Mr. Rogers: A true director of homeland security
NEW YORK — I think it was the matches that finally pushed me over the edge.
My mother, grandmother, and aunt were huddled around the kitchen table preparing for nuclear war. My 9-year-old cousin and I watched warily from across the room.
In hushed and panicked voices they inventoried the items for our survival kit. First came the canned creamed corn. Then the bandages and iodine. And finally, with much fanfare, my Mom revealed the pièce de résistance, the item she was sure would save our extended family when the nuclear fallout fell - 20 cans of baked brown bread.
I admit that their survival planning brought me vicarious thrills. I could imagine we resisters hunkering down in the legendary bunkers of the Warsaw ghetto, laying in wait to let the Nazis have it. Only this time, in 1961, the peril would not come from German flame-throwers but from Soviet missiles aimed directly at our suburb of West Covina, Calif., where our bunker would be the screened-in patio off the back porch.
My fantasy fizzled when Grandma brought out the matches. One hundred boxes of authentic, wooden Diamond Kitchen matches. Grandma was convinced that we would be all right if we used the matches to heat the creamed corn when the big blast blew out our power supply. My cousin and I were only 9 and 10, yet somehow we understood intuitively that something more than a little goofy was going on.
I've been thinking of those matches and that canned bread the US worked itself into a frenzy of duct tape and bottled water, but my perspective changed last week when Fred Rogers died.
I don't for a minute minimize the importance of national and individual preparedness for the all-too-palpable possibilities of future attacks on American soil. I smelled the burning World Trade Center and lost a neighbor in the rubble. I'm as anxious as anyone to do everything possible to protect my family from unspeakable horror.
But the passing of the gentle, reassuring Mr. Rogers is an opportunity to re- examine our confused approach to the current challenge of our collective safety.
Like my well-meaning Mom in 1961, we have been engaged in a national "safety buying" spree. There is no peril that cannot be neutralized with a hardware purchase. Yet the illusion of security does not satisfy. The duct tape that reassured us last week will become obsolete when the new "super weapons resistant" version hits the shelves.
Which brings me to Fred Rogers.
Fast forward from the Cuban Missile Crisis to 1968 when it was even easier to imagine our social fabric was about to rip wide open. Robert Kennedy and Martin Luther King Jr. had been assassinated. President Johnson's failure in Vietnam was forcing him from office. And the Democratic convention in Chicago looked more like the Battle of Stalingrad than an exercise in democracy.
In the midst of this national angst, a precursor to PBS nationally broadcast the first episodes of "Mister Rogers' Neighborhood." Monday through Friday, for more than 30 years thereafter, Fred Rogers walked into his room, exchanged his leather shoes for sneakers and his suit coat for a sweater, and helped the nation's children negotiate a complex world in order to build a feeling of internal security.
He taught us that a safe place is not a sealed panic room, but the sense we give children that - although the world can be dangerous and that loss and pain and grief are real - responsible adults will do everything possible to keep them safe. Mr. Rogers' "duct tape" was a gift of gentle, unconditional love, which enabled us to create mental safe rooms that had nothing to do with matches, or canned food, or plastic sheeting.
Feelings of vulnerability are quintessentially human. Our current fears are grounded in real threats. Of course we want to protect our children in this perilous world. The question is why we are focusing our feeble efforts on Swiss army knives and giving short shrift to the kind of honest emotional engagement with children with which Fred Rogers soothed American children in an uncertain and unforgiving world.
I wonder how our memories of the Cuban missile crisis would be different if instead of rushing from store to store hoarding a futile stash of groceries, our parents had sat down and talked to us about our growing anxiety, and simply assured us - like Mr. Rogers - that they would see us through. So thank you, Fred Rogers. You will always be my director of of homeland security.
• Steven M. Gorelick has a PhD in sociology and criminology and is vice president for institutional advancement at The City University of New York Graduate Center.