|Norman Rockwell's "Freedom from Fear."|
On the day the unimaginable became real, late in the evening, after hours of drop-jawed TV watching, keyboard pounding and simple shock, I ended up, as always, with my wife, standing in my boys' bedrooms, watching them sleep.
I said, as always, "I'm going to check on the boys," though, in truth, they never need checking. They're always there, always sleeping, in a pile of toys, their breath slow and measured, their relaxed faces the faces of angels.
The truth is, I'm not checking for their benefit, but for mine. To deliver a kiss that isn't squirmed against. To reassure myself, before I go to sleep, that they're still there, right where they belong. The same way that, if somebody gave you a chest of gold and you stashed it in your closet, next to your shoes, you'd probably stick your head in to take a peek at it from time to time, just to make sure.
On the evening of the day the unimaginable became real, the contrast of those familiar, peaceful rooms--the reassuring night lights, the sock monkey, the guardian Pinocchio--with the mind-warping horror of the day, the heart-crushing thought of all those lost sons and lost daughters, lost mothers and lost fathers, conjured up, for me, a memory of a painting by Norman Rockwell called "Freedom from Fear."
It was part of a series of paintings called "The Four Freedoms,'' inspired by a speech that Franklin Roosevelt gave trying to put steel in the spine of a nation quavering before a world gone mad with terror.
It was January 1941. The Nazis had rolled over Europe and were battering at Britain. Japan was gobbling up its neighbors. In America, the isolationists were arguing that the fight wasn't our fight. Charles Lindbergh and his America Firsters were practically flinging kisses across the Atlantic at Hitler, convinced that the world would be better under Fascist domination.
Roosevelt set out to explain to Americans why they had a stake and why they needed to be ready. He said "It is immature—and, incidentally, untrue—for anybody to brag that an unprepared America, single-handed and with one hand tied behind its back, can hold off the whole world." He set out exactly what cherished rights we stood to lose: freedom of speech, freedom of religion, freedom from want, freedom from fear.
"Freedom from Fear" isn't quite as memorable. Just a simple scene--a mom and dad tucking in a pair of kids. You really need to read the headline on the newspaper in the dad's hand to grasp what is going on. The headline reads, "Bombing Kills/Horror Hits."
This is a war against Fear. Those who are trying to portray the pending military action as a crusade against Islam, a racial war or a conquest of Afghanistan are missing the point. Race is not a factor, religion is not a factor. If Timothy McVeigh and his band of losers were holed up in Idaho, we'd go into Idaho and get them, and if the state government there tried to stop us, we'd get them too.
When battle comes, it will have one goal—to reduce the certainty that more children, more parents, more friends will suffer the kind of anguish that people all across the world suffered last week and are suffering still.
If you can't support that, then what can you support? If you are so doubtful of your right to exist that you can't imagine fighting for it, if you pause from rolling in unworthiness at the feet of chickens to take this grave moment and stand up and declare that America doesn't have the right to protect itself because we eat meat or support the ACLU or have not always acted nobly as a nation, then I say, "The hell with you." We'll win this victory without you, and you can go sit in the corner of history along with Lindbergh and Chamberlain and all the other quislings and appeasers.
It astounds me that people could preach inaction at a time like this. That, like Lindbergh, they could put their faith in the ultimate goodness of those itching to murder us. To suggest that we should kneel before them and call upon their scant mercy.
I am not a hater. I feel sympathy not just for my kids, but for all kids, all people, all those sitting placidly beside their yurts in Afghanistan, or wherever, all who will be caught up in the crossfire, and I wish they didn't have to die. I wish they'd abandon their murderous—and ultimately suicidal—hate for us. But I doubt they will.
Inaction would only encourage more destruction in the future. And no encouragement is necessary. The terrorists are no doubt thrilled by their recent success and inspired to more. They can hardly wait, and it will take boldness and vigor on our part to stop them. We are, as in World War II, coming late to the game, late to a fight the world has already been battling, and will have to make up lost ground.
Every evening since the day the unimaginable became real, I stand over my sleeping boys and fear they'll be caught up in the Great Anthrax Release of 2005 or take a mortar round in a trench in Central Asia in 2015. But I'll be honest. I don't fear that much. Because I know that we live in a great country, a powerful country. If we could be attacked by the Axis, unprepared, and turn around and whup 'em, then how can we not be up to this task? This country, as Roosevelt said in his Four Freedoms speech, is "soft-hearted but cannot afford to be soft-headed." We dropped our guard, yes, we drifted into a false sense of security—a peace-loving nation will do that. Becoming complacent was a mistake. But we are not complacent now.
—Originally published in the Sun-Times, Sept. 23, 2001