I was sitting at a gate at O'Hare International when President Bush announced the invasion of Iraq.
There was a subtle lowering of the chatter when Bush came on, and when he was done telling us that 280,000 of our fellow citizens would, within hours, be at war with thousands of citizens in a faraway land that none of us has ever seen, we all went back to our newspapers, novels, and Nintendos.
The president told us several interesting things about ourselves that night: that we are, for example, "a peaceful people, but not a fragile people." I wondered what either one means. We are, after all, responding to the deaths of 3,000 people in America -- an act perpetrated by people from Egypt and Saudi Arabia who were trained in Afghanistan and spent years in Germany and America -- by using the largest army in the history of the world against Iraq. Is that peaceful?
He also told us that we "understand the costs of conflict because we have paid them in the past." I thought of my fellow Americans in the terminal and the places we were headed for: Milwaukee, Detroit, Dallas, Anchorage, Los Angeles not one of which has ever seen an enemy plane in the sky or its citizens retreating to bomb shelters or life without electricity and clean water because some government blew up the works to settle some score with our government.
I thought of our carrier for the evening, American Airlines. It'll be announcing bankruptcy soon, probably a month or two after the killing commences and everybody quits traveling for a while. This despite our government giving that airline millions and millions of our dollars to subsidize its miserably run operations. Bush, silver-spoon man that he is, might well have added that we're a nation that rewards hard work, efficiency, and ingenuity.
I was flying just under the wire not only as a customer of American (or United or probably others that will soon be gone) but knowing that by the next morning we would probably be at some colorful state of alarm in the nation, with more vigorous luggage-scanning and longer lines at airports. This is what most Americans consider the "costs of conflict."
I thought there might be some more attention paid at the gate, some conversation about war and suffering rather than baseball trades and the stock market, if this nation had actually seen war. I don't hope that it happens -- I wouldn't want the kid playing tag with his mom to have to one day defend his home against a tank -- but we do seem like a country that could use some grown-up perspective. Ever wonder why Europe wasn't in such a rush for war this time around? Maybe it's because Europe knows what it looks like.
Later, on the plane, I was cursed with the usual desire to write, from high in the sky, something profound and full of perspective. Somehow seeing a whole town or all of downtown Chicago through one tiny window makes one think that one can "see it all." But it's a mixed perspective in many ways. The Chicago skyline is a testament to the abilities of humankind to build things. But seeing a basketball arena built with hundreds of millions of taxpayer dollars so that we might be entertained, sitting next to ramshackle housing where thousands of people live with very little hope, can only make one wonder what we're building. And why.
Looking out the window, I also thought that maybe this is what it looks like to a fighter pilot right before he lets the bombs go. I wondered how I would feel if my job were to destroy a town.
I'm not a head-in-the-sand pacifist or an expert in international affairs, but I have managed to kick around the world a little bit, and I'd like to think I have learned something about human beings. I have learned that, generally speaking, the more we know about each other, the more we care about each other and the more we respect each other's views. I have also learned that, not despite but entirely because of our increasing attachment to technology, we are getting to know each other less and less. We are building shells around ourselves, telling ourselves that we can learn about human nature by watching people date on television, that we can learn about the world through Web sites, that we can create our happiness by purchasing things.
None of these things is correct. The greatest blessing in my life -- after family, friends, and health -- has been the perspective I've received from meeting people where they live and learning about what they do and who they are. I have had the pleasure of seeing America from outside America and knowing that even if you believe our lifestyle and society represent the pinnacle of human achievement (which I don't happen to believe), there are other viable options out there that we could learn from.
I think the problem facing humanity in the bigger picture is not weapons of mass destruction but our desire to use them. And I think that the cure for that problem lies in expanding our horizons and getting to know each other in a spirit of humility, tolerance, and acceptance. Sure, it's simple, perhaps even simplistic, but it's all I have to offer from 30,000 feet up, when the world below is hurtling toward conflict.