Human Depravity and the Reinterpretation of Art

When Saturday Night Live came back to the air after the events of September 11th, 2001, the show’s creator Lorne Michaels, flanked by the entire cast, asked Mayor Giuliani if it was OK for them to be funny. The mayor’s deadpan answer is now the stuff of comedy legend, the question and its real answer were important concepts in the days after a terrible event that many believed had fundamentally changed the world as we knew it—or at least how we interacted with and in it. We are now in the midst of another of those events that seems to have changed how we interact with and in our world, and primarily how we interact with each other. It is, in almost every sense, as tragic a realization as it was on that clear fall morning in September nearly two decades ago, because it speaks to the depths some will plumb to do harm to their fellow humans.

This new environment is our struggle to atone for the long-term suffering of females at the hands of men who somehow feel entitled to those intimate places of the mind and body and who have, throughout nearly all of human history, helped themselves to them with or without consent. We are, like the cast of Saturday Night Live, now wondering what we can and cannot do, what we can and cannot say, and whether we can still admire works from a different time. Where Lorne and his cast were concerned about trying to be funny so soon after a national tragedy, we are wondering if we should still laugh at things that might have been born during a tragedy of which so many were simply unaware. We are trying to decide if we should still see certain films involving certain directors or actors. Should we go see certain comics? We are determining if we should be reinterpreting the art from another age. I find this to be a very dangerous and self-defeating proposition and one that will surely do far more harm than good.

Is it OK to go back and watch Louis C.K. from before we knew he liked to try to impress women by stroking himself in scenarios no normal person would think appropriate? If not, how are we to account for Hollywood’s fawning over the films of Roman Polanski long after he fled the country so as not to meet child rape charges? By most accounts, Ernest Hemingway was lacking as a father, had a great temper, and fell in and out of alcoholism-induced violence and abuse. Should we no longer be enthralled by his peerless prose and the window it opens to our souls in works like “Hills Like White Elephants” or For Whom the Bell Tolls? Perhaps Washington and Jefferson should be swept from the pages of our children’s History books and removed from our currency, disgraced slaveholders that they were.

How much should our present condition act as a lens on how we judge the works of others from an earlier time? This, I suspect, will be one of the driving questions of the next decade, and I urge great caution. I urge—dare I say it—conservatism, that is the resistance to social relativism that asks us to view previous events or works with an eye neither we nor those who lived or created them could possibly have had at the time. This is not an easy thing to do, to resist the urge to coat a distressing past in our newly informed morality.

This past week I was catching up on podcasts and heard Terry Gross interviewing Jonah Hill. She asked him, in light of the “#MeToo era,” about his reaction to a scene in Superbad. Ms. Gross has spent a significant amount of time over recent months engaging in this kind of questioning. It is a subject she clearly has strong feelings about. In this particular scene, Hill’s character and a friend are discussing whether/how to comply with the popular girl’s request of his character that he acquire the alcohol for a party she’s throwing while her parents are out of town. The line is, “You know when you hear girls say, ‘Ah, I was so shitfaced last night. I shouldn’t have fucked that guy’?…we could be that mistake!” Hill said he felt terrible hearing that back. He might have said it sounds horrific now. That is not what I expected of an artist.

I wanted Hill to say this:

[note: this is my imagined response; it is not, to my great disappointment, what Jonah Hill actually said]

[“]First of all, Terry, that was a funny line…and it still is. Second, and I think this is the most important part. My character was trying to buy alcohol because the girl he wanted asked him to. She has agency here. The anonymous girl he quotes says “I shouldn’t have [had sex with] that guy.” That girl has agency too. She decided to sleep with “that guy,” and she is capable of self-assessment. The sex he is discussing is consensual just as the responsibility for getting [beep]faced lies with all of those knowingly partaking, both girls and boys. There is a multidimensional dynamic taking place here. And here’s the real kicker, I think, Terry. That line is truth. Sometimes comedy does that, you know. It speaks a truth. And good comedy always does. Always.

[“]Think of this. Every weekend—probably every single day—a woman wakes up after consensual sex and knows she’s made a mistake. Hell…that’s the story of my sex life! (Terry laughs…) That’s truth, Terry. We cannot go around denying that fact. But there is even something deeper here.

