I remember clearly that day in September of 2001. I was teaching my preschool class as usual, when a parent walked in early to pick up her child. “They’re bombing the Pentagon,” she announced, eyes wide with alarm. My first reaction was unbelief. How could that possibly be happening? It wasn’t long, though, before the center director. who had been listening to the radio, confirmed the news that the Pentagon had been attacked.
That day changed everything. The visceral change was immediate; it was felt as if fear and anxiety were “blowing in the wind”. People were afraid and angry. The illusion of invulnerability had been stripped away. Americans were now obviously as vulnerable as anyone else to such disasters. The reactions followed not long after. Not only did we enter a war, but in the name of resisting the feared terrorism, our personal privacies, heretofore rigorously protected, began to be invaded by elected and appointed authority. And, a pervasive and irrational suspicion of anyone who was Muslim began to grow. The one act of terrorism had had an effect. America was on a downward spiral fueled by fear.
No, everyone did not participate in the fear-driven stampede. Many of us resented and resisted the loss of privacy, many of us realized that most Muslims are peaceful and cooperative people, and many of us simply refused to give in to fear, continuing as best as possible life as usual. Despite what some would prefer that we believe, people do have a choice of their reactions.
The issue never really went away. It just continued on a less intense level, with skirmishes over how much of our communications could be monitored and recorded, whether a mosque could or could not be built in a specific location, how to protect existing ones, and periodic terror alerts seemingly geared to promote a continuing attitude of fear. And, people have continued to choose their reactions.
We are now at another crisis point. This time, the question, in addition to ethical issues, is whether we any longer really have a democracy. The man who has been elected president by unpopular vote is governing by executive order, which our lawmaking body, Congress, seems either unwilling or ineffective to resist. The executive orders are arbitrary, and bear little resemblance to what the majority of people believe or want. Does this sound like a democracy? Or, does it resemble a switch to a more imperial and dictatorial form of government? We must evaluate those questions for ourselves; we must decide for ourselves if those answers represent us and the way we wish to live. We need to choose whether to accept this mode of living, regardless of personally liking it or not, or whether we wish to act cooperatively to make changes more indicative of how we really are. It is a turning point. Our collective choices of how to act will determine what America will become.
One thing is clear. We cannot mimic the hate, disconnection and violence of those we oppose. We cannot bring forth a more just and kinder system if we ourselves put forth hatred or judgment or a desire for revenge against those who are acting in authoritative, irresponsible and arbitrary ways. Our plans and actions must be firm, but also executed with compassion. What we put out with intent and action is what we will reap.
The litany of our new President’s executive orders has been recited repeatedly. The litany of his indiscretions, as well as his illogical, often incomprehensible and unrelated-to-reality Twitters and pronouncements have been frequently rehashed as well. An era of “alternative facts” seems to be looming. How will we surf this choppy sea? Instead of meeting the waves with an aggressive stance or simply falling passively into the sea, will we have the balance to ride to shore, to land safely, putting the obstacles of fear and disinformation firmly behind us? Will we know when to oppose directly, when to undermine, and when to create a better way of being? Will we fall into the sea of chaos, or even support the chaos?
Truly, we each need to make our own choices, but we also need to reach out to each other, to cooperate and build our strength. We need to both contribute our own talents and insights, and also rely upon the skills and gifts of others. Let us open our hearts to each other; it is how the fear can be overcome.