Christmas in America

Posted: Dec 13, 2001 12:00 AM
WASHINGTON, D.C. -- Back in the days of the Cold War, when low-lying anxiety about the world's future quivered through this comfortable country, I used to write a special Christmas column. Perhaps it was the spirit of the Grinch that got hold of me, but I always looked beyond our shores to those suffering under communism and wrote a column called "Christmas in (blank)." Putting a little damper on my fellow Washingtonians' seasonal good cheer, I would fill in the blank each year with the geographical name of a place where suffering really was taking place thanks to the bully boys. One year it was Christmas "in Warsaw," another "in Cambodia," another "in Cuba." During the Cold War, every year there was suffering and sadness for a foreign people. This year I could write about the suffering in Afghanistan. For the bully boys of Islamic fundamentalism certainly have brought suffering there. But our troops have moved in to put an end to that suffering just as eventually American resolve against communism put an end to much of the suffering of communism's victims. Admittedly, the communists still impose misery on Cuba, and, for that matter, that other recipient of the anti-anti-communists' ignorant meddling, Vietnam. Yet American resolve, aided by the resolve of our British friends, has brought hope to the Afghans. This Christmas, in scanning the world for a site where innocents have suffered at the hands of the bully boys, I might settle on "Christmas in America." Though "'tis the season to be jolly," America is still touched by sadness for the people we lost on Sept. 11. We grieve also for the families and friends of those lost Americans. Moreover, I should think, we are saddened that three very great American buildings were either totally destroyed or badly damaged by the demented bullies who ambushed them. America remains prosperous and powerful. In fact, precisely how powerful can be judged by those with a sense of history. In the 19th century, the world's most powerful empire could not subdue Afghanistan. The British army suffered grievous defeat in its Afghan wars, and that mighty army to Afghanistan's north, the Czar's, fared no better. America conquered the Taliban in less than three months, and any other nation that would be foolish enough to take us on would do not much better. Still, an inescapable fact of this Christmas season is that Americans are saddened. The media echo with the pained sentiments of ordinary Americans expressing grief and of American leaders grieving at memorials. Just the other day, in a ceremony beginning at 8:46 a.m. and synchronized with ceremonies around the world commemorating the Sept. 11 attacks, President George W. Bush reminded the world that we shall never forget "the cruelty of the murderers and the pain and anguish of the murdered." In his newfound eloquence, he observed that "every one of the innocents who died on Sept. 11 was the most important person on Earth to somebody," and, "Every death extinguished a world." One of the season's mysteries for me is not that Bush has performed so magnificently from the White House. He was obviously a better man than his opponents made him out to be. His fine record as governor of a huge state had made that clear. The mystery for me is that he has almost totally ceased to mangle the English language. His speeches are eloquent, but so are his extemporizations. How do we explain such a transformation? The poet Goldsmith in "The Deserted Village" speaks of "The silent manliness of grief." Joseph Addison in "The Spectator" in 1712 writes that "Grief has a natural eloquence belonging to it, and breaks out in more moving sentiments than can be supplied by the finest imagination." This nation at Christmastime has been brought together and ennobled by its grief. When America grieves, however, others best not think us despondent. The president has made clear our intentions. When the vibrancy and intellect of my friend, the commentator Barbara Olson, was extinguished forever in American Airlines Flight 77, grief bore in on all her friends, but on her husband the most. The other day at a commemoration at the Justice Department, Solicitor General Theodore B. Olson expressed some of the sentiments that tinge this season in sadness. "We will never forget our loved ones who died or who were wounded on Sept. 11," he said. Then he added: "I say this for every American -- we will fight this evil as long and as patiently as it takes. We will prevail. We will comfort and care for those who have suffered. We will not forget." America's grief ought not to give comfort to those who caused it. Rather, America's grief ought to give them pause to reflect on their future. They who have been so eager to greet Allah in Heaven may soon discover that their everlasting host is not Allah, but the smiling innkeeper at Hell.