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Jewish World Review Oct. 4, 2001 / 17 Tishrei, 5762

Bob Greene

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Our 'full alert,' by
definition, is temporary -- THE nation, we are told, is on full alert.

That is the phrase that has been in use since the morning of Sept. 11. "Full alert."

And if the phrase ever had meaning, it has it now. Never in memory has the United States felt closer to lockdown status. The president has told the citizens that this is not a short-term state. The war against terrorism, he has said, will last for years.

So full alert it is -- now and far into the future.

There is one problem with that. A nation -- like a person -- can remain on full alert for only so long.

The human body, physicians will tell you, is not made to remain on full alert indefinitely. When confronted by unexpected danger, the human body goes into the so-called flight-or-fight mechanism. Everything inside a person is jacked up. The body's sudden shift to full alert is why a person at an accident scene finds himself able to lift a car off a victim trapped beneath it -- a feat the person would never be able to do on any other day. The body's sudden shift to full alert is why a person surrounded by would-be assailants finds himself ready to battle fiercely, to the death if necessary -- something the person never would have expected of himself under any other circumstance.

But the body lets down -- it has to. All of those chemicals racing through the bloodstream -- chemicals produced by the body itself in moments of great stress -- can't be produced steadily. Full alert, for a human, is a physical state that, by definition, is out of the ordinary. It cannot be maintained.

So, too, with a country. We can do our best to try to remain on full alert -- but the letdown will come. The dropping of our guard. Not because we want to -- but because it is impossible not to.

And when we do? Through no fault of the citizens, or of our elected leaders?

That is going to be the difficult part. We have already been told by our government leaders that the best thing Americans can do right now is to "Go about your business." That has been the instruction to us: "Go about your business."

But the business of America is something we ordinarily see as rather pleasant -- the business of America is to lead our lives freely.

The business of those who would destroy us, though -- the business of the terrorists behind the Sept. 11 attacks -- is to kill us. It's not as if we are at war with a specific nation or government composed of citizens with bland parallel agendas to tend to. If the people we are at war with were a country, we could take some solace in the idea that the citizens of that country had workaday distractions just as we do. That no matter how much their leaders disliked us, the citizens themselves always were feeling themselves tugged back into dailiness.

Not this war. We were not attacked by a country -- we were attacked by forces with a single agenda: to murder us. These forces don't have parliaments to attend to, or automobiles to manufacture, or vacations to plan their years around. They're not a nation. They are armed forces who report only to themselves.

And they can wait. That is the most ominous part about our full alert -- the people whose mission it is to kill us have plenty of time. They know we are on our self-declared full alert -- we have told them so, along with the rest of the world. They can wait us out.

President Bush last week said that the terrorists who were living in the United States, preparing for the Sept. 11 attack, had insinuated themselves into our society for two years. This wasn't a quick hit. This was an assault they carried out just when they sensed we weren't looking.

Now we are looking all the time -- looking all around us. Who ever would have imagined this -- a run on gas masks? In the United States? A ban on crop dusters?

Every truck parked unattended on a city street, every foot of the impossibly vast American-Canadian border that is passable without a Customs official standing sentry, every car pulling into the parking lot of a high-rise building -- everything looks different in these last days of September than it did in the first days of September. That is what full alert means.

But it can't last -- not that we want to falter, but full alert is an unnatural state. We will let up -- we will suffer letdown. You can stay up all night only so many times. No matter how you might will yourself not to sleep, you will sleep. Exhaustion sets in.

Full alert is a defensive mechanism. The United States is a nation not accustomed to what we are going through. We believe in some wonderful qualities: freedom, fairness, and, most of all, the love of mercy.

So it is going to take some getting used to when the United States -- because of what has happened to us -- shifts from its defensive stance into the stance of putting the other side, not us, on full-time alert, and when, out of somber and well considered necessity, our nation becomes something we have never aspired to be:


JWR contributor Bob Greene is a novelist and columnist. Send your comments to him by clicking here.

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