Flags not ribbon this time

Posted: Oct 11, 2001 12:00 AM
WASHINGTON -- A month after the vile acts committed against the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, we see very few yellow ribbons. In the 1980s and 1990s, it was yellow ribbons that signified an attack on Americans -- Americans abroad and held hostage by treacherous soldiers of some esoteric cause, whose modus operandi was to fall not on the armies of their imagined enemies but on unarmed citizens. This time around, we are displaying the flag, and the ribbons we display on our clothes and on our buildings are ribbons of red, white and blue -- the colors of the country. They bespeak a renewed patriotism, but a more somber patriotism than American displayed in other times of loss or international emergency, such as the Cuban Missile Crisis or the Gulf War buildup. This patriotism is not spiced by the boyish excitement we so often associate with American patriotism. Even the hawks are subdued. This time, the war started here. More than 6,000 died in one morning. We anticipate more Americans dying on our shores. In Washington, the tourists still fill the streets. In the fields around the great monuments, the students and young office workers still play soccer and touch football. In office buildings, however, people are quieter -- some are tense. When a helicopter flies overhead, some become more tense. When a siren is heard, people think of the World Trade Center or the Pentagon. New York is even more affected. My friend, the widely traveled photographer Shepard Sherbell, calls from New York to say life has yet to pick up. The city is quiet. Yale University Press is about to release the result of his years in Moscow, a book of poignant photographs titled "Soviets: Pictures From the End Of the USSR. During the years he served there, he would fly off to Helsinki, Finland, "for a sanity check." He remembers Helsinki as the quietest city he had ever visited. "You could hear the sound of car tires on the pavement," he recalls. For that matter, behind the old Iron Curtain the people were also quiet. They had experienced war and repression. Shepard is an old New Yorker, and what he notices today is how quiet New York has become. It is the consequence of unanticipated mass violence. Of course, Washington is a little quieter, too, after the atrocities of Sept. 11. The death that rained down on America might put us all in mind of the London Blitz of 1940-1941. There is another reason to be put in mind of the Blitz. The evil zealot who directed aerial destruction against innocent, unarmed civilians, hoping to frighten our government into capitulation, used lethal instruments first used in the modern world by Hitler. Today, the news media resort -- after the modern fashion --to social science and to psychiatrists and other technical experts to explain our condition at home and provide comfort. There is a better source of for comfort, understanding and guidance for the future. In this time of national emergency, we might all turn to the comfort and instruction of history. This is as close as we Americans have come to the sensations Londoners might have felt in the Blitz. Fittingly, last weekend I sat down and read Winston Churchill's account of the 1940-1941 Blitz in the second volume of his war memoirs. In measured prose and finely balanced sentences, the great man tells of the hardship, cheerfully borne by Londoners during Hitler's barbarism. He talks of the fear and sorrow always followed by anger and annealed resolve. Surely there is some of this in the subdued humor now experienced in all our urban centers. And he notes: "When the bombardment first began, the idea was to treat it with disdain. In the West End, everybody went about his business and pleasure, and dined and slept as he usually did." Is that not precisely what President George W. Bush and his colleagues urge on us now? In New York, the citizenry is exhorted to attend Broadway plays and spend freely. To be sure, the Blitz was far more horrible than what Americans face today. And if we do not know when it will end, that too is not unlike what Londoners faced. Churchill writes that at the outset of the war he and his countrymen feared that the bombing could last for years, until London was "soon reduced to a rubble heap." Our dangers will last until every snake is pulled from its hole. Bush is right to see that not merely the terrorists holed up in Afghanistan are subdued, but terrorists everywhere, lest some demented scourge from somewhere else rise up and massacre peaceful peoples. There is another passage in Churchill's memoir that commends itself to our reflection. "Away across the Atlantic," he notes of the 1940-1941 period, "the prolonged bombardment of London, and later of other cities and seaports, aroused a wave of sympathy in the United States, stronger than any ever felt before or since in the English-speaking world. Passion flamed in American hearts, and in none more than in the heart of President Roosevelt. The temperature rose steadily in the United States. I could feel the glow of millions of men and women eager to share the suffering, burning to strike a blow." Following the splendid leadership of the present British prime minister, as he travels the world calling the civilized nations to their duty and sending British forces against international terrorism, I was reminded that the "special relationship" of our two countries is one of history's natural wonders. Together we resisted the totalitarians until today there are no more of them. Together we must fight the terrorists to the same happy conclusion. If we do not, the terror will revive again, not just against America but against all the cities of the civilized world.