by Joe Shea
Ameican Reporter Editor-in-Chief
December 31, 2001-January 1, 2002
A CHANGE WILL COME
The hills and forests and rivers and streams of Orange County, N.Y., where I grew up in the small farming town of Monroe (population 2,000), are known for their beauty in Spring, Summer and Fall. The verdant green fields of grass that by late Spring is hay and the waving fields of summer corn give way to the glowing colors of change in the Fall.
Tens of thousands of New Yorkers make the trek to this part of the Hudson River Valley an hour from New York City to watch the leaves turn in magnificent stands of oak and maple that have weathered the centuries, and some of them return to its quiet towns to make their home.
Today I know it is also a place where the horrors of Sept. 11 spread the icy fingers of Winter into the hearts of hundreds of families whose fathers, mothers, brothers, sisters, husbands, wives, in-laws, aunts, uncles, cousins, nephews and nieces were lost on that terrible day.
The newspaper where I started as a reporter, the Times Herald-Record in Middletown, N.Y., has listed the names of Orange County's dead with pitiably brief biographies -- so brief, and so many, that they only add to the heartache -- and on their doomsday roster I found the names of five people from Monroe and one from elsewhere whose family lived there.
Today, Monroe is home to 12,000 people, I think, and has changed from a peaceful, bucolic place to a busy suburb; the dead were firemen and brokers, people who'd come to Monroe as it grew. At a memorial for one of them, more than 600 people turned out to hold candles against a night that last September seemed to have utterly enveloped their lives. It is surely nothing new to hear of people weeping, and reading of Monroe's loss, I wept.
Orange County is a place of solid middle-class affluence, a county of Republicans who have sent the same good man, Rep. Ben Gilman, to Congress for the past 30 years; he even came to our house to speak to the TeenAge Republicans (TARS) when I was in high school.
The newspaper's growth has paced that of the region, so it no longer mainly serves its largest city, Middletown, but is distributed in four counties, Ulster, Dutchess, Orange and Rockland, up and down the river whose broad and beautiful expanse defines all of their eastern boundaries.
The sloping green hills of hay and corn have sprouted a bumper crop of large, lovely homes, and the schools are jammed with over-achievers and sports stars whose stats are among the best in the nation. Poverty surely exists in Orange County, but its survival is uncertain.
As in most of this wonderful country, whose enormous wealth is the envy of the world, starvation and war do not exist here; people live in happy affluence and peace. They love their children, go to church, vote, volunteer and lead lives that strive for decency and deserve respect.
But not only were they loving and peaceful people; they were firefighters who would rush into a burning, blasted, bombed-out, fiery crumbling tower to rescue strangers; they were brokers who put aside their stocks and bonds to guide the weak, blinded by smoke, down through burning stairwells.
They were travelers who risked all they were and would be to defend the symbols of their country against maniac pilots in a passenger jet hell-bent on obliterating them. They were brave, good, honest, caring people; they were heroic people, the kind that carve new worlds from old. Why, then, were so many of them deliberately murdered by a religious fanatic on the other side of the globe?
We do not have to explain ourselves, or the fanatics. Our preoccupation with the trappings of our culture is different in form, not in format, from others'.
We breathe the same oxygen, have the same life running through our veins, have the same blood and skin and hearts. Killing us is no different from killing them except in purpose, which for both sides is everything.
They fight out of a jealous hatred for who we are and what we have and what we are free to do; they would say they kill us because we ignore and dismiss them as savages, mock their oppressive fundamentalism, and offend the God they invoke with every breath.
We fight because of what they have done to us, and that rage is also fueled by what they have done to force their own people back into the Dark Ages of ignorance, poverty and feudalism. I think you could canvass the entire population of Orange County, N.Y., and not find a single person who felt that people of the Islamic faith and of the Arabic-speaking countries ought not to have all the wealth and abundance we have -- if they can earn it.
And a far greater percentage of Americans go to church than do residents of ostensibly Muslim nations; as a people, we are more religious than any other country on earth.
We earned this state of secular grace by throwing off the chains of colonialism, by fighting a civil war that divided us into camps for and against slavery, and fought two more wars to halt the damned armies of Kaiser Wilhem and Adolf Hitler. We stopped Chinese-style imperialism from erasing the Korean peninsula, and tried mistakenly to stop political imperialism from erasing South Vietnam. We beat back the Butcher of Baghdad, who might have otherwise continued all the way to the Arabian Sea, and we helped tame the aggression of the Soviet Bloc.
In all that we have done, our motives were never as mercenary and base as some complain, even if they were not pure; most of the time, we have been guided by our next-best light. Never once have we sent our armies out to destroy a people or a religion, and we have never kept a nation enslaved. No one anywhere in the world struggles to the depths of an American mine bound in chains, to return at the end of a 16-hour day to a meal of bread and rice in a cold prison cell.
We do not chop off the hands of those who steal and the heads of those who have love affairs; we do not, as they have, hand over our presses to the government and our front pages to its whims and opinions, no matter how warring and racist and anti-human they may be. This nation of ours needs a champion, and theirs needs a modern leader.
And yet, in our view of God and the missions He gives us, this war we have fought in Afghanistan and the war against terrorism we will fight around the globe demands again that we offer every assistance we can to the hungry, the poor, the homeless and the suffering whose leaders have perhaps not been so wise, who did not see the future so well, who brought upon them not only our wrath but a wraithful brand of leadership that has disgraced and destroyed their societies.
Thus, the American Century is not behind us but is ahead. We must lead the world from a global recession to recovery, and guide the difficult journey of democracy to the world's many oppressed and deadly places. We must set the standard, the tone, the style and the tune of the world in the hundred years to come, if only so that a city of the future does not burn, so that a people is not destroyed, so that some well-founded religion or culture is not mercilessly extinguished.
We are engaged in the work of human and social evolution, and it is a long, hard work whose beneficiaries are still potential in the centuries unborn. To finish it here would as surely finish that potential as the Flood finished the antediluvian world.
There will be a few fresh graves in the verdant green pastures of Spring. When Orange County blooms again in April and May, all of our flowing sorrow will not yet have melted every heart frozen in the horror of this past September.
But change and growth and human progress will come because it is planted in such good earth, and because the sacrifice so many have made has enlarged the world of spirit that drives us on to better things than we had hoped before.
Even now I hear the music of the future, and it is a tuneful sound.
May God bless America, and bless us one and all in the year to come.