[“]Comedy is an art form and art must shine a light on places we don’t always want to acknowledge exist. Part of this joke, the part that makes it so relevant now—YES even now!—is the commentary it is making about the culture I think you are trying to tap into and dissuade. Should high school girls ask guys to buy them alcohol for a party they shouldn’t be having so everyone, who is likely underage, can drink to excess and lose their inhibitions? Should that boy go and break the law to achieve it? Should young men rely on alcohol to find a way to “yes?” None of this should be happening, Terry. Not in a perfect world. But we don’t live in a perfect world, and our art has to reflect human frailty and imperfection. Our art has to comment on the world as it is, and if we squirm a little while we laugh because it makes us a bit queasy or uncomfortable, then the art is doing exactly as art should.

[“]That line is not a throw-away slapstick line. This isn’t Larry slapping the [beep] out of Mo. That line is a complex characterization of the young human condition. It is funny. Still. It’s also disturbing. But above all, it’s true. So, I guess that’s how I feel about hearing that now. I feel proud to have been a part of making the kind of art that can remain relevant and meaningful a decade on…what a great question, Terry. You truly are a national asset.[“]

[Here ends my dreamed-up response.]

Everything my Jonah says here is real. The line is funny. I know this because when I told it to a confidant who also happens to be a woman that has never seen the movie, she laughed out loud. That’s important, but it is not the main affair. Art is perhaps more relevant today than it has been in my lifetime. In a world where people pick their own “alternative” facts, where reason seems to be sliding into the oblivion of the Twitterverse, where what you “know” comes to you from a self-reinforcing media and social machine that implores you never to question it or yourself, art is the only thing with a small chance to make people think about things in a way they have never thought before. The staunchest Levitical evangelical could not see The Laramie Project and not be moved in some small way. The most ardent pacifist could not hear John Ondrasik’s “Note to the Unknown Soldier” and not feel something they have never known before. Art, because it is a personal medium, necessarily stands apart not only from the artist, but from their time, and—until it is internalized—apart from those who view it.

Certainly, there is comedy I do not care for. I’m sure this happens to us all. Some of it makes me too uncomfortable to enjoy. Sometimes that is because it is too close to my own experience or it impinges too significantly on my own biases. These are not issues with the art or artist. They are mine alone.

There is visual art I cannot revere. I have yet to find the message or meaning in Picasso’s modern interpretation of the nude form, though his classical sketches and some of his sculptures are moving forms of expression to me. Some of Robert Mapplethorpe’s photography disturbs me deeply. Some of it seems to have been made purely to foster that very response, and I cannot respect such self-indulgence. These are personal judgements, however, and they have no bearing on the ultimate worth of the works I may despise.

It is not up to one person—even more so, a group of like-minded people—to say what should and should not be seen, what should and should not be funny, whether the work of a fallible human caught in the depths of his own depravity should be vanquished from the canon. It is not up to a “movement” to tell others what is now deemed acceptable in retrospect and what is not. All of these works teach us something. They communicate in ways that are forever important in the struggle to divine our own humanity.

I hope Terry Gross and other insightful interviewers continue to ask artists how they now view their creations. It is all right if some of them say they no longer see its value for reasons that have to do with artistic choices at the time or those choices in relation to a greater understanding or maturity on the part of the artist today. There are tens of thousands of words whose value to me is simply their volume. What they say is no longer important, if it ever was. I want to hear artists discuss their craft and their creations, but I hope I never again hear an artist acquiescing to the current mood of the country or saying something to inoculate themselves from righteous trolls lacking the intellect or introspection required to find the multifaceted and relevant forward reflections of that art into the narrative of our times.

Yes, it is OK to be funny, and it is OK to laugh. Even now. Even about that, whatever that is for you. If it makes you question why, all the better.

