All they were worried about was Big Bird. Their parents were worried sick about the end of life as they knew it. Would Elmo be there? Can we hug the Cookie Monster? A quarter of a million troops were poised to start a radical new pre-emptive chapter in American military history and my pre-schoolers were preoccupied with meeting life-sized puppets passing through on a national tour of Sesame Street Live.
On one hand the adults felt a terrible foreboding of what was to come. On the other hand, they felt the excited anticipation of children about to embark on a grand adventure. It was evil and innocence sharing a spotlight, with the latter totally oblivious to the former. Hush, the President is speaking. Hush, we'll see Elmo after naptime. Wait. What was that about an orange alert? Yes, honey, you can wear your good shoes to see Bert and Ernie.
The tanks are rolling, the people are fleeing target Baghdad, and any minute now the drone of CNN pre-war hype will become live-as-it's-happening drama. The entire nation is on standby, tense, anxious, guarded. Homeland security is suddenly everyone's business. Tom Ridge is on the radio in repeated public service announcements cautioning Americans to be prepared for anything with whatever seems prudent, from first-aid kits to extra water and food rations.
Airport travelers are being randomly checked by police and there is heightened scrutiny everywhere from border crossings to waterways to power plants to public events and venues, from schools, shopping malls and high rises - any place that might tempt a terrorist attack. Cities and states are quickly mobilizing to restrict activity around and safeguard mass transit, bridges, critical buildings, food and water supplies. There are publicized evacuation plans and rescue rehearsals for medical and emergency personnel to react smoothly when the worst happens. It is impossible to go about life normally. There is no normal anymore.
Adults share their nervousness about the immediate future with others but there is a pervasive wariness about sharing outright criticism of the government with too many compatriots. A deeply unsettling modern day McCarthyism seems to be growing among the particularly insecure in the land. The America love-it-or-leave-it crowd cannot tolerate civil discourse that includes shades of gray or, God forbid, legitimate grievances. Shout from the treetops that the Bush Administration demeans America and all that it stands for by dragging the country into an unprovoked war - with its precedent-setting, international ramifications - and be branded a traitor, or worse.
It is truly a fearsome time in the home of the brave when dissent is derided as un-American and those who dare exercise their constitutional right to free speech may be threatened within an inch of their lives. It is also sad sign of a confused citizenry when “opposing” rallies to peace marches are held to affirm support for God, country, and the military men and women serving overseas. Please. Support for America's sons and daughters honoring their commitment to duty is equally strong or stronger among those who oppose the politicians who put them in harm's way.
Every generation hopes the next will be better off than the last and will live in a kinder, gentler world without the baggage of previous generations. But this parent sees the new, arrogant, warring disposition of Washington casting a long, dark, ominous shadow over generations of Americans, with unknown repercussions for those whose only care in the world today is seeing Big Bird in person. I shudder to think of the decades of domestic and international reckoning that will come as a result of the brash Bush pre-emptive war policy. For my children's sake, I hope I'm wrong.