Growing up in the '50s, we imagined our country defended by guided missiles poised in bunkers, jet fighters on the tarmac and pilots in the ready room prepared to scramble, a colonel with a black briefcase sitting in the hall outside the president's bedroom. But Sept. 11 gave us a clearer picture. We have a vast array of hardware, a multitude of colonels, a lot of bureaucratic confusion, and a nation vulnerable to attack.
The FAA has now acknowledged that the third of the four planes seized by the 19 men with box cutters had already hit the Pentagon before the FAA finally called there to say there was a problem. The FAA lied to the 9/11 Commission about this, then took two years to ascertain the facts -- a 51-minute gap in defense -- and released the finding on the Friday before Labor Day, an excellent burial site for bad news.
So America is not the secure fortress we grew up imagining. Perhaps it never was. What protects us is what has protected us for 230 years: our magnificent isolation. After the disasters of the 20th century, Europe put nationalism aside and adopted civilization, but we have oceans on either side, so if the president turns out to be a shallow jingoistic fool with a small rigid agenda and little knowledge of the world, we expect to survive it somehow. Life goes on.
It's hard for Americans to visualize the collapse of our country. It's as unthinkable as one's own demise. Europeans are different: They've seen disaster, even the British. They know it was a near thing back in 1940. My old Danish mother-in-law remembered the occupation clearly 40 years later and was teary-eyed when she talked about it. Francis Scott Key certainly could envision the demise of the United States in 1814 when he watched the bombardment of Fort McHenry. Lincoln was haunted by the thought. We are not, apparently, though five years ago we saw a shadow.
You might think from the latest broadsides that the republic is teetering, that it's Munich again, the Nazis are on the loose, and the Current Occupant is Winston Churchill, and that to question him is treachery. The fury of the right wing is quite remarkable -- to maintain a sense of persecution after years of being in power is like Donald Trump feeling overlooked -- but life goes on.
We really are one people at heart. We all believe that when thousands of people are trapped in the Superdome without food or water, it is the duty of government, the federal government if necessary, to come to their rescue and to restore them to the civil mean and not abandon them to fate. Right there is the basis of liberalism. Conservatives tried to introduce a new idea -- it's your fault if you get caught in a storm -- and this idea was rejected by nine out of 10 people once they saw the pictures. The issue is whether we care about people who don't get on television.
Last week I sat and listened to a roomful of parents talk about their battles with public schools in behalf of their children who suffer from dyslexia, or apraxia, or ADD, or some other disability -- sagas of ferocious parental love vs. stonewall bureaucracy in the quest for basic needful things -- and how some of them had uprooted their families and moved to Minnesota so their children could attend better schools. You couldn't tell if those parents were Republicans or Democrats. They simply were prepared to move mountains so their kids could have a chance. So are we all.
And that's the mission of politics: to give our kids as good a chance as we had. They say that liberals have run out of new ideas -- it's like saying that Christians have run out of new ideas. Maybe the old doctrine of grace is good enough.
I don't get much hope from Democrats these days, a timid and skittish bunch, slow to learn, unable to sing the hymns and express the steady optimism that is at the heart of the heart of the country. I get no hope at all from Republicans, whose policies seem predicated on the Second Coming occurring in the very near future. If Jesus does not descend through the clouds to take them directly to paradise, and do it now, they are going to have to answer to the rest of us.
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(Garrison Keillor's "A Prairie Home Companion" can be heard Saturday nights on public radio stations across the country.)
(c) 2006 by Garrison Keillor. All rights reserved. Distributed by Tribune Media Services, INC.