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America the Dutiful

Wrestling with our security blanket

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At the time I'm writing this, the news is that intelligence chatter indicates another big attack on the US may be in the works. And we're all asking the big questions: are we ready? Can we defend against this threat? The answers, respectively, are yes and no. We're as ready as we'll ever be. Life has changed here since the 9-11 attacks, and, contrary to what some once worried, we haven't returned to our old cockiness since then.

A few months after 9-11, when television networks such as Nickelodeon began showing something besides footage of the disaster in NYC, a few worriers began complaining that it was the beginning of the end and that we were all on the verge of returning to normalcy: "Now people will simply remove the ratty plastic American flags sailing from atop their vehicles rather than replacing them! Now people will stop walking around counting their blessings and start watching out for speeding drivers who are no longer being mindful of their fellow Pedestrian-Americans!"

Honestly, some of that has happened. I don't see as many patriotically adorned cars anymore (although the ones still out there are doozies). And though there is still a lot of patriotically themed merchandise available in the world, you can now walk in a store without being overwhelmed by the visual cacophony of red, white and blue. So, yeah, things have calmed down.

But things are also very different from the pre-9-11 days. Take the security downtown surrounding the major bank buildings. Every time we've gone for a stroll with the baby carriage, at least two security guards have taken a peek to ensure that a real baby is rolling around in there. The mother in me says they just can't help staring at such an adorable baby, but the rest of me points out that a baby carriage is one of the few innocent-looking contraptions you can roll around big buildings without looking too suspicious.

There've been big changes in attitude. It's possible that terrorists could use commercial planes against us again, but they're going to have to step it up a level because there are few Americans left who'll let a guy with a box cutter on a plane. We're anxious, alert and on the lookout for something strange, at least most of the time.

Recent events in the Middle East have shown America's new, harsh attitude. The economic backlash against the French is a case in point. After France's perceived betrayal of the US in Iraq, many Americans turned their ire into economic sanctions. Changing French fries to Freedom fries (or French bread to Liberty Loaf in my husband's case) was one thing. But Americans also began purchasing less French wine and cheese. Since wine and cheese are important French exports, and since Americans are the world's greatest consumers, the French economy has suffered some repercussions.

Of course, all the changes in attitude in the world can't defend us against a terrorist threat. The basic tenet of our way of life is freedom, and the only way to be truly safe from terrorism is by restricting freedom. It's the greatest paradox of our times: in order to keep our country worth saving we must not do everything possible to save it.

In fact, some of the measures we've already taken could potentially break down our system. Allowing invasion of privacy in order to catch possible terrorists already endangers each citizen's rights. Soon, a line will have to be drawn regarding what makes you a potential terrorist. Merely expressing anti-American sentiments? Merely expressing your desire to bomb American interests? Unfortunately (or fortunately as the case may be) for our legal system, there's a big difference between voicing your desire to kill somebody and actually killing him or her. Does the same apply to a terrorist act? And at what point do we restrict freedom of speech?

No one has answers right now, but when further terrorist acts are committed, you can bet that the questions will take on a new urgency. Most important is that we not allow fear to overcome our better judgment. It wasn't so long ago that Americans rounded up Japanese-American citizens and "relocated" them to camps right here in the good old US of A. So while we trash-talk the Nazis and their interment of the Jews during World War II, we really can't get too high and mighty.

Many of you look at where we are today, and you scoff at the idea that we might return to this brand of outdated thinking. But we're already halfway there. There is a good bit of anti-Muslim sentiment in this country already. Another terrorist attack is likely to tip it over into hatred. Already, there's a mood of distrust toward Middle Easterners from all countries, and a remarkable lack of concern for figuring out who deserves all the angst we have had bottled up since 9-11.

We need to figure out what it is we're trying to protect before we lose it completely.

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