Paul Greenberg

It is good to live in the present, but to live only in the present is to deprive it of proportion, perspective, meaning. Without some appreciation for the past, we cannot live fully in this present. We reduce it to one dimension. And everything that happens seems to be happening for the first time.

No wonder we are always taken by surprise. We forget we can be awakened from our happy dream at any moment. On any day of the calendar. Like September 11. Or December 7. And we are regularly shocked. Imagine: There are people in the world who wish us ill, who are willing to spend years to carry out one devastating attack, who live to die. And kill. Unimaginable. Unless we have some sense of history and our place in it.

Learned fools write impressive books about The End of History, but it refuses to end. It goes on producing one shipwreck after another, but some of us are genuinely astounded, and angered, to discover that we're not on some luxury cruise. War? There must be some mistake. Or a conspiracy. This isn't what we ordered, waiter, this isn't what we ordered at all. Can we send it back?

We'd all prefer to be tourists in history rather than participants. Who wouldn't? But just because we're not interested in war doesn't mean war isn't interested in us. And one day, one perfectly ordinary day, the passenger planes go crashing into the New York skyscrapers, or the Zeros come in low over Pearl Harbor. And we are all so surprised. Again.

I once took the popular cemetery tour down in New Orleans. The pre-Katrina New Orleans, before history struck there, too, three years ago. It was peaceful in the cemetery, lulling. All the love and loss recorded on the cracked old tombstones was so long ago, the pain had faded. Only the fading inscriptions remained. One felt history there no more than the chipped angels on the stone monuments might have felt a mother's pain. It was just an afternoon's entertainment.

Then I got to a little section of plain white, government-issue tombstones, like the ones, row on row of them, at the National Cemetery on Confederate Boulevard here in Little Rock. But all of these bore a single date: June 6, 1944. The Normandy beachhead.

Realization struck: All of us wandering around the old cemetery were breathing free because these men, some of them just boys, really, had died that day. And so many before them, and to come. It was noon in New Orleans under a bright sun, but I felt the shadows lengthening. I felt history beckoning, and realized anew that those who decline to shape it will, one perfectly ordinary day, be unable to escape it.

Paul Greenberg

Pulitzer Prize-winning Paul Greenberg, one of the most respected and honored commentators in America, is the editorial page editor of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette.