Economist / Shell Writing Prize 2002
By Jack Gordon
I like thunderstorms. My dog does not.
I never feel so impressed by planet Earth, nor so satisfied to inhabit it, as when a proper
thunderstorm is in progress. I like the rumbling approach of the great cumulus cloud, the booms
and flashes, the way you can actually feel the air pressure drop in the moments just before the
first wallop of wind arrives. I like storms even though one tried to kill me a few years ago, late at
night on a 36-foot sloop with its full mainsail still stupidly up, 20 miles from the nearest shore of
No thunderstorm ever offered my dog any harm, but they terrify her just the same. She
whimpers and shivers. She hides in the bathroom. She crawls into people's laps. She makes an
insufferable nuisance of herself, and no reassurance can calm her. Call Roxie neurotic, but she
just doesn't feel safe.
Then again, if "neurotic" refers to behaviour dictated by a fear that is unreasonable by prevailing
social norms, then perhaps the word no longer applies. When the TV weather people in
Minnesota, where we both live, interrupt their regularly scheduled programming to issue
panicky bulletins concerning a thunderstorm detected (by Doppler radar) somewhere within
150 miles (but headed this way!), they always speak as if addressing viewers no better able than
Roxie to assess the odds against being eaten by thunder or struck by lightning.
Blowing threats out of proportion is, of course, the stock in trade of TV news, whether the
menace in question is a summer rainstorm or the distressing stains revealed when an
investigative reporter shines ultraviolet light on a freshly laundered bed sheet at an upscale
hotel. But television reflects its viewers' attitudes as well as shaping them, and clearly there
exists a very large audience receptive to the never-ending theme: Life is meant, ever and always,
to be safeand you're not safe.
Enter Osama bin Laden.
Twelve hours hadn't passed si