Politics & Policy

A Nation’s Response

On the road home with Cosmo.

Driving cross-country during a cataclysmic event like this is profoundly frustrating and deeply gratifying at the same time. It’s frustrating because friends, family, and events all are in places I’m not. The added fact that all of this has happened in the two cities I call home makes things still more exasperating. Also, I can’t catch up on the TV coverage or the newspapers until the very end of long days with Cosmo clamoring to punctuate the lawns of various Best Westerns and Holiday Inns in his own inimitable style.

On the other hand, it’s wonderful because I get to experience thousands of small things the TV coverage misses: the flags hanging from overpasses and trailing car antennas; the truck drivers chatting up gas station clerks; the outbursts from old men, wearing their VFW pins and old Navy hats, as they read the morning paper over breakfast.

Admittedly, radio is not the ideal medium for a story like this, but its strengths highlight the fact that TV and print aren’t perfect either. Indeed, CNN and ABC are often simulcast on the radio, and you can hear how much they rely on pictures. You can also pick up little things. Peter Jennings is a rambling jackass when not well rested; he doesn’t ramble when he’s had some sleep. ABC’s John Miller is as great as I remembered. CNN’s Paula Zahn uses the words “I” and “me” more than any other anchor.

At the same time, while it’s no secret I don’t consider NPR my North Star, their coverage has been superb (truth be told, I’ve always thought NPR was very good, just very liberal and unwilling to admit it, much like the New York Times or 60 Minutes — and unlike, say, Dan Rather or Bryant Gumbel). Because they can’t tell the story with pictures, they rely on testimonials from victims and rescuers in a way that the networks don’t. Listening to people describe their lost loved ones on the radio can put a lump in your throat awfully fast.

But not nearly as fast as what’s on the local stations. I’ve driven about 2,000 miles through Washington, Oregon, Utah, Colorado, and Kansas. I scan the FM and AM bands at least twice an hour. I can’t begin to tell you how many stations are broadcasting from United Way drives, Red Cross centers, or some other charity. The patriotic music is everywhere, including rebroadcasts of Congress singing “God Bless America,” which still gets me every time. In fact, I can’t count how many times a day I get choked up listening to all the shouts of firemen chanting “U.S.A.! U.S.A.!” — nevermind the sadder testimonials from wives looking for their husbands and the like.

Anyway, as Cosmo and I drive along the open road listening to and watching America react, we have some ideas, observations, and questions. Most of Cosmo’s fall into the “Can I eat that?” “Do you smell cows? I smell cows!” and “This is very boring, are we there yet?” categories. So I’ve edited them out. But here are a few of mine:

You’ve got to wonder how happy Gary Condit is over all of this. It would take a terrorist attack of this magnitude to get the media off his tail. Still, I think Dick Gephardt and Denny Hastert should very quietly pull him off the Intelligence Committee while no one is looking. He will be a distraction when the hearings inevitably start, and perhaps even a security risk. If Condit is the patriot he says he is, he’ll agree.

Another politician who’s benefited from this tragedy is Rudy Giuliani. You can’t dispute that he’s been awesome, and I doubt anyone remembers that divorce silliness. So, I have an idea: Rudy was a zealous, indefatigable prosecutor and investigator before he became mayor. He’s a lame duck mayor and his prospects as a national politician were tarnished in the last year. Wouldn’t it be perfect, though, if he were appointed to head the “Retribution Task Force” (I made up that title, but it sounds good to me). As a Justice Department prosecutor, Giuliani put harmless stockbrokers in handcuffs and carted them out of their offices at shotgun point. One can only imagine how zealous he would be in pursuit of the people who blew up his city. He’s got the talent, the personality, the experience — and, most important, he’s pissed off enough. Let’s make him the hammer of vengeance; we’ll sleep better.

Have you ever noticed that bacon tastes just as good cold as it does hot? I once had bacon off the ground — it tasted great with a little dirt on it. Do you have any bacon? I would like some bacon. In fact, I’d like ham too. Actually, pretty much any luncheon meat would be good. Do you have any luncheon meat? Anything but pimento loaf would be great. Not that I’m turning down pimento loaf if that’s all you’ve got….

Oops sorry. Cosmo got one in there.

Here’s a theme that I will be coming back to a lot, here and elsewhere. I agree with the civil libertarians et al who don’t want to live in a police state. I agree that we can’t live in fear. I agree that we can’t let the rat-bastards take away our freedom. But before we freak out, let’s keep something in mind. Freedom and convenience are not the same thing. If airports go back to the security standards of, say, 15 years ago, that doesn’t mean we’ve lost our freedom. It means we’ve lost some convenience. Think of it this way: Most libertarians and conservatives believe that our freedoms have been eroded over the last few decades or centuries. Well, that erosion of freedom has coincided with a rise in technological convenience. If you believe that America was more free when most people couldn’t even afford to fly — or, going back further, when women spent much of their time churning butter — then you must be able to understand that personal convenience and political liberty operate independently of one another. If the government starts tapping our phones and searching our homes without warrants, we’ll be less free. If the government requires two forms of ID to get on a plane, it will be more difficult to fly to Mardi Gras. There’s a world of difference there.

Speaking of worlds of difference, there will be plenty of time to talk about Israel, and how this tragedy illustrates that their approach to terrorism isn’t so unreasonable after all. Who would argue that assassinating these hijackers in advance wouldn’t have been preferable to what happened Tuesday? Regardless, it does bear pointing out that Israel has declared a day of mourning. Average citizens are sending blood and donations. Israelis are weeping in the streets. Meanwhile, a few miles down the road, Palestinians are having tailgate parties and cheering. Indeed — the statements of their leaders to the contrary — it’s about time we became a bit more clear-sighted about what people seem to think about us. See this story from the Agence France Presse, for example.

The response to yesterday’s column (“Rebuild It, Bigger“) has been huge. About eight million people have sent me this URL or ones like it. Also, I normally refuse to link to petitions and the like, for fear of being swamped with requests. But my buddy Nick Schulz has created a website dedicated to rebuilding the Towers, and if you’re interested you should check this out. My favorite suggestion came from one reader who said we should rebuild the Towers with the names Freedom and Unity, and let the terrorists figure out what the initials stand for.

And while I’m plugging other people’s work, I’ve got to call your attention to the contributions by my own flesh and blood. Both my brother and mother wrote pieces for NRO yesterday, and I am very proud of them both.

And lastly, speaking of my pride, please indulge me as I thank the gang in New York at NRO. The entire staff has been functioning off of one solitary phone line. When you look at the phenomenal work Kathryn Lopez, Chris McEvoy, Aaron Bailey, and the rest of the NRO gang have done — from Manhattan, with all of the inconveniences and distraction that geography entails — you have to be stunned by their dedication and hard work. I am profoundly grateful to be associated with them. Please send any encouragement or suggestions to nro_atwar@hotmail.com.

By the way, we’ll be up and running on Sunday.

Okay, I gotta go now. C’mon Cosmo, bacon time. Hold the dirt.

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