'Officer friendly' in the sky and on the land

Posted: Oct 18, 2001 12:00 AM
A 5-year-old friend of mine looked up from his toy spaceship the other day to announce that policeman are going to ride on airplanes. Officer Friendly in a blue uniform with a proper gun slung over his hip was needed aloft to protect pilots from bad men who want to kill them and fly their planes. My little friend spoke with energy and animation, but not fear. His world is likely to be more dangerous than the world I grew up in, but he looks at cops as protectors, not as "pigs," and that's comforting. If the world a child encounters is not as safe and secure as it was before Sept. 11, it's probably no scarier than growing up in the Cold War, and perhaps even less ominous if he's fortunate enough to trust the adults in his life. During the Cold War, some of us stocked canned goods in bomb shelters and today some of us hurry out to buy gas masks and bottled water. Back then we read of bunkers built for the president and congressmen to hide in, and today we read about their gas masks and safe houses. But even when we were threatened with nuclear annihilation, most of us went about our lives with an air of everydayness. When the president tells us over and over again to live "normally" and couples his exhortation with a warning to be ever more vigilant of anything suspicious, his message sounds paradoxical. But it's not. A war is about fighting back to make us more secure, but insecurity is part of the human condition and life has never been risk-free no matter how hard we try to make it so. Lots of people have moved into gated communities to keep criminals out, and New Yorkers and Washingtonians who can afford it are talking about moving to safer suburbs and even the countryside to escape terrorism. How we choose to confront the danger is a personal choice. We're still more likely to be hit by a car than a terrorist bomb. What's most remarkable about the reaction to the terrorist attack is the public's reassertion of the old verities we tossed away when we were told we couldn't trust anyone over 30. Now mature folks are suddenly in demand. Who isn't relieved that the experienced hands helping the president are those of real grown-ups, and not the kids around Bill Clinton? Age doesn't have a lot of rewards, but the gramps and grannies who remember Pearl Harbor are finding that young people suddenly want to hear their stories. Personal memories at the dinner table offer more reassurance and sustenance than television sound bites and talking heads, or the scattered bytes of cyberspace. Old people have been dissed in our youth-oriented culture, where the new is trendy and fashionable and everything else is oldy and moldy. No longer. When oral history was introduced in the public schools in the 1970s, students were told to search for their roots, to research the multicultural in the family as if authentic American history didn't count. That's changing, too. It's no longer so hip to regard Norman Rockwell's World War II covers for the Saturday Evening Post as sentimental dreck. We can't bring back the soda jerk and his soda fountain, but we can appreciate FDR's Four Freedoms as Rockwell depicted them, emphasizing the enduring values of family, neighborhood and community. You need only look at the haunting newspaper photographs of all those men and women lost in Manhattan and at the Pentagon to see how nostalgia relates to life before Sept. 11. The American flag, which in the '60s was a symbol to denigrate (it was used as bedspreads, tablecloths and even made up as underwear), once again reflects national unity. The anti-Americans among us are loud enough, but they sound a little tired, canned and irrelevant. Norman Mailer won a Pulitzer Prize for "The Armies of the Night," his book about a 1967 march on the Pentagon, which he joined because, he said, he was bored with writing about the diseases of America - "its oncoming totalitarianism, its oppressiveness, its smog." The war in Vietnam gave him the grim pleasure of confirming his prejudices. He's bored again. He wrote in the London Times the other day that America needs to understand why so many people hate us and why we're perceived as the source of "cultural and aesthetic repression." Why indeed?