Christmastime Test

It is Prince of Peace season and America is at war. Peace on earth, goodwill to men is the usual mantra and our nation is in the sixth or seventh week of bombing Afghanistan. In the Holy Land, more suicide bombers and missiles. Merry and Happy are the words on the greeting cards and tens of thousands of letters have been cross-contaminated with anthrax spores. Joy is the word in the hymns--are we singing along?

We seem to be subjects in a mass experiment in cognitive dissonance. Maybe this is the real malfunction, the Y2K disaster we were fearing.

"This is a test, it is only a test," says the Emergency Broadcast System recording. "For the next sixty seconds, you will hear a tone that will be used to alert you in case of an actual emergency. Remember, this is only a test."

This morning Tom Ridge was on television explaining that his announcement yesterday was to "remind America one more time that we are at war."

Without these reminders we might forget.

What did you do in the war, Mommy? I bought an SUV. Sport Utility Vehicle sales are higher than pickup trucks for the first time. Used primarily to go to shopping malls, our favorite sport. Also used to carry families, though the Census Bureau says that for the first time less than one-fourth of households are married with children.

"It is good to have the Marines here in Times Square," Charles Gibson said on "Good Morning America" this morning, showing Marines in a "light armored vehicle," which is a skinny tank. He said it can go 65 miles an hour. He sounded delighted. "Perfect for combat in the cities. It handles better than a Caddy," says one website. "The Army hopes to buy 2,131 of the vehicles." For the man who has everything, an LAV-III under the Christmas tree. Better than last war's Hummer.

This conversion to a militarized lifestyle is happening all through our society. We are on alert. We are in a state of emergency. We are increasingly under martial law. Constitutional protections have been suspended for some people in some situations, or for everyone.

Patriotism is most ardent when a nation is at war. Only Congress can declare war, Congress has not declared war, but we are most definitely at war. Peace flags are controversial. We should ask why. Does peace undermine war? Or does war undermine peace? It is not so simple, of course.

"The test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in the mind at the same time, and still retain the ability to function," is F. Scott Fitzgerald's line.

Terrorism/democracy. "An eye for an eye only ends up making the whole world blind," is one of Gandhi's famous statements, in a variation on what Jesus said in the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5). U.S. government policy apparently rejects both Jesus and Gandhi in favor of the eye-for-an-eye equation. We have "blind" justice and "blind rage." Albert Einstein said, "Peace cannot be achieved through violence, it can only be attained through understanding." But American policy makers must believe they are smarter than Einstein.

James Park wrote, "Recent neuro-biological research has shown that you cannot think clearly without engaging your emotions. Thinking and feeling are inextricably intertwined, and many of the failings of our political process arise from our reluctance to acknowledge the implications of this fact. The question to be asked - about our public and private lives - is how well we manage the interaction between the two processes."

Our hearts and minds are struggling, striving for an understanding of the right thing to do, the right way to live. Such striving is called jihad, the greater jihad, in Arabic. Christmas/war. Ramadan/Hanukkah. It's cognitive dissonance for sure. The countdown is on: almost three months from September 11 and the fire of the World Trade Center tomb is still burning. Twenty shopping days until Christmas, nineteen, eighteen....

December 4, 2001