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Every week, a member of the NCR staff offers a commentary on one or more topics in the news.  It's our way of introducing you to some of the people carrying out the NCR mission of faith and justice based journalism.

March 15, 2004
Vol. 1, No. 219




Tom Roberts Uneasy rites of spring

Tom Roberts NCR editor

It may be some Puritan streak ingested with the air of the culture of the Northeast that I breathed as a youngster, but one of the reasons I still love living in a place where the seasons are well defined is the pure elation I feel every year as my corner of Earth begins to emerge from winter.

If disorder reigns elsewhere, spring sends me signals that we have not yet gone far enough in our alterations of the planet to cancel out the wonders of a spinning planet and changing angles of the sun. It is a time when one of my favorite sporting events -- the whole range of March Madness -- coincides with one of my favorite pasttimes, digging up a garden bed. I love the endless parade of games on television. Aware as anyone of the imperfections of the world of college sport, I admit that I tuck that awareness away and sink into marveling at the grace, the level of skill, the drama. And there are always great stories. Who can't smile and root for St. Joe's of Philadelphia this year? (An aside: I've been to the St. Joe's fieldhouse a number of times, as well as Penn's Palestra. Both great venues. But neither has anything on the University of Kansas' Allen Fieldhouse, an old barn of a treasure. The place is so electric, one visit there made my wife a convert to the cause of college basketball. I can now watch the games of March without explanation -- in fact, with a partner.)

Recent Takes by Tom Roberts
Jan. 14, 04 Looking before leaping
Jan. 12, 04 Looking before leaping
Nov. 14, 03 Sports fascinate me
Nov. 10, 03 Visible symptoms of deeper troubles
Sept. 5, 03 Horses, a child and a fancy recently revived
Sept. 4, 03 'Not what I thought it was going to be'
Sept. 3, 03 Reporters on the religion beat
I love, too, the smell of newly turned earth and the promise of new seeds and plants. It's a time when, from reverie, those earliest, uncluttered and uncomplicated images of death to new life can emerge.

How do I explain this? It can be a cozy, carefree time of year.

But this year was different. The images that nagged had to do with places far away and wars that seem as chimerical and illusory as they are deadly real.

So as I bounced between games and cleaning out beds, the comfort was disturbed.

President Bush declares that America is safer and more secure since 9/11.

I don't see how.

The recent madness in Spain is but one indication that terrorists are ready to up the ante. Whether it is Al Quaeda, as seems increasingly evident, or Basque separatists, a combination of the two, or some other extremist group, whoever was responsible for the bombings in Madrid showed the wider world its vulnerability.

How to respond?

That depends on what we know. And while we now certainly know more about some of the mechanics of terrorist groups and while we are no doubt able to put in place much more sophisticated and elaborate security schemes since 9/11, one is still left wondering: What really do we know?

One of the responses we have made to 9/11 is the planning of a new building on Ground Zero, a "Freedom Tower," that will be not only enormous but, it's designers assure, the "safest building in the world."

I have nothing against increasing the safety of elevators and resistance of a structure to attack by airplanes.

We may be solving a problem: How to make sure no one can ever again down our symbols of wealth and democratic capitalism with a hijacked jet.

The trouble is, that response makes the terrorists' campaign a war against buildings. It isn't. It is a war against what? Ideas? Democracy? Hegemonic western powers? Western materialism and decadence? Christianity?

We don't know. We never stopped long enough to ask. We never hesitated long enough from the intent to go to war to actually consult with our allies. We immediately put the world on notice that we were acting on an impossible dualism. You're with us or you're against us. And if you're against us, we're coming after you.

Of course, we can't do that the world over. So the United States is left with all manner of inconsistencies in dealing with other "rogue" states and those who harbor terrorists and their ideas.

On the two-and-a-half year anniversary of 9/11 Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld keeps talking, absurdly, about finding WMDs someday somewhere in Iraq. He keeps justifying an occupation the reasons for which long ago moved well beyond anything credible.

Now, it seems, not only have we not succeeded in bringing Al Quaeda down, we have inspired new targets. Now Spain has its "3/11." Still there is no global strategy, little sense of whom we are fighting and why.

The air this spring is filled not with promise and hope, but with uncertainty and a growing awareness of what we don't know.

Tom Roberts e-mail address is

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