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Creeping Mortality

I am at that point in my life when the next ailment could be the one that kills me. This is the most distressing part of the frontier I seem to have crossed at some indiscernible time in the not-too-distant past. It is not the only cause for distress. An organization that caters to the interests of a group of former peers who have moved into retirement used to send me a magazine every month. It was filled with suggestions to help me through my advancing age. These included ads on stand-up entry bathtubs and “simple” phones with big numbers I could stare at wishing I could remember my grandchildren’s phone numbers. I don’t have grandchildren, but I could. It’s possible I need a phone that is simpler than the one a three-year-old can use. Maybe if I had bigger numbers on my phone I would actually be inclined to use them instead of simply asking a digital assistant to call someone from my contacts. I believe I have been offered membership in AARP. I don’t know for sure; I can’t remember. I do throw away an amazing amount of colorful paper that is still delivered to a box in my neighborhood by an actual person (his lack of accuracy is one reason for the dwindling utility of this “service”). I no longer get the sideways glances and second looks from young women—the kind that offer, for a fleeting moment, the possibility of entirely new worlds of experience. In my job I walk by hundreds of thousands of people over the course of several months. My newfound anonymity is not simply due to the tyranny of small numbers; I am clearly less attractive to what is now the largest age demographic in the country than I was when I could still have been considered their peer. Come to think of it, this may be the most distressing part of my new frontier.

I had pictures taken the other day as a prerequisite to some proposed orthodonture. It was hard to reconcile the photos with my impression of how I present to the world. My impression of myself is an inviolable imprint I want to impose on the cosmic background, but inviolability is an impossibility as long as we continue to grow older. It’s a tradeoff. People used to ask if I was old enough to do what I had trained my whole adult life to do. My wife and I, in our early thirties and dressed for a formal military occasion held at a Las Vegas hotel, were accused by an old couple of being out for “our prom.” These things no longer happen. As one of my long-time friends said to me after we had set a rendezvous with someone we didn’t know for a meeting we were required to attend but had failed to get identifying information, “don’t worry; we look exactly like who we are.” He was right. The person responsible for retrieving us pulled right up in a busy parking lot and called us both by our title and names. It was comforting at the time to be recognized for status and stature. That was not the impression I had looking at those photos. I looked like Nick Nolte’s mug shot minus the dastardly-professor hair. What, that doesn’t ring a bell? Right…because I may be a product of another era. Nick Nolte is not dead, by the way (I looked it up), but he could be. Maybe he should be, given that he lived the life of Nick Nolte, but then couldn’t that be any of us?

Just over a year ago, my best friend and the one I have kept the longest (he is not technically my “oldest” friend) felt a lump in his throat during, what, a routine throat exam? No, there isn’t any such thing in the general knowledge. Somehow he felt something odd. His wife, a doctor, thought it was odd too. He had throat cancer. Throat cancer! What the fuck? He’s a year younger than I am. It’s the kind maybe 5% of people with a particular virus get. Or maybe it has a 5% mortality rate. I’m not exactly sure. He threw some numbers at me when we talked about it. All I was thinking was, “he has fucking throat cancer.”

He had it excised. He’s aggressively observing it now. He’s braver, and probably smarter, than I. I would have had every known supposed remedy thrown at my neck had this been me. He’s observing. And going mountain biking and skiing. He started a new career teaching physics to high school students. He just decided to continue doing what he’s always done. He just decided to keep living. I don’t mean he has a choice about whether he lives or dies. I am convinced, in the universal roulette game we are all a part of, our choice means very little, and I’m fairly sure he feels the same way. What I mean is that he simply decided to live.

My cousin’s wife wasn’t so lucky. And let’s be honest, it is mostly luck. The chance alignment of nucleic acids; the random, though structured, interactions of passing electrons. She’s been gone for nearly a decade now. She was, I think, younger than I when she was diagnosed with a cancer that was particularly aggressive. She decided to live too. She decided to fight it with all that modern medicine had. I never met her, but I know I would have liked her. She changed my cousin’s life, made it immeasurably, perhaps infinitely, more full. Her cosmic imprint is now inviolable. She is, and forever will be, exactly as she was. It will eventually happen to us all.

The pain in my leg could be a clot that will eventually stick somewhere in my brain and turn out my light. I can see veins in my ankles that I had not seen up until a few years ago. There are pains in my knuckles that I have previously only known when I broke a finger or toe playing some fast-moving and violent sport. I strain ligaments with increasing frequency. I don’t know if this is the beginning of some new long-term malfeasance my body has inflicted on me or if it is simply a new reality of biology marching in time.

