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Commentary | JOHN BALZAR

We Carried a Big Stick, but We Chose to Walk Softly

We've shown wisdom, strength and patience. We can be proud.

September 11, 2002|JOHN BALZAR

I recall the World War II propaganda poster I once saw in a museum: A cartoonish Japanese soldier was shown leering into a bedroom window with a mind to raping a tender American wife. Only, Americans didn't use the " ... anese" when they spoke of the enemy in those days. I remember too the denigrating, dehumanizing nomenclature we casually assigned in the Vietnam War to a foe who never attacked our shore.

Today, in this new war against "terrorists" or "extremist Islamic fundamentalists," we remind ourselves not to go too far with stereotyping or profiling.

Perceptions have changed. This time, we are fighting an enemy we are trying to understand.

I am proud of my country. The world can envy us.

This is a different kind of war, so it's a different kind of anniversary. We take stock of ourselves and our nation, knowing that we cannot see the end, only lulls. We wonder whether the worst is before us.

After a year, just about every attempt at generalization that can be made about our nation and our battle with terrorism, has been. Dare I try another? Only this: The United States is a more temperate, circumspect country today than it was during its war of 30 years ago, or the one of 60 years ago.

Maybe we are a wiser people now. Or maybe the terms of battle dictate our response because this is a war for ideals ahead of territory, and it cannot be won without example.

Thus, we hoped we wouldn't lose our wits, and we didn't, or at least not entirely. We knew we'd need patience, and we've shown it; I'm speaking of you and me and the family down the block, all of us torn loose from our individual moorings to ride a strange tide together as a country. We meant to get on with our lives, and we have, our mandated company ID badges displayed around our necks, security cameras tracking our whereabouts, our Cipro in the medicine chest, our Lotto tickets pinned to the fridge.

Along the way, every action, each idea, everyone entrusted with leadership has been put to the test. Our debates have been nonstop, passionate, thoughtful--and productive. Our challenge was to show that pluralistic, secular democracy was strong, not weak. We have.

Two cheers for democracy, as novelist E.M. Forster put it: "One because it admits variety and two because it permits criticism."

Those who would undermine our values have lost esteem. Atty. Gen. John Ashcroft chief among them. Anyone who wants to deputize mail carriers as neighborhood spies but won't let his own anti-terrorism agents review applications for gun purchases is a hard fellow to take seriously.

Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson also ended up where they belonged, on the goofball fringe, after suggesting that we got what we deserved for departing from rote Christian fundamentalism.

On the other side of matters, the reflexive antiwar movement roused few. Our foray into Afghanistan this time has been far more considered, humane and right than our Cold War proxy mischief there in the 1980s. That's no small triumph for a complacent and insular country attacked and made to feel vulnerable.

At the end of summer 2002, American patriots are those who have opened their minds, not narrowed them, those who uphold, not acquiesce.

I am not proud of everything my country's done, or tried to do. But I'm proud that almost everything we've undertaken has been measured against what we say we stand for. Not for a generation have Americans had the opportunity to engage in such a wide-open civic soul-searching about those things we presume to hold dear.

Today's patriots are those who have not shied from the paradox: How do we preserve our belief in tolerance when challenged by intolerance?

It's a different kind of anniversary. The future looms as ominous as the past. Has everything changed? One thing for sure, it could at any moment. But we've had 12 months under pressure; a year to assess our purpose. The weaknesses that others suspected in us have not brought us down. Our strengths have held us up.

After a year, we have many things to doubt, but no cause to doubt ourselves.

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