A few cheerful words about the United States

Posted: Oct 23, 2001 12:00 AM
Over the weekend, the weather could not have been lovelier: soft as a kitten, warm as a puppy. I attended the annual convention of the Episcopal Diocese of Dallas, where nobody fought anybody over anything, contrary to the expectations aroused these days by almost any mention of religion. Restaurants hummed with pleasant conversation. Stores and shops seemed busy. A fine, normal weekend? What's normal anymore? Sept. 11 seemed normal, too, until about 8:46 a.m. EST. And what was the talk on TV news this morning as I dressed? The talk was of smallpox -- supposedly the next scourge Americans are supposed to guard against. Later in the day came reports that two postal workers likely exposed to anthrax had died. No one would call these times normal. That is not my point. My point is the vast assimilative powers of the United States of America -- even a United States "under attack," as the TV logo had it (quite understandably) after the horrors of Sept. 11. My point is that the Talibanists and Osamists and what-nots seem to have bitten off more than they can chew and digest. The United States is a vast and vastly adaptable place that may already have taken the strongest punch the enemy can throw. The strength and potency of that sucker punch lay in surprise. We failed to see it coming. Hit us? We would have asked innocently. A major biological attack, even if one is launched now, will hardly find us unprepared. It would seem appropriate, even amidst great grief, to take some satisfaction in the strength and resilience of the United States of America. Terror's purpose is to terrorize. To feel terror is to be incapacitated. I see no signs of that here. I see overexcitability sometimes, as in all those panicky calls about talcum powder on restroom floors. Nonetheless, overexcitability is blood kin to prudent concern, not to outright panic. I see no signs of public panic around here. I say this, what is more, as the parent of a congressional staffer packed off home when last week's anthrax scare virtually shut down Capitol Hill. The virtues of a large, bustling, and -- most of all -- free society are sometimes underappreciated. The very looseness of a free society makes that society formidable. The free don't stand around in chains, waiting for the latest mullah or fuehrer to give them instructions; they figure things out for themselves. Then they act, not always wisely, and not necessarily without causing or experiencing pain; but they act generally with a high degree of success. The terrorists are a few thousand well-closeted nuts and psychopaths, of rigid mental habits. The Americans are 280 million free, uncontrolled, sometimes uncontrollable, men and women who outnumber the nuts and psychos 100,000 to one. Who, moreover, are understandably touchy about someone else's plans to reorder their lives. You don't look at Americans down a gun sight and expect obedient looks in return. Likelier you inspire them to the heights scaled by that fireman at last weekend's New York benefit concert. I'm talking about the man who announced over the mike that Osama could come and kiss his "rich Irish" backside. If that's not the spirit of '76, or of any year, we have yet to see true spirit. I had not meant originally to compose a paean "to America." I had been thinking nonetheless that events, grim as they are, aren't half so grim as the mad mullahs would prefer them. Why not say so? It's as the boyhood friend of Dr. Johnson said, explaining why he had never managed to become a philosopher -- "cheerfulness was always breaking in." The cheerful, too, can be saps, but now and then they are on to something. Like now?