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FDR and his dog at their memorial in D.C.

9/11 Five Years On
Paranoid Nation

I am too young to remember FDR. Most people nowadays are. But I learned about him in school and we read about him quite often in newspapers and magazines. And of course one of the most famous lines he ever uttered, and which all of us have heard at one time or another through a scratchy, ancient recording, was this: “We have nothing to fear but fear itself.”
I have heard the story many times from my mother. My grandmother was in Wayne Hospital in Greenville pregnant with her when Pearl Harbor was bombed. The specter of fascism was no longer an abstraction. It was stalking our shores. I imagine her listening on the hospital radio, and I can only imagine the terror she felt, wondering if the Japanese and German air forces would extend their reach into the heartland of America and the hospital where she harbored an infant child, her first. Mom was born two weeks later. It was a bittersweet Christmas for my grandparents. My father was six months old. And soon his father would be on his way to France. He returned a hero of that war, and although he died when I was very young, I treasure the coins from Vichy France which my father passed down to me.

On September 11, my wife was three months pregnant with our second child. Like many parents, and like my grandparents before us, we wondered what kind of world our child would meet in his lifetime. I was a teacher at the time. I watched the towers fold one after the other in my classroom as all instruction came to a halt that day, and thought of the children in front of me, too. Some of them, in this well connected community, had jet-setting parents in the air that day. I thought about how this day would shape their adulthood and the goals they set for themselves. Would these young men and women eventually be sent off to war? Would the economy collapse? We didn’t know at that young hour exactly what we were facing, but we had never seen anything like it, and the terrible apprehension was such that none dared speak it.

Later that evening and for days afterwards, my wife and I would watch the stories of the victims, the details of the attack as they were presented: a naked aggression, a foreign and inscrutable enemy, the audacity of an attack on our shores, the utter surprise of it all... How could one not think of Pearl Harbor? It seemed we were living our grandparents’ nightmare.
And how could we not, given the hagiography of the “greatest generation”, look to our parents and grandparents for a model of courage? For a while it seemed like 1942: a country united, young men like Pat Tillman heroically volunteering for service against all logic and self interest, a president with a clear vision in the face of the enemy, the patriotism and spirit of the country seeming to rise to the challenge.

Five years later, I can’t help but wonder how our children and grandchildren will look back on this time. Did we rise heroically to honor the memories of the previous generations? Or did we succumb to fear?

I wasn’t around in 1942. But I don’t imagine Roosevelt had to sell America on the terrible threat that the Germans and Japanese represented. I doubt that my grandmother had to be told why we were at war. Instead, the propaganda of that time, from what I have seen in history classes, seemed to focus on the sacrifices needed of Americans in order to win. The propaganda of our day seems to focus on how real the threat is. Our Vice President has resorted more than once to the fearmongering smear that a vote for a political opponent means the country will be attacked again. Most recently we were told that the enemy was decimated, but still very dangerous. Cheney wants Americans to believe and feel very profoundly that fear which we all felt in the aftermath of 9/11. But while Roosevelt helped a nation stand up to fear, Cheney will be remembered for saying essentially the opposite: the only thing we have to fear is the absence of fear.

In a few ways I think the threat America faces today is greater than in 1942. Because our democratic principles are threatened from within. While torture of captives in our care has been documented and publicized, no official in the military or government has been called to account for it. Innocent civilians in Iraq and Afghanistan have died horrible deaths. Soldiers like Pat Tillman who so nobly enlisted have been used as political props while the real cause of their deaths is covered up and their noble return to this country is barred from public view. We live in a time in which a musical artist was blacklisted for saying she was embarrassed by the president. We live in a time in which a judge upholding the fourth amendment to the constitution is viciously attacked as partisan. We live in a time in which the mendacity of our elected leaders is so profound and the manipulation of language so outrageous that it would make Orwell blush. We live in a time, tragically, in which a prominent American journalist is able to say, and be credible in saying it, “the worst part is the screams of the boys.” We live in a time in which the right to vote is not held sacred, but is instead the private purview of corporations and unelected software designers. We live in a time of outrageous wealth and crippling poverty. The corruption and exploitation that the progressive era sought to eradicate is returning. Legislation is written at the behest of private corporations to further enrich the elite while the working people of the country go without raises or basic health care. College education, which was so cheap when I graduated that 30 hours of work per week could buy it, has become an impossible dream for some. Racism has returned in nefarious new forms. And the world that keeps us alive is being gradually destroyed while monied interests prevent the most influential nation in the world from taking action.

As I think about these last few years, and the depths to which our government and our nation have sunk, I realize that my compatriot enablers and I won’t be remembered as the greatest generation. We have instead become the Paranoid Nation, paralyzed by—and as it seems at times, in love with—our irrational fears. And if not “paralyzed” by this fear here at home, then hubristically emboldened by it abroad. We seem infatuated with the ways our fear releases us from moral and legal constraints, excusing the worst abuses of our age. When the rule of law is occasionally championed, the fear-mongers rage about the need to be safe from television studios that have never seen a bullet, heard an alarm, been evacuated, or even had the honor of receiving an anthrax mailing. They tell us we are saf-er, but not safe. They tell us to trust them and reward the job they're doing, but fear for the future. Is this a call to our greatest instincts, or our worst ones? Is it a call to courage? Or a call to hide in our basements? Is the fear I am supposed to feel at every turn worthy of the courage my grandmother and her generation showed over 60 years ago?

Once I was speaking to a friend (we’re not so friendly anymore, sadly—one of the many friendships the past few years have cost me) who said, in explaining his vote for Bush, “It all comes down to keeping my family safe.” This is the safety Bush has brought us? This culture of fear at home and bullying abroad is his legacy and his shining achievement? This safety born of the screams of little children? I think, almost daily when I read or hear about the war in Iraq, of “Ali”, the boy who was briefly a media celebrity, for losing his limbs as well as his family—every last member—in an American bombing. And I think of Ali, and I say to myself, that isn’t the kind of safety I require.

It’s not too late to reverse course. There is still time for my generation. I pray that we will wake up. It’s not all about safety or “security,” that meaningless word so often bandied about these days. At some point we have to remember what America is supposed to mean. Something greater than a walled fortress and a missile defense shield. My son, born in the shadow of 9/11, is four now. The Iraq war was launched on his first birthday. What will America mean for him? I hope it’s not too late for all of us to reclaim what’s being lost.

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