Perhaps the most telling sign of my advancing age is that I am, I won’t have to tell you, discussing my infirmities. The overriding memory of my childhood, when my mother would get back together with her mother and sister after long absences, is this very idea. My Granny had eleven brothers and sisters. My mom had more than 100 first cousins. Working through health and demise among all those relatives took the better part of a week in constant and very loud conversation. I don’t know how it didn’t drive my father to drinking. It might have me.

I have at times availed myself of the opportunity to, in the words of the communion of my youth, “partake of the fruit of the vine” and also of the fermented bounty of the field. I don’t recover well anymore when I drink too much. This has become increasingly rare. It seems I am finally executing a consequence management process I heretofore applied poorly. A manifestation of the alleged wisdom of age, I suppose. It isn’t all bad.

At a certain age, invasive—though non-surgical—procedures must be performed on the advice of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Why do we not call it the CDCP? Unlike the one done in my mid-thirties due to the irrational fears born of historically late fatherhood, there seemed to be a larger non-zero chance that something might be found. My brother-in-law, only a few years older, was recently declared cancer free from the ailment a doctor, who surely did not think when he dreamed of medical school that he would be working to and from this end, was now looking for in me. When you are pronounced healthy in this regard you are given a ten-year respite from the indignity. Ten years. It’s a long time. Didn’t I mention all these other aches and pains I was having? What about the leg pain, doc? I know; it’s not your specialty, but since I’m here…Seriously, I could actually be dead in ten years.

We’re cutting down on “unnecessary” preventative procedures to “streamline” our healthcare system and provide “better service” to a wider range of individuals. Or we are better using science. I’m lucky that I will have healthcare no matter when it truly does become “necessary.” Let’s face it, in this political environment it is luck. Either that or it is a well-deserved product of my individual productivity which can be solely attributed to my hard work and involves no other entity, particularly governmental, whatsoever. Believe what you will. If you believe the latter you surely are a practitioner of exquisite faith (before you take that as a compliment, you should see 2b in Merriam-Webster’s online dictionary). Of course in my case—as in the case of every member of Congress—my luck is wholly attributable to governmental entities. While the lack of it is terrifying for others, my half century of government-provided healthcare and the knowledge that it will be there in the next half century of my life is comforting for me. It isn’t going to allow me to live forever though. The question is, what to do about this creeping mortality? As I so often have in the past, I think I’ll take a cue from my great friend.

Just as we all have done when confronting international terrorism, or the scourge of random gun violence, or far more acutely, the possibility that someone’s text will interrupt life in a jarring crush of bone and metal, we must choose to go on with the living. I’ve been thinking of how to go about this for the last several months. Call it combating my next midlife crisis, which if I continue having in coming decades may be a strategy in and of itself.

For one, I am recommitting to reading. Since I found Tom Swift and dreamed that I could be a juvenile space traveler and hero, I have always been a reader, but I go through phases. I’ve read plenty of non-fiction over the years. Now I am trying to read more fiction. I’m trying to read different sides of scientific debates. I am reading about quantum physics and the politics of Brexit and Venezuela. These are (mostly) unrelated depending on your view of free will, determinism, and Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle. I subscribe to three newspapers and journals. I can name at least five print sources where I get my news (I’m therefore overqualified for a losing vice-presidential bid or being a soldier of liberation in the “war against Christmas”). I sometimes read academic papers or think tank pieces. I like reading financial forecasts and outlooks. Come to think of it, I’m not very good about committing to more fiction.

