Hearing the voices of history

Sunday, September 30, 2001

P When a butterfly flutters its wings in one part of the world, it can eventually cause a hurricane in another.

America is entering an age of change, if the words of our president are correct, and while many Americans now harbor a sense of dread, even fear, it will not be the first time our nation has embarked on a journey that has no known path nor a guarantee of certain success. All we can reasonably expect at this moment in history is that there is little we can, or should, take for granted, and, hopefully, we will make that assessment while relying on the exercise of good judgment by our elected leaders.

This new experience, or expectation if you prefer, will seem strange to a vast majority of our citizens, whose most recent memories of a war centered on a divided nation thousands of miles from our shores, and which we ultimately lost, not through the absence of courage of valor by our fighting men but the indifference expressed in so many ways by our citizens. George Washington perhaps best described the experience when he observed, "The history of a war is a history of false hopes and temporary expedients," and then added, "Would to God they were to end here."

Today's hope must not be false, neither must it serve as merely a temporary expediency, for we are faced with both a dedicated and dangerous enemy who seeks to destroy not only the icons of America's military and financial strength but the heart and soul of the country's firmament. As Thomas Jefferson so elegantly stated, "If ever there was a holy war, it was that which saved our liberties and gave us independence." We should not be deceived: our enemy seeks to end those liberties and destroy our independence.

Following the World Trade Center and Pentagon bombings, which we should recognize as cowardly acts of desperate men, America entered a state of shock that has yet to remove itself from the national psyche; those who recall the days following Pearl Harbor will remember that it took days, even weeks, for the initial despair to lessen and then disappear in the face of strengthened resolve and determination. We must strive to recapture this denouement, for it sustained us through a seemingly unending series of military losses and far too many deaths of brave Americans.

In the moment of recapturing history, President Woodrow Wilson's words, during the height of World War I, seem most appropriate in today's America: "Great democracies are not belligerent. They do not seek or desire war ... conquest and domination are not in our reckoning or agreeable to our principles. War has never been a mere matter of men and guns; it is a thing of disciplined might, and we regard war merely as a means of asserting the rights of a people against aggression."

Indeed, Americans have a reasonable expectation of protection against the mindless, soulless aggression that was unleashed upon them on Sept. 11's recording of shocking devastation. Those who launched this attack are not fanatics incapable of reasoning, devoid of feelings that are both human and divine. Their promise of carrying their vicious attacks against America, and thus thwarting our resolve, is an empty one, but regardless of the absence of fact, these threats have sent chills up and down our collective spines which must not, and will not, be bent to the will of murderers and desperate fanatics. Our response must be strong, it must be effective, and it must be made without doubt or hesitation.

For those who express concern and fear over repeated exposure to vile and evil retribution, let them recall the words of John F. Kennedy during the height of the dangerous missile crisis with the former Soviet Union in 1962: "Aggressive conduct, if allowed to go unchecked and unchallenged, ultimately leads to war. This nation is opposed to war. We are also true to our word."

Kennedy met the challenge by standing fast to our best principles, drawing a line in the sand past which no death-threatening enemy weapons would be delivered. Many who recall those events are hauntingly reminded of the uncertainty of many breathless moments, wondering whether we would become the targets of a rain of terror or saved by the strength of our Creator and our principles.

In the end, our principles persevered. We dare not forget their saving strength in this new moment of dangerous challenge.

Finally, let the slain president's words uttered only a few days before his trip to Dallas, serve as our beacon during these troubled times. They are worth repeating -- and remembering -- once again:

"Let us resolve to be the masters, not the victims of our history, controlling our own destiny without giving way to blind suspicions and emotions.

"Let us distinguish between our hopes and our illusions, always hopping for steady progress towards less critically dangerous relations with the enemy but never laboring under any illusions about their methods or goals.

"Let us recognize both the gains we have made down the road to peace and the great distance yet to be covered."

We, the American people, find ourselves once again traveling down that road. The distance yet to be covered must not deter us.

Jack Stapleton is editor of Missouri News and Editorial Service.

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