Don't let unseen enemies haunt another generation

September 14, 2001|By Raymond Daniel Burke

SO NOW it returns to plague another generation. The specter of the instantaneous obliteration of our precious peace is back. The reality that terror can strike from out of nowhere is again our unwelcome companion.

Throughout Baltimore, we once were children who lived with the possibility that the world we knew could, at any moment, be annihilated by a nuclear attack. It was so much a part of our lives that we talked of it with a casual frankness that confirmed our acceptance of its power over us.

We had matter-of-fact explanations for why we had reconciled ourselves to having no chance for survival in the event of the next and last great war. The Soviets, the Russians, the Commies, or however we might choose to name our distant enemy, would surely want to take out what was then the huge steel mill at Sparrows Point.

They would attack the many military installations that surrounded us, like Forts Meade, Detrick and Ritchie, as well as Aberdeen. And, of course, our proximity to Washington, even in the absence of a local hit, would doom us with the inevitable arrival of radioactive fallout.

We shared macabre amusement at our school air raid drills, in which we followed the useless routine of going out in the hall and burying our faces against the lockers. At least we would be away from the imploding windows, and would only have to cope with flying metal, crumbling concrete and Venus-like heat.

At home, the plan was to go into the basement and hope that the house didn't cave in on us. We could go to the fallout shelter at one of the schools, but were more inclined to stick it out as a family in our own home. Our grim motto: "The family that stays together gets sautM-ied together." Such was our calculated nonchalance.

We delighted in mocking the instructions at the end of the test of the Emergency Broadcast System: "If this had been an actual emergency, you'd be toast by now." This juvenile swagger betrayed our feeling of powerlessness.

As the Cuban missile crisis played out on our black-and-white televisions, we responded with a "so this is how it happens" acceptance. But then, when it ended, we let go an enormous sigh of relief that spoke volumes as to how afraid we really were.

Now, after many years without the fear of fire from the sky, the terrorist attacks on New York's World Trade Center and the Pentagon have forced us to reluctantly acknowledge our vulnerability. We had come to believe our children would be spared the need to make light of the possibility of an unspeakable horror - that they would not have to hide behind the bravado that was our childhood's defense against that which haunted our daily security.

We are always exposed to the possibility that tragedy may strike. It might be through an accident, a natural disaster, or even a criminal act that could turn our world upside down or end it. But those are the risks of life. It is something entirely different when a determined enemy seeks, and has the means, to take our lives and the lives of our loved ones from us.

This current version of terror has the capacity to impact our daily lives in ways far beyond any with which we have previously coped. Our efforts to protect ourselves will drastically change our access to public facilities and our ability to travel. We will give up privacy and civil liberties in exchange for increased security.

But its most profound effect may be a familiar one. Our children may lose their freedom from fear. They may have to adopt our method of hiding their helplessness behind grotesque humor and, as we did, give up a part of their childhood innocence.

That is reason enough to unwaveringly commit ourselves to the difficult task of fighting this shadow enemy at every turn and every venue. Tuesday's tragedies call upon us to be relentless in our unwillingness to accept the perpetual imposition of this power over our lives.

We must dutifully embrace whatever burdens may be necessary to rid ourselves of this menace.

Our success will be this generation's finest hour of service to its posterity.

Raymond Daniel Burke, a Baltimore native, is a partner in a Baltimore law firm.

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