Sunday, September 16, 2001

Being free has its price

        The choice is simple. We can lament that American life will never be the same. Or we can strive to make it better.

        We can resent the implementation of stricter security at the airport or the ballpark, or we can welcome it as our small contribution to the greater good. We can remain an impatient and petty people, or we can resolve to be worthy of our heritage and our newest heroes.

        We can go back to what we were, or we can move forward toward what we aspire to be.

        Not every generation gets this opportunity. Since the 1941 bombing of Pearl Harbor, perhaps only the '60s struggle for civil rights has caused great numbers of Americans to place their conscience before their convenience. Yet if we are to succeed in waging war against terrorism, common purpose and uncommon sacrifice may be essential. Members of the Me Generation may have to consider something larger than our own comfort.

        If this means it costs more and takes longer to fly, so be it. If this means metal detectors and longer lines at the stadium turnstiles, so be it. If this means you no longer can bring a cooler, a backpack or a grenade launcher to Cinergy Field, deal with it.

        Just as we all have a stake in national security, we all have a responsibility to protect it. We should consider it a privilege rather than a burden, a chance for ordinary Americans to do their little bit for democracy. We also should recognize that the realities of modern existence no longer allow for unfettered freedom of movement.

        Before Super Bowl XXV in Tampa, which was played against the backdrop of the Gulf War, additional security measures included metal detectors and mandatory bag searches and necessitated early arrivals. At least one television crew was stationed at the press gate on the logical premise that cranky sportswriters might complain about the prolonged processing.

        Yet if I had a complaint that day, it was that I was in the wrong place; that I should have been covering our troops rather than the simulated combat of the New York Giants and the Buffalo Bills.

        Few Americans — even professional athletes — are so self-absorbed that they would regard a security delay as an unreasonable imposition while our soldiers stand in harm's way. Many professional athletes, citing both security concerns and national mourning, say they would have refused to participate had owners attempt ed to resume play this weekend. Dozens of them have given blood, donated money and volunteered their muscles in the relief effort.

        In times of crisis, our national instinct is not to hide but to help. Witness the overflow turnout at blood banks nationwide and the spontaneous appearance of volunteers in lower Manhattan.

        Consider the citizens who drove from Dallas to deliver skin grafts for New York burn victims. Consider the rescue workers who were climbing up the steps of the World Trade Center even as the buildings were beginning to buckle. Remember the passengers of United Airlines Flight 93, who elected to shorten their own lives rather than permit their hijackers to crash the plane into a populated target.

        Other than outrage and sorrow, the most common sentiment expressed following Tuesday's attacks was the frustration of fighting an enemy with no official capital, no standing army and no national boundaries.

        It is still hard to imagine a military strike that can hit the terrorists hard enough without unspeakable collateral damage.

        But this much we can do: We can accept that the price of freedom includes constant vigilance. We can understand that the safety of numbers has been diminished by the technology of terror. We can play better defense.

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