I don’t usually pull columns from the old days, but this is the one I wrote on 9/11/2001 for the Baltimore Sun print edition of 9/12/2001, and it came to mind as the coronavirus pandemic became very real here in Maryland across the United States. I wrote the column at my desk in the Sun newsroom, feeling what most of my fellow Americans felt — shock, anger, confusion and the paralyzing sense of being lost. My kids were still young at the time, 8 and 11, so my thoughts were about them and the future of what seemed like a collapsing world. I’m feeling some of these same emotions today.
TERRORISM STRIKES AMERICA: Events shake belief in a better future
We organize the tools in our garage and line up the shoes in our closets. We trim the hedge and water the lawn. We shop in malls. We run. We walk the dog. We sip dark-roast coffee. We drive reliable cars with full tanks of gas. We go to work. We come home. We watch Monday Night Football. We read a novel. We sleep soundly. We have a pretty good life — orderly, even routine, comfortable, plentiful. We keep going. We believe in the future.
Most of us know that horrible things happen in this country. But we believe the worst things happen in others, and that keeps us going easily from day to day — that America is not the Middle East or some other unstable region where any day the bus you’re taking to work may explode.
We keep making plans for the future — immediate plans, long-range plans, retirement plans — and we live well, without constant fear of the sudden collapse of … everything.
We have the big shoulders of capitalism. We have wealth and brains and ingenuity, and the best kick-butt military and foreign intelligence in the world. We’ve put men on the moon. We’ve built towers into the sky.
What happened in New York and Washington yesterday was not the collapse of everything but certainly the collapse of faith in a safe, secure and open American life.
Many baby boomers figured that, once we survived the Cold War — if we could just get past the threat of mutually assured destruction — we might finally know a greater, better world.
The world wars of the 20th century were burning wrecks in our wake, and in time even the flames of Vietnam seemed to disappear over the horizon. We kept going. We believed.
We believed that maybe our children would know that better world. They wouldn’t have to live with air-raid drills in school, or with constant reminders of their country’s enemies, or buildings in ruins, or their teachers and parents weeping.
Somewhere along the line, it was supposed to get better — inside America and outside America. There would always be hate and hateful people, but America would not be the agent of hate. We’d be the agent of peace, the good guy. We would always be there — at Camp David, at Dayton, at dozens of other summits — to try to broker peace. We would be the big, fat daddy of the world, and while some would hate us, most would admire us and keep wanting to come here and join us.
But these are ideals I mention, not realities.
Here we are, long after our parents and grandparents saved the world from fascism, more than a decade after the fall of the Berlin Wall, and we’ve finally had a look at the world our children stand to inherit — orderly, routine, comfortable, plentiful, and terrifying.
That wasn’t the collapse of everything yesterday, but the fall of something — the hope that our kids might grow up fearless, citizens of a global community that increasingly knew peace and even prosperity.
Now we have to sit down and explain how too many old disputes still spawn new hatreds, that the world’s conflicts have no borders anymore, and that no amount of military force can stop acts of terror. In this age, a zealot can make war by buying an airline ticket.
Maybe all generations worry about the next. Still, I can’t imagine that, after surviving the Depression and World War II, the “greatest generation” believed the world they were leaving behind would be worse than the one they knew, especially after the fall of communism.
But here we are, the day after a new day of infamy.
You probably feel helpless.
Let’s take a lesson from the “greatest generation” constantly being venerated by head baby boomers Tom Hanks and Steven Spielberg. Let’s show some guts. The whole point of terrorism is to inspire terror. If we refuse to feel it, then the terrorists fail, no matter how many people they kill.
Let’s show some daring and resolve.
Let’s open our eyes and think beyond borders. Let’s stop electing and tolerating political leaders who see foreign policy as a category on Jeopardy.
Unless we show some determination to eliminate terrorists and to end the most intractable of conflicts at their roots, then we suffer the consequence of an American life that is orderly, routine, comfortable, plentiful, and terrifying.
That’s not the America I want to hand off to my kids.
We organize the tools in our garage and line up the shoes in our closets. We trim the hedge and water the lawn. We shop in malls. We run. We walk the dog. We pray for peace. We work for justice. We don’t give up. We keep going. We believe in the future.
The Baltimore Sun: Sept. 12, 2001