Sunday, July 11, 2004


Context I

SEPTEMBER 2001. Context is the bigger picture, the longer timeframe, the multiple perspectives that enable us to escape our myopic focus on the here and now. What's so wrong about the here and now? It barges in on us with the force and freshness of what is new, making the old seem stale or even obsolete. The here and now is more entertaining. And if it seems to obliterate the preoccupations of yesterday, that can be a liberating experience.

We have been through a particularly intense period of such obliterations this week. The Senate Intelligence Committee has decided that the CIA is to blame for failing to prevent both 9/11 and Bush's unpopular war in Iraq. Blame is a great here-and-now emotion. It gives us the sense that the past is somehow under control. We get to feel superior about the fools of yesterday who weren't as smart as the pristine certainties we enjoy in hindsight. They are folly. We are wisdom. We are not vulnerable as they were. And so we kid ourselves that we are also separated from the stream of consequences that continue to flow out of the past. Once blame has been assigned, we can start anew, as if we have magically achieved a clean slate.

New beginnings are joyful occasions. They're a time for broad smiles, fresh faces, lavish parties. That's why so many plays and movies launch the "happily ever after" of their concluded conflicts with the apotheosis of new beginnings, the wedding ceremony. The bride and groom in consummating their union are symbolically renewing the promise of life for all of us. That's why it's no surprise that this week also brought us the ecstatic exchange of vows between John Kerry and John Edwards, as well as the star-studded reception in which the guests presented their toasts as scathing denunciations of the unacceptable past. Scorn is a great obliterator. It is so self-absorbing, like a balloon in one's innards, that its expansion drives out the ability to perceive irony. Who has noticed the wit of the idiot Bush in choosing this week to speak out against gay marriage?

More soberly, who has juxtaposed the self-congratulating Democrat contempt for Bush displayed in Kerry's tony fundraiser with the odious fracas in Seattle, where we got an Independence Day reminder that anger is obliterating, too:

...Jason Gilson, a 23-year-old military veteran who served in Iraq, marched in the local event. He wore his medals with pride and carried a sign that said "Veterans for Bush."

Walking the parade route with his mom, younger siblings and politically conservative friends, Jason heard words from the crowd that felt like a thousand daggers to the heart.

"Baby killer!"



To understand why the reaction of strangers hurt so much, you must read what the young man had written in a letter from Iraq before he was disabled in an ambush:

"I really miss being in the states. Some of the American public have no idea how much freedom costs and who the people are that pay that awful price. I think sometimes people just see us as nameless and faceless and not really as humans. ... A good portion of us are actually scared that when we come home, for those of us who make it back, that there will be protesters waiting for us and that is scary."

Is it unfair to drag John Kerry away from his preening embrace of a not-quite-one-term prettyboy senator into this squalid scene? Sometimes real life provides its own helpful context. One of Gilson's fellow marchers had good reason to know the precedent for this kind of treatment of veterans. His father is a man named Frederick Scheffler.

Scheffler -- an Army veteran of two tours in Southeast Asia -- was shot in the leg during that long-ago conflict.

He came home with a cane, only to discover the American public was either indifferent to his sacrifice or downright hostile.

"I didn't think in this day and age combat veterans would be treated in this manner," Scheffler, 60, tells me, reflecting on Jason. "I saw it happen to veterans in Vietnam. I'm not going to let it happen today, not to these kids."

Oh, but he has no choice. He cannot hold back the gaiety of Democrat nuptials and their power to mesmerize both the media and the Hollywood-adoring onlookers. If their party is loud enough and scornful enough, it just might be possible to make America believe that the past is not still waiting and working and warring against us.

And they can always count on our most civilized compatriots, the Europeans, to do their part in magnifying the distractions of the here and now. Again this week, the magisterial Hans Blix uttered the pronouncement that the threat of global terrorism is outweighed by the impending catastrophes of hunger and global warming. Now there's some welcome obliteration: we have bigger things to worry about than Bush's feckless war on terror.

Yet underneath the accumulating mountain of diversion, there is a single tectonic plate whose magnitude we all do remember, no matter how dazzlingly diverse our efforts to forget it. In each of us lies that earthquake moment which divided the whole context of the present from the context of the past. Everything we are piling up to build more distance between ourselves and the crack in the world created by 9/11 is really an outgrowth of it. The hugs and kisses of Kerry-Edwards do not change the momentum of the quake; their power is no more than the false comfort of Mommy's lap as the roof is caving in with crushing strength.

It's impossible to look ahead farsightedly if you do not carry the past vividly with you through the mad parade of the present. Fortunately, there are those who work tirelessly to help us remember. For this reason, we'll close with a thank you to Charles Krauthammer, who survived the week's nonsense to counter Hans Blix's wishful thinking with plain and simple truth:

Hunger is a scourge that has always been with us and that has not been a threat to humanity's existence for at least 1,000 years. Global warming might one day be, but not for decades, or even centuries, and with a gradualness that will leave years for countermeasures.

There is no gradualness and there are no countermeasures to a dozen nuclear warheads detonating simultaneously in American cities. Think of what just two envelopes of anthrax did to paralyze the capital of the world's greatest superpower. A serious, coordinated attack on the United States using WMDs could so shatter the United States as a functioning advanced industrialized society that it would take generations to rebuild.

What is so dismaying is that such an obvious truth needs repeating. The passage of time, the propaganda of the anti-American left, and the setbacks in Iraq have changed nothing of that truth. This is the first time in history the knowledge of how to make society-destroying weapons has been democratized. Today, small radical groups allied with small radical states can do the kind of damage to the world that in the past only a great, strategically located industrialized power like Germany or Japan could do.

Somewhere in our heads, the planes are still flying into the towers, the victims are still jumping and burning, the mightiest buildings in the history of New York are still crumbling into ruin, a whole nation is still grieving and ready for war, an untried president is still feeling the weight of a new world settling on his shoulders and grabbing a bullhorn to rally us back from despair. We have to find that place in our heads and preserve its pain, because it is that important kind of pain which no one can kiss away.

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