For a brief moment after 9/11, we recognized some genuine heroes in our midst, those who put their lives on the line to rescue strangers and those who put their own needs in back of the needs of others in the middle of tragedy. The celebration of this heroism may have become a little gaudy, but it was sincere.
Since then we seem to have become a nation of cowards celebrating illusions.
There is a president, who, in reaction to the devastation of 9/11, does not act with forbearance, curiosity to understand the root cause, and as a world leader. Instead he lashes out at blurry targets with more force than we were met with. This is not the act of a brave man. This is the act of a coward.
There is a senator who sees his country yawing dangerously off course and, for the first time in its history abusing its power openly and shamelessly. The senator says nothing, though he knows better, because he is afraid of an emotional backlash if he engages in rational discussion. He is afraid he will lose the next election. This is the act of a coward.
There is a citizen who is unable to think. He succumbs to fear, believes every scary story he hears, buys duct tape for his doors and windows, when a bit of thinking would tell him he is in more danger from getting into his car. This is the act of a coward.
There is a journalist who knows there are young children dying in hospitals in Iraq, with their bodies horribly disfigured as the result of our country’s doings, yet he will not show pictures of these children so that people can weigh the consequences of war for themselves. He shows pictures of massively-armed Americans and reports every “coalition” news release as gospel truth. This is the act of a coward.
There is an attorney general who is so scared by events that he is willing to subvert the very essence of what we would normally be fighting for. He wraps his subversive activities in a cloud of confusion. This is the act of a coward.
There is a citizen who hangs a flag out on his house as a sign proclaiming that he cannot think, that it is enough to “support our troops” whether what they are doing is right or wrong. This is the act of a coward.
There is the soldier who fires into an oncoming vehicle carrying a family with women and children because he thinks they are coming after him. This is the act of a coward.
There is another soldier who fires into a crowd of civilians when someone throws a sandal at him. Sure he is young, scared to death by the situation he has been unfairly drawn into, but he doesn’t wait for a real reason to fire. This is the act of a coward.
Another soldier trains the barrel of his tank on a hotel full of journalists and fires. This is the act of a coward.
A soldier stands by while hospitals and museums are looted and anarchy descends on a great city. This is the act of a coward.
Many of these are scared kids put into an impossible place. We should pity them, but that does not make them the heroes.
There is a reporter who forbears to report how scared and unnerved these kids are, for fear he might undermine his president. This is the act of a coward.
A member of the United States Congress goes into his cafeteria and renames French Fires, Freedom Fries, because he he is unable to take any criticism from another country, even the country that helped pave the way for American freedom. Is this the act of a brave man? No, this is the act of a coward.
A scholar who advises the White House concludes that force and fear are the only way to end a cycle of terrorism that perpetuates itself because of force and fear. He does not even think about finding the reasons for the problem, or the solutions. This is the act of a coward.
And the president comes forth smirking and swaggering, dressing in military garb and gloating. We have seen this from the worst of world leaders before, the Stalins and Hitlers, and though our president may not rise to the same level of evil, he resembles them uncomfortably. They are the leaders that did what they did and smirked and swaggered while they did it because they were essentially cowards too.
We have, it seems, at last become a nation of cowards. Cowardice has woven itself right into the fabric of our lives. A nation of cowards—except those who aren’t, and there are many. And in the heart of every American there is a bravery waiting to emerge. If someone would come along who would call on that bravery, if another Martin Luther King came suddenly into our midst, you would see bravery flower everywhere overnight.
We are, all of us, after all, just human.
Sidney Hall, Jr. is a poet and publisher who lives in New Hampshire. He is the owner of Hobblebush Books and may be reached at email@example.com.