Nation never innocent

September 19, 2001|By Richard O'Mara

I WAS on a bicycle errand the other day, pumping hard for the hardware store, when a guy on a bike faster than mine shot past me, then slowed and threw these questions back without turning his head: "Everything's different now, isn't that right, pal? Isn't everything going to be different?"

"Yes," I said, without thinking. "It is."

He then went to warp speed and virtually disappeared before my eyes, at which point I shouted, confusedly, into the wind, "No. It's not. I don't think things are going to be different."

By the time I got home I was more certain of that. Despite the efforts of the punditry on all sides to encourage me to think otherwise, I wasn't persuaded things were or would be different than they were before catastrophe visited New York and Washington and sent its shock waves of fear and anger and sadness rippling to every corner of the country.

I thought that because I recalled at that moment on the bicycle two themes that emerged into the public discourse following the bombing of the federal office building in Oklahoma City: First, life would never be the same again. Second, we've lost our innocence.

Pundits, wise men and women of the press and think tanks, driven by unforgiving deadlines to say something original, often say and write portentous things. At moments like this, perhaps, they believe grave and melodramatic statements are called for, even if the substance of them is not closely examined nor likely to be borne out.

In fact, all the official talking heads, both the wise and pompous among our political leaders, and even the dim lights, though leaders still, were determined to get the opposite message across: that, in fact, nothing will change; we won't allow it to. We must get on with the country's business, maintaining and celebrating our democratic institutions; we will live our lives and not be cowed by terrorists.

Were we changed as a people by the bombing in Oklahoma City? By the first bombing of the World Trade Center? I'd like to know how.

Fortunately this time the suggestion of lost innocence hasn't been advanced, or at least I haven't heard it yet. Maybe that means we have finally thrown off this infatuation with our own innocence, this nostalgic molasses which we have dripped so frequently into our political literature and rhetoric. If so, this is good.

It is like waking up to the reality of ourselves. We are not the young, callow nation many would have us believe. Ours is the oldest continuous republic in the world. If we ever had anything resembling "innocence," it would have been lost during the Indian wars.

We were said to be innocent when we went to fight the Hun, then just over two decades later, still innocent against the Nazis. After that, it seems, we had enough innocence left to lose in the quagmire of Vietnam.

Enough, please.

It would be difficult to find a country in the world that has been involved in as many wars, large and small, as the United States. We have the most powerful armed forces ever seen. We have invented horrific weapons, and used them. Was all this done in innocence?

One other impulse has emerged from this tragedy that was also present in the aftermath of Oklahoma City. The clamor to inflict punishment for the sake of justice -- or revenge, which to some seems almost a sacramental act. People want it. They enliven the letters pages with their healthy blood-mindedness. Perhaps they find catharsis in this.

Eventually, a valley in the remote Hindu Kush will probably be incinerated, and who knows what after that. Yet it is never as satisfying as we expect, nor as easy. No command is more difficult to execute than that which demands an eye for an eye, even when the will to obey is strong.

Currently, if the expected death toll in New York is accurate, to meet this ancient demand, we will have to put the light out in 5,000 pairs of eyes. Can we find that many of the guilty?

Richard O'Mara is a former foreign editor of The Sun. He lives in Baltimore.

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