I stopped boycotting things. What a ridiculous endeavor unless you are attempting to force change in an industry where your cohort holds a monopoly of consumers. I actually gave this up ages ago, but it bears discussing now, don’t you think? What is your current outrage? Isn’t it terrible how free people choose to exercise that freedom? Sure it is. As a result of my apathy for personally costless activism I have seen several amazing athletes performing their craft, shopped at will at places like Target without a single androgynous bathroom scare or the foreboding feeling of civilization crashing down all around me (to be fair, I don’t linger in the TV section if Fox News is playing), eaten the best fast food chicken (not on Sunday) and even been served by someone attracted to her own gender who managed to be hired there, seen Tim Robbins and Susan Sarandon perform incredible parts in meaningful or simply entertaining movies, still have several pairs of tennis shoes that have not met conflagration, occasionally listened to a female trio who (oh, shame!) said while they were in a foreign country they didn’t particularly like a past president, and sometimes I will even drink a Yuengling. For the record that female trio had their CDs shot through with arrows or shotguns by people who, just a few years later, actively believed another president was illegitimate based on birth or religion…or, some might say, race. I’m guessing they would assure you that was different. Right. I will admit I don’t shop at Hobby Lobby, primarily because I’m not often in the market for Styrofoam balls. If I am, there is always Michael’s. I don’t worry about Hobby Lobby. There are plenty of evangelical Christian consumers and voters who always stick to their principles. Mostly. They’ll be fine (Hobby Lobby, I mean…).

I’m going to theater again, the live kind though I will never spell it “theatre.” This has been a mixed result. Some is high art. Some is mediocrity pretending to be high art. Some is the accidental caricature of complete drivel being presented by those who believe they are performing high art. I’m saddened because of the willful conspiracy perpetrated by those who propelled such self-delusion. Think of the real and meaningful art these people could have created had someone told them to drop this or that project and just move on. I point you to the comment block below; no one should have to suffer such a sad fate.

I am trying to get on my mountain bike more often (it is possible I should have done that this morning instead of writing this). I am trying to write more pieces of meaning. I am no longer sure I can continue to comment on politics though there is no greater urgency than attempting to illustrate the nature and consequence of policy. Who will read it, though? Who is interested in meaningful discussions, devoid of partisanship, on the coming effects of our leaders’ various actions and inactions? This piece will be more than 2,000 words. American policy and Senate Judiciary Committee hearing decisions are put out in fewer than 241 characters. What chance do long-form journalism, personal essay, and those longer pieces of cogent thought called “books” have in this environment? I don’t know, but I remain committed to all those forms. For all my commitment, I am failing miserably so far. I have long lists of things I should be writing, but I am having difficulty bringing them to the page. Maybe this is the piece that breaks the dam. If not I can always go mountain biking.

I’m trying to learn the guitar. I know three chords. Six if I concentrate. This has also been a mixed result, probably filled with the aforementioned self-delusion. If so it seems to me to be of the particularly self-aware kind.

I have been hiking on several of my many days off trying to get the lay of the land. The other day I scared the hell out of three fishermen who thought I was from the Department of Natural Resources when I asked what they were “catching them on.” Sometimes maybe I don’t look like exactly who I am. There is hope there. I don’t recover as quickly from several miles on the trail, by foot or wheel, as I used to either. I take Motrin before I exercise. It is unclear whether it helps or not. I may be immune.

There is something to making the mental commitment to live. You have to think about it. You have to consider whether what you are doing now is enough to sustain you. You have to reevaluate the status quo. These explorations of self-reflection, as much as anything else, may themselves be the things that push back against the incessant inevitability we all face. Just do something, the new Nike ad might say, even if you have no desire to sacrifice anything. Maybe just decide to live. Read. Relax your outrage. Take a hike. At least after jaunts into the woods you’ll have a reason for the pain in your legs. It probably isn’t the thing that is going to kill you. Probably.

Trial by Fire, Glass, and Steel

I wrote this one week after September 11th, 2001. Seventeen years later, I have to say the jury is still out on the questions I posed and desires I stated back then. I did not know the loss of morality my country would willingly take on. I did not know how such good will could be so wantonly squandered by men of low character in some of the highest offices of the land. I did not foresee my service’s willingness to mortgage its future for political expediency or to forsake the identity and capability it alone could provide for the nation. I am saddened on this day every year both for the loss of innocent lives and for our seeming inability to make ourselves better because of it. In reflection, I offer the following….

At 8 o’clock on the morning of September 11, 2001, my wife’s best friend woke me with a phone call. It was the second time she has been the first to call with terrible news. The first was during pilot training. In calling to find out if I was all right, she told me that a jet from my base had crashed and killed its two pilots. This time she called to tell me of the event of our generation. I didn’t know it, but I woke to a different world.

