Longing a return to my kind of America

By Jane Flanagan

Late the other night, my son was jumping on the bed and refusing to put on his pajamas. Eventually, he took note of my dismay and startled me by saying, “Mom, I’m sorry. I’m not being very kind.”

I resolved to track down his teacher and thank her again. Down at school this past year, Ms. Prescott spent a lot of time talking to the children about what it means to be kind. I should also go down to the school office and see if they can spare Ms. Prescott for a year or two. I’d like to send her to Washington.

They could use a little Ms. Prescott down there. Because, America, the kind one that I grew up with anyway, is hard to find right now. My father was in World War II and told me stories of D-Day and how the Americans saved so many people. My parents also told me about the kind, comforting voice of President Franklin Delano Roosevelt who got them through the Great Depression. They were life-long conservative Republicans, but that man transcended politics.

I continued to encounter many other examples of American kindness. Editing an article for this newspaper, I spoke to a Jewish man who recounted how, in 1956 during the Suez Crisis, his family was ordered to leave Egypt. They went to Paris but within days of arriving, he was faced with spray-painted anti-Semitic statements. His classmates, and even some teachers, were not very kind to him, he said. But later, when President Kennedy loosened immigration restrictions, his family came to America. The moment he landed here he felt welcomed, he said. It started when he got off the plane and saw a synagogue at the airport. It continued as he began meeting kind Americans.

But I don’t see so many kind things now. Growing up, I always thought of my parents as having lived through the scariest of times. I couldn’t imagine a Pearl Harbor and felt lucky to be living when I was. But then one September morning nearly four years ago I was on my way, with my then 3-year-old, to the grocery store, the Amish Market located on Cedar St. next to the World Trade Center. Civilians, mostly people on their way to work, 2,749 of them, were killed there. More than died at Pearl Harbor. Suddenly, I felt very unlucky. I was also terrified.

But I couldn’t seem to find a comforting voice on the radio or TV. Instead, the only voice with any resonance belonged to two ministers who said the attacks were my fault. “The abortionists have got to bear some burden for this because God will not be mocked,” said the Rev. Jerry Falwell (I’m pro-choice). Pat Robertson concurred. They also blamed my friends, “I really believe that the….gays and the lesbians….I point the finger in their face and say, ‘You helped this happen.’”

These two, of course, are more than “men of God.” They are political operatives, and they and their ilk are familiar names around the White House.

Speaking of God and government, out at the Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs, a chaplain recently resigned because of the unkind things happening there. As a Lutheran minister, she could not tolerate the heavy-handed proselytizing by high-ranking officials, Evangelical Christians. She also objected to the anti-Jewish slurs taking place. A father of two Jewish cadets concurred, stating, “That’s not what this government is about.”

I always thought so, too.

But down in Washington the tone during this time of terror and war seems off the mark. For instance, the president recently performed an ostensibly kind gesture. It’s one that American presidents, in their role as the harbingers of freedom, have long done. He invited a foreign dissident to the White House. It was North Korean defector Kang Chol Hwan, who wrote a book about his decade spent in a prison camp there. After their meeting, the president asked him to autograph the book saying, “If Kim Jong Il knew I met you, don’t you think he’d hate this?” His statement was “leaked” to the press.

Suddenly, this American tradition didn’t seem so kind anymore. The point was not so much freedom, as sticking it to North Korea.

But as recently as a few years ago, kind things were still happening at the White House. I read that when TWA flight 800 bound for Paris blew up on takeoff at J.F.K., President Clinton watched in dismay as the families, distraught and outraged, were interviewed on the evening news. He called his aides to the Oval Office.

“I want to go up there tomorrow to see those families,” he said. His advisors warned against it. The families were in shock and furious. They would take it out on the president and it wouldn’t play well on the 6 o’clock news. President Clinton went anyway, adding, “Get a French interpreter, too. Many of the families are from France.”

When I was a teenager, I remember learning about the crazy communist hunter Sen. Joseph McCarthy and being astonished that such an unkind man could have hoodwinked America. It seemed incongruous in the country that I knew. I was relieved to read that a couple of Americans finally had the courage to stand up to him. One was Army Special Counsel Joseph Welch who said in a nationally televised hearing, “Senator, have you no sense of decency? Have you no shame?” and I thought, ‘damned right.’ And America righted itself.

It’s time for America to right itself again.

WWW Downtown Express