, terror depends on people being surprised as they laugh, walk, listen to music, talk to one another, walk the dog, or sip a coffee. And you may wonder: What can deter the kinds of people who wear suicide vests or rake crowds with bullets, if they are as uncaring about their own deaths as others?

The targets of terrorism don't tend to be strategic military objectives. The language of our times calls them "soft targets." Near as I can tell, this simply means targets that are as soft as our own flesh — like the people we saw in the blinking lights of emergency vehicles in Paris over these past few hours, and we've seen in recent years from New York to London, Mumbai and Nairobi: commuters, shoppers, concertgoers, laughing families, schoolkids, partiers and vacationers. Mothers, children, uncles and friends. Innocents.

We no longer support commenting on NPR.org stories, but you can find us every day on Facebook, Twitter, email, and many other platforms. Learn more or contact us.