I watched with amazement as two airliners plowed into the sides of the twin World Trade Center towers. I watched with terrible wonder as those towers fell to the ground and, like every other American, questioned if this was all just a bad dream. It was not.  Since then I have watched the news almost constantly over the past few days while I try to wrap my mind around this singularly distinctive event in the history of this country and the world as a whole.

The pundits and unofficial spokesmen for America began almost immediately trying to put a face on what will be remembered on the same level with world-altering events like the murder of Archduke Ferdinand, Pearl Harbor, and Hiroshima. Such comparisons sprung to the lips before anyone took the time to consider the effects. Our leaders stood strong; they spoke strong words. Retaliation. It didn’t take long for that word to emerge.  Recently the responses have become more measured. There is a subtle warning tone, and only time will tell if the public is capable of receiving it. This will not be quick or easy. It will not be clean.

Our country has been attacked. There are those that say we are now at war. I submit that we have been at war for a long time. We were distracted by a celebrity murder, the questionable sexual practices of a president/general/Supreme Court nominee/congressman, and the rise of the next boy band or augmented teen song goddess. In our shallowness we failed to see the depth of hate living among us. In our summertime schoolyard daze following the end of the “evil empire” and the victory of the Cold War, we failed to understand that our need for expediency in our too-busy lives would become the chink in the armor that killed thousands this terrible Tuesday. It saddens me to hear a radio announcer say the National Anthem has new meaning. It hasn’t changed; we have. Where was the outrage and lasting national resolve when over 200 Marines lost their lives in Lebanon? Where was it when our embassies were attacked and hundreds of Africans died? Where was it when our ships could not find safe harbor in Yemeni ports? Where was the outrage and resolve the last time the World Trade Center was bombed? We are fickle, and we should have seen it coming.

America is an enigma. We complain like spoiled children and protest for our own pet issues. We are apathetic about politics and world events. We drive to work never looking out the side windows of our cars, totally self-absorbed. Yet we project our ideals across the globe. Our military patrols hostile skies and waters. Our charity finds its way into the third world, and we want everyone on the planet to have the freedom we have. “Let freedom ring,” goes the familiar refrain.

Those responsible for this act are smiling at their apparent success. They toppled two of the greatest buildings ever engineered by man. They killed thousands of innocent civilians. I’m certain they are relishing our despair. They are fools. They smile while their God weeps. In times like these I want to believe in heaven and hell and think their journey on the river Styx is filled with a foreboding anguish before an eternity in the worst kind of hell ever conceived. But I believe instead they are in the black vastness of death from which there is no return and no end. I hope that in the instant before they ceased conscious thought, in that fractioned moment between life and death, they knew they had failed…their heaven just a myth. If it is so, it makes their crime against humanity all the more potent. Individuals claiming every religion on earth have at one time or another killed or attributed death in the name of their god. Even today two of America’s so-called spiritual leaders, Pat Robertson and Jerry Falwell, blamed this disaster on God’s revocation of his protection over us for any number of our own “evils.” Words from the jawbones of asses. What an imbecilic destruction of all that could be good. I heard a line I will never forget this morning.  It was spoken by a Muslim cleric who said, “terrorism knows no religion.” Even I would say “amen” to that.

I have been heartened this week by our greatest national commodity–the intangible American spirit. While it’s true we may worship our heroes to the point of absurdity, perhaps it’s because there are just so many. Steely-eyed firemen seemingly without fear; the possibility that several passengers put others above themselves and wrested control of a doomed aircraft; officers, enlisted men and women, and civilians in “safe” desk duty at the seat of our nation’s military might. All snuffed out by a few misguided extremists. Had they studied their enemy and its history even superficially, they would have seen their folly. The terror bombing of the great Zeppelins, V-2 and blitz attacks on London, and even the Allied Combined Bomber Offensive on Nazi Germany all miserably failed in their quests to destroy the morale of the populations below. Terrorism on this scale is similarly doomed. In fact it can do nothing but strengthen, or awaken, a nation’s resolve. Terrorism on any scale should forever do the same. I have played the famous scene at the end of the movie “Tora, Tora, Tora” over and over in my mind’s eye this week. Admiral Yamamoto standing on the deck of his battleship, Yamato, having just successfully attacked Pearl Harbor says the line no historian was there to record, “I fear we have awakened a sleeping giant.” I hope our enemies have considered that real possibility. Perhaps they would wake in a cold sweat if they had rational thought.

