A kinder, gentler America still prevails

A year ago, we were celebrating July 4 Independence Day in peacetime. The pending events of Sept. 11 would have seemed inconceivable. There were bad guys abroad, but the world was relatively quiescent. At home, the economy had been through some strain, but summer fun was just ahead, the beaches beckoned, and Americans were optimistic about 2002.

Come July 4 this year, things are quite different. Americans are at war with terrorism. They have been attacked and suffered grievous losses from suicidal skyjackers on their very homeland. A terrorizing anthrax murderer (or murderers) is still at large. Every schoolchild now knows what a "dirty bomb" is. Ten thousand US troops are in Afghanistan and other terrorist-prone lands. The biggest government reorganization in half a century is being undertaken to combat terrorism at home. And this July 4, protecting jets will overfly US national monuments, and police officers will check coolers and backpacks on the National Mall in Washington.

It's not clear that all Americans fully understand how serious and long-lasting this war will be, but everybody knows things are tougher. The question is: Should we be dispirited? I think not.

In World War II Britain, there used to be a comedian who would come out on the music-hall stage and shout: "Are we downhearted?" And the audience of food-rationed, clothes-packed, gas-mask-carrying Londoners, blitzed every night by German bombers, would roar back, "No!"

Americans need not be downhearted this 2002 Independence Day, for their blessings far outweigh their challenges. Their land is free, and prosperous, and strong. The remarkable democratic society they have created in a few years (judged by the history of more ancient civilizations) is a pole of attraction for millions around the world who may not worship as they wish, travel where they want, or choose their rulers by the ballot box rather than the bayonet.

True, Americans face problems other than terrorism. The names of giant companies like Enron and Arthur Andersen and Adelphia and Tyco and WorldCom are scars on the consciences of corporate America after revelations of infamous misdeeds by their executives. We know something smells in the boardrooms of capitalism when even Martha Stewart, that icon of homemaking elegance so inspiring, yet maddening, to every cluttered homemaker, is under a cloud.

Yet for every crook in the CEO's chair, there are hundreds of company directors and officers who are honest and untainted. For every look-the-other-way accountant, there are hundreds whose ethics are sound and untarnished. For every tycoon who should go to jail, there are hundreds of patriotic Americans who have shouldered arms and gone to serve in the dust and dirt of Afghanistan or some other forlorn land that needs their service. For most ordinary Americans, their lives are not lived in Sodoms and Gomorrahs, but in communities where people live law-abiding lives, give fair labor for fair wages, worship in their churches, and strive to impress wholesome standards upon their children.

The gentler spirit that overtook America on Sept. 11 is still alive. Acts of kindness still abound. A child drowned, or killed in an auto accident, or shot by accident, evokes an outpouring of love and messages of compassion and support in every part of the country. In my own community, thousands have turned out to search harsh terrain in temperatures pushing a hundred degrees for an abducted teenager. A quarter of a million dollars in reward money for her return was donated in hours.

The real mood of the country is reflected in the swift public reaction to last week's ruling by a couple of San Francisco federal appeals court judges that the expression "under God" in the Pledge of Allegiance promotes religion and thus violates the separation of church and state. It was a nonsensical ruling because if it is not changed the American people will simply ignore it.

True, the framers of the US Constitution wrote that "Congress shall make no law respecting the establishment of religion." But into the Declaration of Independence they also wrote that people are "endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights." Clearly this was no injunction to abolish God. And so the American people understand it.

Terrorists may assault. Corrosive influence may infiltrate. Corporate executives may debase the ethics on which America was built. Hollywood may defile the standards of morality to which middle America adheres. Independence Day is a welcome reminder that the defense against all threats begins with each and every one of us.

• John Hughes is a former editor of the Monitor and editor and chief operating officer of the Deseret News.

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