THE END OF INNOCENCE

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Half a century ago Rodgers & Hammerstein, as they usually did, caught the mood of an innocent American heartland, grasped its spirit, got it right. Their words and their music still today tell us the kind of country this once was and in ways still is, the sort of people we are, our capacity for wonder, our confidence that no matter how bleak it looks, somehow everything will turn out.

Listen to the lyrics. Listen.... "Oklahoma! Where the wind comes sweepin' down the plain/ And the wavin' wheat can sure smell sweet/ When the wind comes right behind the rain."

Last Wednesday morning in Oklahoma City rather changed all that. Provided a shocking new perspective. Whatever made us think we were immune? Didn't we know that even in Middle America, we were sailing in harm's way? Who gave the United States a free pass in a world careering intermittently into madness?

The federal building bombing was hardly the first time we've been targeted. But until now, until last Wednesday morning, there were assumptions of safe havens, of no-fire zones, of holy places. And then, on Fifth Street in Oklahoma City, they blew up a second-floor daycare center where 30-some children were playing and getting ready for juice & cookie time. And suddenly there were no sanctuaries.

The World Trade Center bombing of two years ago? Sure, but that was Manhattan where everything is outsized and in italics and you expect the unimaginable and the grotesque. The Marine barracks in Beirut? Sure, but those were professional soldiers serving in a wartorn land. The Pan Am bombing over Lockerbie? Sure, but that was a long way off and there'd been warnings.

No one ever thought of Oklahoma, suggested it could happen here, imagined that a thousand miles from any ocean would come the call for body bags.

"There's a bright golden haze on the meadow./ There's a bright golden haze on the meadow./ The corn is as high as an elephant's eye/ And it looks like it's climbing clear up to the sky."

The week after next, at midnight of May 7-8, we mark the 50th anniversary of V-E Day, Victory in Europe Day, when the Germans finally quit and all over Europe the guns fell silent. Innocently, I guess, we thought that was an end to it. Then came the Cold War and the damned Soviets. But in Wenceslas Square and in Budapest and in Gdansk and finally in Berlin, walls came down and an Iron Curtain was swept away and, once again, that would be an end to it.

In 1918 Johnny came marching home from France and Flanders after an Armistice to "the war to end all wars." And we believed that, too.

And last week in the American West, little kids dropped off by working mothers, old age pensioners gone to see about their Social Security, and veterans asking questions about their disabilities in a nine-story building in a town on the Atchison Topeka & Santa Fe railroad right of way in a sleepy corner of a country at peace, were killed and maimed by someone with a grudge, an agenda, a hate.

How do we respond to such malignancy? How do we react to the madness of false claims of responsibility? To bomb threats by hoaxers? To the possibility of copycat terrorists who now, apparently, can get their bomb-building ABCs right off the Internet? And you don't need much more than fertilizer and fuel oil and a car battery.

Maybe part of the answer is the demeanor of the people of Oklahoma City who, amid disaster, mourn but do not rant. Or break. Or despair. And as bad as it is there, as shattering and tragic, you stand back in astonishment at the swift generosity of time and of energy of volunteers young and old responding to disaster, the courage of rescue workers crawling through that tottering shell of that shattered building. Still, as one man asked, his wife among the missing:

"Why us? We aren't New York or Chicago or San Francisco."

"Oklahoma! Every night my honey lamb and I/ We sit alone and talk/ And watch a hawk/ Makin' lazy circles in the sky."

And now, in this wonderful place under that open sky there are little kids dead in a childcare center. As a parent you can only imagine the grief. How do parents handle this? How do you survive the loss of your child to faceless, random terror?

There's a natural temptation to overreact, demands for lynchings, the launching of witch hunts, a chauvinist suspicion of strangers, of foreigners. When you cave in on that and forget we remain a nation of laws, the terrorists win. You ask yourself, must a lost innocence lead to cynicism, to despair, to hatred? Or to a heightened maturity? I see the long lines of blood donors snaking through the streets of Oklahoma City, marvel at the bravery of survivors and their rescuers, remember the tenderness with which an armed policeman carries out the torn body of a small child, and think: We remain a good and decent and giving people.

As a man in Oklahoma City said (his son, a 3-year-old, was critical), "This is America. You shouldn't have to run scared."

We have become accustomed to the death of children in Rwanda, in Bosnia, Chechnya, until recently in Belfast. Now it comes home. But you balance, against the shock and horror and anger, the good, those men and women in that long, loving queue at the blood centers.

"We know we belong to the land/And the land we belong to is grand./ So we're sayin', `You're doin' fine, Oklahoma! Oklahoma! Oh-kay!'*"

But on CBS now a hospital worker was saying they had plenty of doctors, plenty of nurses, plenty of blood. The only thing was, "We're out of body bags."

Surely it never occurred to Dick Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein when they wrote, "Oh, What a Beautiful Morning," there would be Oklahoma mornings like this one; bloody, terrifying, awful. And not at all beautiful.M

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