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Derek Jennings 

Don't Worry, Be Happy

On an unseasonably warm October afternoon, I take the family to the State Fair. I couldn't have asked for a prettier day--a quintessentially Carolina blue sky provides a bright backdrop for the most beautiful fall foliage I've seen in my eight-plus years down here. For me though, the colorful display is dulled, the brilliant hues muted by the pall recent events have cast over all matters great and small.As we enter the gates to the fair, my attention is split. On the one hand, my wife and I can't help but be delighted by the excitement of the kids. They're beaming, bounding, bursting with pure child energy that we wish we could bottle for our own use. On the other hand, I'm scanning the scenery, watching fellow fairgoers, noting the security, or lack thereof.

And therein lies the rub. There is no security. No real security, at least on this earth. That's the crux of the post-Sept. 11 paradox: How does one "live" in the knowledge that tomorrow is not promised, while still appreciating the time we do have?

There's a simple answer to that dilemma for many. "We need to stay prayed up," a friend recently said to me. "We don't have any control over what's going on right now, all we can do is put it in God's hands." Blessed assurance is heavenly insurance. I've known that for a minute now, so I step careful, and live prayerful for each lungful of life I breath in. But even then, I'm left to contend with the affairs of men. The anxious, shell-shocked days of mid-September are gone. The immediacy of the ground zero rescue spectacle has faded as surely as the prospects for survivors after those first grim weeks. The tenuous, pre-war tension has likewise abated, as the fated revenge missiles now shower down upon Afghanistan, ushering in a new rainy season for a people already soaked beyond saturation from two decades of civil war and the U.S.-Soviet trickle-down military policies.

On the home front, following some bizarre and macabre script, terror arrives anew, in the form of an innocuous everyday ritual--opening the mail. Amid the uncertainty, the nation shakily walks the line between panic and prudence. Resolute and reassuring, the president all but issues an executive order commanding the American people to "Go on 'bout y'all business."

And I'm at the fair trying to figure that out. Dag. They done raised the price of the ride tickets and it takes more tickets to ride now. This is new-school patrioti$m. Uncle Sam Wants YOU ... to spend some money, take a vacation, purchase some durable goods and cheer for the stock market. Go Team!

Folks at the fair seem happy enough. I'm wondering if they are in any way apprehensive about being part of such a large crowd of targets--I mean, people? If their minds wander and then stick for an instant on the possibility that some psycho with a backpack full of C-4 will find the ferris wheel to be an appropriate place for an emphatic political statement?

Nah. They don't seem shook like that. I sniff the autumn air and detect the odd mixture of pony manure and sausage and onions and candy apples and fried dough--but not fear. The faces we see are ordinary fair faces. The smiles are infectious. The throng is beautifully diverse, as Asian, black, white and Latino folk amble about the midway, forming a colorful collage. I spot what I assume to be a few Muslim families (the women are clad in hajib, traditional dress), and no one seems to be bothering them. That's real cool. Walking and holding my kids' hands, I relish the contact and allow myself to think on this bright day, that this is a snapshot of America at her best.

Of course, every day ain't a day at the fair. In the real world, folks are struggling with what "normal" means nowadays and trying to comprehend that there's no such thing as homeland security. Meanwhile, the illusion of security, sold at the price of freedom, is being peddled to us at a tremendous markup over pre-Sept. 11 prices. You think you're making a good purchase? Wait until you get home and see the Anti-Terrorism Bill."Aww, man, the salesman was so smooth, I didn't know that I'd end up spending all of the First and Fourth Amendments. Uhh, can a brother get a refund?"

As the pundits and powers that be ponder the merits of reviving racial profiling (if it ever went out of style), I wonder if enough time has passed for me to respectfully observe that if the terrorists had been black women, the tragedies of Sept. 11 wouldn't have happened. Well, at least not if they'd been among the more than 200 black women who were strip- and cavity-searched on suspicion of drug smuggling at O'Hare airport in Chicago with no cause. (They've since filed a class action suit).

In the interests of national unity and unanimity, I'll go on record as being in favor now of universal cavity searches, at shopping malls, schools, restaurants--everywhere. In addition to the precipitous rise in our collective security, just think of the boost we'll give to the latex glove industry.

I guess that's as absurd as the folks now buying gas masks in droves from Army surplus stores. But on the other hand, you can be too cool. Like the post office execs in Washington, D.C., who didn't aggressively test their workers for anthrax in what I can only assume was an effort to keep the public calm. Now that's a tragic irony. They smooth-talked about the risks to postal workers, although the anthrax-ridden letter to Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle obviously came through the mail. Meanwhile, members of the House of Representatives were so spooked, they abandoned their building before any anthrax was even found there. And two postal workers are now dead who may have been saved.

Which brings up another concern. As the bombs drop and fears of more terrorist attacks persist, there's a growing gap between the outlook of our leaders, who seem to be in favor of changing the national anthem to Bobby McFerrin's Don't Worry, Be Happy, and the people, who'll evacuate buildings and head for the hills at the sight of some crushed aspirin. As the needle of American public sentiment oscillates between paranoia and providence, just how much worrying is justified by these times?

At the State Fair, we buy some funnel cakes. I have to admit that watching the lady give our food a liberal dusting of powdered sugar is a bit unsettling. As I always do, I blow the excess sugar off of my pastry, careful to stand upwind as I watch the little particles waft off into the afternoon air. No, I don't think for a minute that al-Qaeda has operatives in Pennsylvania Dutch Country. But as I bite into my cake, I can't help but feel that the current official response to threatened homeland security (wash your hands after opening the mail) are as unrealistic as the old "duck and cover" propaganda films in which the government tried to delude schoolchildren and adults into thinking they could survive a nuclear blast by assuming the position under the table.

And speaking of assuming the position, the recent passage in the House of a $100 billion (and that's only the first year's cost, it's actually much more expensive) economic stimulus package is a reminder that right now, the financial security of Americans is at much higher risk than our physical security. This package is different from an earlier $75 billion emergency spending bill that included a bailout of the airline industry (which gets a hefty infusion of tax dollars without any compulsion to rehire any of the 100,000 workers that were laid off in the immediate aftermath of the Sept. 11 attacks). The current $100 billion is a "stimulus package," comprised largely of tax breaks that benefit big corporations and the wealthiest 10 percent of the population.

Tax breaks are important because we can't afford more spending. Okayyyy. We don't want the government to spend any more money, so instead, we'll drastically reduce the amount that comes in. (Have these guys ever taken basic algebra?). The economy was in recession prior to Sept. 11, and the number of jobless people since then has dramatically increased. Will we help these people to make it? Enable them to pay their rents? Extend their health-care benefits? No. But we'll give some of them an additional $350 in tax rebates, and if they ever regain employment, they'll be funding for years into the future the Capital Gains Tax and other current examples of corporate largesse. The message is clear: American workers, bend over and prepare to be stimulated by the post-Sept. 11 finance package.

It's getting dark now. We finish the funnel cake as we reach the gate. I think, just getting up this morning with my family intact was a blessing. And if all this ends before my next breath, I've still been blessed. I haven't lost any loved ones. I still have a job. And I can go to bed reasonably sure that a stray cluster bomb won't hit the crib.

So I guess worries and fears are as much for others as they are for myself. And that's really the crux of life, post-Sept. 11: Will Americans, through our fear and grief, come to understand that this sad and anxious state is exactly what life is like for a lot of people all over the world, all the time? Will we recognize that the "don't worry, be happy" ethos that the government is using to smooth over our current fears is the same mentality that leaves us deaf to the suffering of others at home and around the globe? And more importantly, will we do anything to change all that?


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