Of this journey is to let the wind
Blow its dust all over your body,
To let it go on blowing, to step lightly, lightly
All the way through your ruins, and not to lose
Any sleep over the dead, who surely
Will bury their own, don’t worry.
–James Wright, “The Journey”
Upon hearing that a woman was gunned down in a Home Depot parking lot while loading her car alongside her husband, my horror was disconcertingly momentary. I quickly moved on to thinking, “This is the way it is.” The terrene and the horrific have come to inhabit the same space and, as my response attests, they exist side by side in our minds. What could be more domestic than making a run to Home Depot? What could be more horrific than standing beside and chatting idly with your beloved when she is suddenly slain? This is how it feels to be American today: poised for attack, yet openly victimized; deeply suspicious, yet innocently unsuspecting.
Freedom and vulnerability have never been closer comrades than they are today in the United States. Our illusion of national innocence has stubbornly persisted, though we have no more claim on it than any other nation. Feeling that we are different is perhaps the defining element of the American character. Thus embracing the fact that Americans are both responsible for and subject to unjust atrocities seems counterinstinctual. How many deaths at whose hands will it take for the myth of innocence to die? And if it does die, what will take its place?
One answer to this last question is becoming increasingly apparent: as the only remaining superpower, we’ve become equally defined by, or at least preoccupied with, our superpowerlessness. The relationship between freedom and vulnerability is by nature fraught with tension, in every arena. And in the aftermath of 9/11, Americans—spurred on by the posture and rhetoric of the Bush administration—have grown intolerant of vulnerability. Possessed of some consuming nisus toward total invulnerability, Americans speak and behave as if fuelled by a kind of holy desperation. “Crusade,” a term Mr. Bush used, then soon abandoned, remains a telling and apt characterization of the new superpowerlessness. The collective wisdom boils down to a determination not only to take reasonable measures toward security but also to annihilate any source of vulnerability, any and every person who would dare to threaten us or imply a threat or give us the impression of an implied threat. We’ve answered the extremists’ absolute with another absolute: anyone prepared to kill must die before he gets the chance.
It has all hit too close to home too suddenly. During the 1980’s American cities saw a shocking explosion of gang violence and murder rates, even in places as impenetrably homespun as Omaha and Des Moines. But how much greater is the myth that has been shattered since 9/11? The threats we now face differ in scale and, more important, in symbolic weight. By defying our comprehension, terrorism within our borders curtails our accustomed freedoms; far more significantly, however, it throws our sense of domestic order into upheaval. Thus we see in the Beltway sniper a metaphor for our maddening inability to control events in our own house.
Calling it a war on terror does a disservice to the nature and locus of the battle, for so much of it is a psychological assault whose effects we carry into (potentially) every mundane task. Most people realize that there’s no use being paralyzed by fear, and many understand that our vulnerability is a fact of life that must be acknowledged but not dwelt upon. What has been lacking in the national conversation, and certainly in the national leadership, is a contextualization of both our vulnerability and our freedom. Unlike most of the rest of the world, we’ve been shielded from such unpleasant discussions—or chosen to ignore them. We’re different, remember?
A major contributing factor to the national sense of shock in the wake of 9/11, and more recently the Beltway sniper, is the inordinate degree to which the myth of innocence has gone unchallenged in the United States. Our self-awareness—at least as articulated by national leaders—has been poor, to put it mildly. Whether or not a more clear-eyed understanding could have prevented 9/11 is currently receiving widespread speculation. More relevant here is the question of how we bury the dead, how we go on living, how we prosecute this “war” on terror and how we reframe our national psyche.
Let us not delude ourselves. The United States has always been powerful and vulnerable. And we have been inundated with the knowledge that we’ve never been more powerful and more vulnerable than we are right now. What we do with this knowledge reflects the quality of our freedom. Whether we make these two characteristics—power and vulnerability—absolutes by which we measure ourselves as a nation and as individuals is both the extraordinary and the everyday challenge before us.