Sunday, September 11, 2016

Freedom from Fear

Norman Rockwell's "Freedom from Fear."

     When the attacks of September 11, 2001 happened, 15 years ago, my boys were 4 and 5 years old, and it was natural that I'd view the event through my feelings for them. The month wasn't out, and the country was debating what to do. If you've forgotten how we ended up in a land war in Afghanistan, this column from the end of September, 2001 will help remind you of  the thinking at the time—the World War II mentality is significant. We make mistakes because we're always fighting the last war instead of the next one. I can't say I'm proud of being swept up in the passions of the day. Still, despite the saber-rattling, I did manage to nail one truth: "This is  war against 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.
     Norman Rockwell responded with a series of paintings. You might recall the most famous of the four, "Freedom from Want," which shows the happiest family ever recorded in the history of art, abuzz as a gigantic, golden brown turkey is set before them.
     "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."
    I never realized what it felt like to be the bulwark between a terrifying world and your children. It made me realize what we have riding on this. Parents stand between their children and the grim reality of the world, or try to. But there is only so much we can do, and there comes a point--now--when you have to say a prayer and hope your leaders do the right thing, whatever that might be.
     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


  1. Well said, Mr. S.

    Anyway,Chamberlain had to appease-he didn't have his nation's or Parliamentary support to do more at the time. WWI was still quite fresh in everyones mind.

    Just like FDR wanted to do more sooner and could only turn to the Lend Lease Act until Pearl Harbor. Congress probably wouldn't have declared war before that.

    1. Yes. When Chamberlin stepped off a plane from Munich waving a document signed by Hitler that said the two countries would not go to war it was met with public acclaim. (He didn't announce 'peace in our time,' a line from the Book of Common Prayer, but 'peace for our time.') As a practical matter, Britain was poorly prepared for going to war, a situation that was greatly improved two years later.

      The Munich aggreement disheartened the Czechs, who had a military establishment the German generals worried about, and solidified Hiter's political position. But possibly more significant in the long run was the 1933 Oxford Union debate in which the morion "That this house will in no circumstances fight for its King and country," passed 275 to 153. Both Hitler and Mussolini cited it as evidence that the British were soft.

      As Santayanta famously pointed out, historical lessons are important. But also, drawing simplistic historical analogies should also be guarded against. The 9-11 attack was an act of war. but it wasn't the invasion of Poland. Or Pearl Harbour.

      Tom Evans

    2. The United States didn't declare war on Germany until Hitler declared war on the United States on Dec. 11, 1941.

      @Thomas Evans: The correct spelling is "Pearl Harbor". You don't Briticize the spelling of proper names!

    3. It's true we weren't technically at war with Gemany until December 1941, but American flag ships were being sunk by German U-boats well before that date. By that time actual declarations of war were something of a formality.

      I spent a few years in England and correspond with friends and relatives there, so I often slip into British spelling. Sorry if it distresses you, but I'm too old to start fussing about something like that. Will have to ask if they have a rule about when it is and is not permissable to Americanize spelling.


  2. As always, you speak for us all.

  3. Can't argue with your point that action was required in response to 9/11; however, long after we're dead, there'll be arguments as to what action would have worked better. The strategies and tactics of all our wars have come into question from time to time. Even the Revolution. In high school after reading Oliver Wiswell, I became convinced that the Revolutionary War wasn't necessary and made a sufficiently cogent argument to that effect that I got an "A" on my history paper even though the history teacher disagreed with my conclusions. That the cruel death of some three thousand Americans deserved some sort of retribution cannot be denied. That the retribution should have claimed the lives of many more thousands of Iraqis and Afghanis is shameful and the evil consequences long lasting. We need to mourn for all.


  4. The Revolution wasn't necessary? I'd beg to differ. Although I'm not familiar with the writer that you cite, it would be a long time before the Brits would have left us of their own accord. Now if they gave some representation in Parliament so we could have say on taxes, then maybe we would have waited to revolt.

  5. That opinion was based on a novel by Kenneth Roberts and was formed about 60 years ago by an adolescent eager to display his intellectual prowess at its peak, sad to say.


    1. At one point in "It Can't Happen Here," Sinclair Lewis' counterfactual novel about American fascism, the hero muses at one point whether either the Revolutionary War or the Civil War were really necessary. As I recall, he makes a better case against the first than the second.


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