When I was a kid I was terrified of the End of the World. Kids heard things; older kids whod read that ridiculous end-times tract, The Late Great Planet Earth said it foretold a struggle between the bear and the eagle and we all knew what that meant. One summer at Bible Camp I asked one of the pastors if this bear-eagle end-of-the-world stuff was true, and he said we know not the day or the time. You know, I thought, but you just wont tell us.
It was 1968. On the night before the last day of camp, a counselor named Charlie Brown interrupted our sunset meeting by the shores of White Bear Lake to tell us the news: Russia had launched their missiles and they would destroy America before the night was out. It was time to get right with God.
Silence; crickets; small sobs. Im sure no one thought much about Jesus right then. We thought about Mom and Dad and Spot and our room, where we really, really wanted to be right now, with the familiar smell of the goldfish bowl, and -
Charlie Brown guided us through some prayers. We all said Amen, and Im sure for some it was the least heartfelt Amen wed ever said. Then Charlie Brown said he had made up the story. Russia hadnt launched the missiles. But what if they had? Were we right with Jesus?
Back at the barracks we were quiet and unnerved. No one wanted to go to sleep. No one wanted to talk, either. Finally John Larson, the bunkhouse bully, broke the silence. He was the mean kid. He was the one who tormented me at home, and had bothered me at camp. Nelson Muntz without the charm. John Larson expressed his simple wish to stab Charlie Brown in the stomach.
A dozen little Lutheran campers nodded in the dark: ya sure, you betcha.
Ive thought about Charlie Browns clueless cruelty whenever I think of summer camp. Its a good story; give me an audience and five minutes and I can spin quite the yarn. I dont know what effect he had on my fear of the Apocalypse, but for decades afterwards I got that bright silver sluice of dread in my gut whenever international tensions flared up or US-USSR relations were frayed. The very words in the headlines made me feel slightly sick, and pitched back to the shores of the lake, sitting on that long painted bench. My future was an either-or thing. Either some stupid event destroys the world . . . or not. Stick around and find out which.
Now I am resigned, in advance, to the loss of an American city by a nuclear weapon. The End of the World now looks like a comic-book premise, a Heston-movie conceit. We feared it would all be gone in a day, our world upended like an Etch-A-Sketch. What we never considered was a long, slow war, a conflict that burned and sputtered, skittered from one spot on the map to the other. The old wars were simple: the other side had accents, uniforms, nations, cruel habits and urbane sneers. The old wars took years. The old wars were in black and white. The old wars were monophonic, scored by Max Steiner, released by Warner Brothers, and the only proof they really happened at all was the small battered box in the back of Dads sock drawer, the box that held some oddly colored metal bars. The next war would be horrible, total, and short.
Two years ago today I was convinced that every presumption I had about the future was wrong. This war, I feared, would be horrible, total, and long.
Two years later I take a certain grim comfort in some peoples disinterest in the war; if youd told me two years ago that people would be piling on the President and bitching about slow progress in Iraq, I would have known in a second that the nation hadnt suffered another attack. When the precise location of Madonnas tongue is big news, you can bet the hospitals arent full of smallpox victims. Of course some people are impatient with those who still recall the shock of 9/11; the same people were crowding the message boards of internet sites on the afternoon of the attacks, eager to blame everyone but the hijackers. They hate this nation. In their hearts, they hate humanity. They would rather cheer the perfect devils than come to the aid of a compromised angel. They can talk for hours about how wrong it was to kill babies, busboys, businessmen, receptionists, janitors, fathers, mothers, sisters, brothers - and then they lean towards you, eyes wide, and they say the fatal word:
And then you realize that the eulogy is just a preface. All that concern for the dead is nothing more than the knuckle-cracking of an organist whos going to play an E minor chord until we all agree we had it coming.
Ive no doubt that if Seattle or Boston or Manhattan goes up in a bright white flash there will be those who blame it all on Bush. We squandered the worlds good will. We threw away the opportunity to atone, and lashed out. Really? You want to see lashing out? Imagine Kabul and Mecca and Baghdad and Tehran on 9/14 crowned with mushroom clouds: thats lashing out. Imagine the President in the National Cathedral castigating Islam instead of sitting next to an Imam who's giving a homily. Mosques burned, oil fields occupied, smart bombs slamming into Syrian palaces. We could have gone full Roman on anyone we wanted, but we didnt. And we wont.
Which is why this war will be long.
The world will not end. It will roll around in its orbit until Sol expires of famine or indigestion. In the end were all ash anyway - but even as ash, we matter. The picture at the top of this page is a sliver taken from a 9/11 camera feed. Its the cloud that rolled through lower Manhatttan when the towers fell. Paper, steel, furniture, plastic, people. The man who took the picture inhaled the dust of the dead. Somewhere lodged in the lung of a New Yorker is an atom that once belonged to a man who went to work two years ago and never came back. His widow dreads today, because people will be coming and calling, and shell have to insist that shes okay. It's hard but last year was harder. The kids will be sad and distant, but they take their cues from her, and they sense that it's hard - but that last year was harder. But what really kills her, really really kills her, is knowing that the youngest one doesnt remember daddy at all anymore. And she's the one who has his eyes.
Two years in; the rest of our lives to go.