BY RHETA GRIMSLEY JOHNSON
I caught the news on a motel TV near Flagstaff, a bright Arizona sun outside belying the horror of the day. Searching for a weather forecast, I found a storm.
For days I'd been wrapping miles around the radials in what you might call the American Cliche Tour: Alaska, the California redwoods, the Grand Canyon, Las Vegas, Hoover Dam, the Alamo.
Seeing things I'd never seen, working my way home slowly, marveling at the great expanse and natural wonder and larger-than-life landmarks of our country.
Then they hit.
A nation so rich in resources, so big in size, so resourceful and diverse, brought to a standstill by box cutters and knives and its own airplanes. By Third World thugs whose religious fanaticism pushes them to hatch bizarre plots, then to suicide and murder.
It was a bad movie, the kind kids love and Arnold and Bruce make. Only after these explosions and spectacular effects, nobody wins.
The miles seemed longer now, with the skies empty of airplanes and the radio spitting out grim details. Home was wherever I could watch Dan Rather and find out if more buildings had melted into the earth, if the world was at war. There was nothing to do but stare at the screen, watching as wives wept for lost husbands and husbands for lost wives and the death toll mounted like points in a lopsided basketball game.
On the road, everything now was slightly cockeyed. A border guard with a dog near El Paso asked if I was a U.S. citizen. A motel clerk was crying as I passed her my credit card. In a Tex-Mex restaurant, people absent-mindedly dipped chips into salsa and looked up at a TV hung on the wall. Again and again an airplane sliced through a skyscraper. Again and again we watched, as if the outcome might change.
By day, in the car, the radio began to worry me. I found myself agreeing with blowhards whose ideas I normally despise. I found myself eager for retaliation. I wanted it now. I wanted it yesterday.
Only none of us — the Radio Right pundits, the powerful, the working stiffs — knew where to drop the get-even bomb.
I've been in the opinion business so long that I usually have one. And I can express it in 750 written words if I have any kind of old keyboard and nobody bugs me for a couple of hours.
But this, this one boggles the brain. The attack is an atrocity on home soil, in living color, for no good reason. People in the World Trade Center were making money, not foreign policy. They were unarmed and unaware, not soldiers with an eye out and an even chance. They took the subway to work and read The Wall Street Journal. They were blindsided, bombed, burned, crushed to death by rubble.
Their children carry photographs and walk the streets and haunt hospitals. They want their daddies back, and their old lives.
Yet I'm still not sure the soul-satisfying response — leveling a country or two the way Arnold would, or pulling a rat out of a desert hole by his turban — is the right one. I'm not even sure which country or which rat.
Life as we knew it is over, they tell us. They state it flatly, again and again.
And maybe that's as it should be. Maybe we never should have felt so blissfully almighty and impervious. Maybe, instead, we should have seen ourselves as oversized targets, despised for whatever reasons by much of the world.
I have to hope there's enough intelligence in the so-called "Intelligence Community" to determine responsibility for the tragedy. And enough might in the military to pulverize the true culprits. And enough patience in the American public's collective psyche to allow justice.
I have to believe the marvelous sights I've seen, the canyons and rivers and mountains and big trees — the natural wonders that make us so proud — will be around for a long, long time. I have to believe that.
© 2001 Rheta Grimsley Johnson
Distributed by King Features Syndicate