On Edge

Americans anxiously wait for war to begin and lives to change in dramatic ways.

Observations

March 19, 2003|By Michael Ollove and Lisa Pollak | Michael Ollove and Lisa Pollak,SUN STAFF

So we wait.

Everyone.

Everywhere.

We wait for the cataclysm. We wait for the casualty count.

We know it is coming although not precisely when. We know it will entail the extinguishing of lives, upheaval for multitudes, catastrophe for unknown numbers of people. We know it has not yet begun but that it soon will. It is heartbeats away. Only a few. It is coming.

It is hard to know what to feel no matter what we have felt up to now. War has a way of making tomorrow even more inscrutable. It sunders the past from the future. No one - not George W. Bush, not Jacques Chirac, not Saddam Hussein - can know what the world will be like on the other side of this. How can we hope to?

We have nothing to do but wait for it to start.

We are not adept at this. "We're not good with the unknown," says Donna Fiedler, a professor of social work at LaSalle University who did crisis counseling in New York after 9/11. "We're much better knowing what is happening, even if it's bad news. But now we're in limbo. Things haven't started. Everything is left to the imagination, so we think the worst."

Because we need to, we pretend we aren't so unknowing. We trade predictions about when the war will start, marshaling authoritative-sounding theories about night-bombing and possible counterattacks. Everyone seems to have a take on when it will come. It will come soon because American troops are so primed. It will come later to further unnerve the Iraqis. Everyone has a take. None of them knows.

We guess when it will happen at the same time we fill out our NCAA brackets and predict the Academy Award winners. We wonder if the basketball tournaments and the Oscars should even take place. Will March Madness have a different meaning in a couple days? The anxiety rises, and we grasp for ways of coping. One woman stays up all night watching the news; another avoids it completely.

"Even people like my mother, who absolutely loves America, just doesn't want to talk about this, doesn't want to hear about it," Susan Marino, a Baltimore acupuncturist, said yesterday in Federal Hill. "It's out of our hands now."

And so we wait.

For months the crisis with Iraq has been defined by waiting. We waited to see if a smoking gun could be unearthed, something to unite us in resolve. We waited to see if diplomacy or protest or pressure would avert the nightmare of war.

No one, it seemed, waited so well as Hussein, who presumably delighted in seeing the Western alliance - united for 60 years - unravel in discord over what to do about his intransigence.

Now he waits, knowing what comes next.

As do we all. We go about our normal routines, but carrying an extra burden, a shared sense of foreboding. Though he confessed his stomach was in knots, Rudiger Ruckmann, a fund-raiser for St. Ignatius Loyola Academy, said he was conscious of the need to continue with the usual routines. "You still need to buy your groceries, and you still make plans to be with friends, and you still try to remain open to your loved ones because if you close yourself off, then you're no good to anyone."

No matter what we are doing, though - finishing that report, helping with the homework, coaching first base - we know how minimal they will all be compared to the enormity of what is about to happen.

Yet, as we wait, we contemplate the most mundane questions. What time will the bombs start falling? Where will I be when I find out? Maybe we should be good at this by now. After all, we've been waiting for months. For terrorist attacks that didn't happen. For record-setting snowfalls that did.

Waiting for war is different. No Doppler radar can tell us what is in store. We can read the newspaper and watch CNN around the clock, but no amount of information will answer the questions worrying us today. How many lives will be lost? What will the damage be? Will the war expand? Will terrorists strike our country again?

Now all that's left is the waiting, which gives us time to think - whether we want it or not. If it's going to happen, many want it to begin already, to end the waiting. Others - though certainly fewer - cling to the hope that what now seems inevitable isn't. Until the weaponry actually fires, they can still tell themselves that it won't.

Sun staff writers Jonathan Pitts and Linell Smith contributed to this article.

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