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Reactions in tough times show our core

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© St. Petersburg Times,
published September 14, 2001

Even though it is humor that gets us through some of our worst times, this is obviously not the time or place for it.

And, even though world events are moving at a pace more rapid than the parade of characters across the computer screen on which I write this, and despite others having said all that can be said as well or better than I can, and probably have done it twice by now, I still feel the need to write, to communicate.

As will happen with any major catastrophe, events like those of and since Tuesday will bring out the best, by far the larger part, and the worst of us.

All of us felt a need to vent at the horror that opened the abyss at our feet. All of us probably said things that, on reflection, we realize were hasty.

My own first responses -- even though most of them contained the word "holy" -- won't stand reproducing here. Around me I saw intelligent colleagues, equally or more articulate, reduced to silence or the same kind of semicoherence.

And since then, like most, I have spent most of my waking hours glued to a television or computer screen or, if I was driving and desperate, talk radio.

Under normal circumstances it would have been amusing; this time it was just depressing to hear what many people had to say and write.

It sometimes seemed as if a lot of our neighbors suddenly brought out their favorite scapegoats to kick, stomp and whip in a frenzy of invective and hatred.

I'm not writing about the justified and understandable rage we all felt at the death of innocents in an operation clearly designed to produce maximum visibility and body counts, nor am I writing about those of us who chose sometimes rough-hewn routes to vent our sense of helplessness and sorrow.

But, in short order, I heard people speak and read what they had written, waving the banners of anti-Islamic sentiment, anti-Semitism, xenophobia and anti-immigration, jingoism, personal attacks on news commentators for perceived sympathies or lack thereof, and attacks on media outlets for showing us the horror with which, like it or not, we must see in order to understand the impending costs of coming to terms with those who perpetrated it.

One guy even blamed pornography, abortion and divorce.

Our senses were assaulted with a barrage of images of heroism and cowardice (more of the former than of the latter). Some private companies rushed aid to the injured and to rescue workers; others came up with ways to gouge some of us at the gas pumps.

I saw and heard people blame Janet Reno, oil companies, Bill Clinton, George Bush, the alleged international Zionist conspiracy, the United Nations, Wall Street and every other bogeyman that has lurked, apparently not too deeply, beneath national and individual consciousness for, in some cases, decades.

At the same time, I saw and heard expressions of sincere grief and offers of help. I saw my fellow Americans standing in line to donate blood, saw restaurant chains feeding them, saw New York officials announcing they had all the volunteers they could use and saw our federal government behaving, for an all-too-rare change, as it should most of the time.

That won't last forever, and except in moments of grave national threat it shouldn't. We are, for all our goodness, a people who do better when we are watching each other carefully to make sure that we do just that.

And I do not sit here and pretend to be above all that I have criticized.

I'm not sure why many of us turn to country music in times like this to articulate what we feel.

Others have their favorites, mine comes from Charlie Daniels:

Because we'll all stick together

and you can take that to the bank.

That's the cowboys and the hippies and the rebels and the yanks.

And we probably will.

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