Our nation seems to be rising to the occasion history has once again dealt us. The time of national distraction and petty bickering must now end if we are to answer the call of destiny. The free world is feeling our pain and recognizing the task ahead. For a people used to seeing its flag burned in demonstrations across the globe, pride swelled in seeing it waved in the streets by people of many nationalities. For the first time the Queen’s Royal Guard played our national anthem at Buckingham Palace as Brits waved the flag of their former colonies. Over two hundred thousand Germans stood outside the Brandenburg Gate in Berlin, one-time symbol of the divide between good and evil, and memorialized the victims. All of Europe observed three minutes of silence at the exact same time. From that small instant in time came the most poignant moment of all. The citizens of Sarajevo stood still and silent in reverence for our dead. This city once split along ethnic lines and nearly destroyed by civil war, this place that held the pity of the world stood in somber reflection for the greatest city on earth. Such is the depth and meaning of this tragic event.

It is perhaps a sign of character that America is so slowly stirred to violence. We do not long for nor relish war. We come late to most unless prodded by extreme events. Such an event has occurred; America is handmade for the coming fight, a true struggle of good versus evil. It is how Hollywood would cast us and how we have cast ourselves many times over. America: the knight in shining armor, the man in white, the defender and protector of a world sometimes unaware of our hopes for it. We have faced the evil of tyrannical leaders bent on world domination in the First World War. The evil of genocidal and imperial systems in World War II. The evil of a world united against their will under the weight of an iron curtain. The evil of denying the very freedom we represent based solely on the color of one’s skin. We have fought them all. We have prevailed. It is time to prevail again.

There are no glory-days ahead. Theater newsreels will be silent. Our papers will not discuss large and noble campaigns. This war will not be fought on conventional terms but in the shadows by clandestine means. The cleanliness of cruise missiles and the majesty of battleships cannot root out faceless culprits under the protection of rogue states, or a militant without regard even for his own human life, or the nice man living next door and walking in your park who decides to fly an airliner into one of the tallest buildings in the world. I wonder where it will take us. The Vietnamese fought for over fifty years to expel all western influence from their country. Can we fight such a protracted war or will our need for expediency once again outweigh our sense of security at the airline ticket counter? Will individuals continue to be stirred to action and refuse to be victimized or will we roll over back into our slumber and apathy? Will a Latino who reports on the suspicious acts of a man of middle-eastern descent be accused of racial profiling, or will he be lauded for his attention to detail? In the most litigious country on earth and one that prides itself on the rule of law, can we stomach trial by silenced firearm on the edges of civilization? These are the challenges that confront us as we beat our chests in public and cry in solitude.

I went to work that day because I could not afford to do nothing. A trip that normally takes 20 minutes took an hour and half. Though in uniform and with the proper ID, my car was searched by security forces and sniffed by a military working dog. As I busied myself with menial tasks, I was ordered in a frantic moment to my commander’s office. “The boss wants to see all the F-16 pilots.” There were three of us. The rest were kept at bay by the enormous security measures at the gate. The Wing Commander entered the office followed by my group commander. He said a few haunting words, then we ran from the office to our planes. Fifteen minutes later I was sitting in the cockpit, engine running, waiting for the order to launch and take down a civilian airliner not responding to air traffic control. In a lucid moment spent considering my task and listening to my own breathing over the intercom, I knew my world had forever changed.

I suspect the whole world has changed. Our answers to the questions above and our actions in these first few years of this new century will define my generation. They will likely define the legacy of America and the free and civilized world. I hope that like our fathers and grandfathers before us we are up to the task. I hope that our country and our world will stand behind us, resolute and unwavering, for it is now up to us to decide whether irrationality and senseless acts of waste and destruction can win over civilization and the inherent freedom of man.