Colorado Springs in the 1950s was a small, reasonably prosperous, even idyllic community. So safe were its streets and neighborhoods that we kids could roam freely through the warm summer nights, accompanied by friends, younger siblings and unleashed dogs. Our parents didn't worry — after all, what was there to worry about? There were no gangs, no drugs, little crime and scarcely any traffic.
Yet, as we learned at school, this peaceful city lay under a shadow.
A sudden nuclear attack might come at any time — and the military installations that ringed Colorado Springs made us a prime target.
It was the stuff of nightmares. In an instant, everything could disappear, consumed in a pillar of fire. Our comfortable house on Tejon Street, the old maple that shaded our yard, Steele School, my friends, our dogs — all gone.
I wondered whether Dad could protect us. Couldn't he build a vast underground bunker into which the house could be lowered to safety? And if he did, what about the dogs? Afraid of the answer, I never asked.
We might have been citizens of the most powerful nation on Earth, but we lived somewhere else.
Call it the Republic of Fear. Politicians, newspapers, and governments at every level served it, and promoted its agenda.
Consider the 1968 "Colorado Springs and El Paso County Community Shelter Plan," prepared by the Colorado Springs/El Paso County Civil Defense Agency under the supervision of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.
This slickly produced and scarily illustrated booklet, including fallout shelter maps for the entire region, told us how to prepare for nuclear holocaust. And what to do in an "attack without warning."
"If a very brilliant flash or a heavy shock occurs and you are not in a shelter, act as follows: if indoors, drop to the floor, get under a bed, desk, or heavy table and stay on floor ... if outdoors, quickly get behind a tree, into a ditch or other protection..."
Ludicrous and delusional though it may now appear, this document perfectly embodied the dystopian world-view of America's military-foreign-policy establishment. Expect the worst, maintain perpetual vigilance, and prepare the next generation to assume the burden of protecting our great democracy. And when the fire comes — as it must! — be ready to smite our enemies.
Even after the fall of the Soviet Union, the end of the Cold War, and the vast prosperity (as well as the thong-snapping levity) of the Clinton years, the cold warriors clung to the past. They may have yearned for the fire next time, for a way to settle accounts with the world's petty troublemakers.
And so, when the towers fell on a flawless September morning 10 years ago, Dick Cheney and Don Rumsfeld saw the fire in the sky. The two aging warhorses had been chosen by fate to guide George W. Bush as he led America in its hour of peril. They believed that 9/11 was our Pearl Harbor, the summons to and harbinger of a great global conflict pitting good against evil, democracy against terrorism, and freedom against fanaticism.
President Bush needed no convincing. Ten days after the attacks, he said, "This crusade, this war on terrorism is going to take a while..."
He drank the Kool-Aid. And so did we all, even those of us who should have known better. We inflated 9/11's importance until it stood with Valley Forge and Fort Sumter. It was the day that changed everything, and our leaders, wise and ferocious, would know what to do. As New York Times columnist Tom Friedman said of Bush and Cheney: "These guys know how to pull the trigger!"
We had to find meaning and purpose in that terrible day. We couldn't let it disappear into history, merely another episode "in the dark lamentable catalogue of human crime." We had to do something.
Ten years later, hundreds of thousands have died, trillions of dollars have been spent, and for what? Here's what I wrote in these pages on 9/13/2001:
"How will we deal with this attack? With the kind of clear-eyed wisdom that, in our history, only Lincoln achieved? Or will we simply become another player in an endless cycle of violence and death? ... We can find and label enemies all we want. It won't work. Whom do we smite, with our terrible swift sword?"
Ten years later, I still don't know.