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LOOKING BACK 50 YEARS REVEALS SAD LANDSCAPE

1950. The midpoint of the 20th century. Halfway between moving pictures and the Internet. Equidistant from the influenza pandemic and AIDS. The Age of Imperialism and two world wars were fixed in the past while the global economy and mutually assured destruction lay in wait.

America, in middle age, had become a bloated suburbanite, seeking a better life at the expense of a squandered, invaluable past. Trolley tracks were paved over for the sterility of mass-produced housing tracts. TV and polio swept through the nation. Howdy Doody, Uncle Miltie and Ike commanded our attention. Segregation and discrimination demanded our attention. And, of great personal importance, I was born.

The world of my youth seems to have sprung from a screenplay written by a dysfunctional committee rife with neuroses. How could the United Nations and Jim Crow peacefully coexist in the same land? How was McCarthyism able to trump the Bill of Rights for so long? And how was it that the "greatest generation" allowed their progeny to be sacrificed in Asian rice paddies and American urban wastelands, all for the sake of political expediency and partisanship?

Notoriety replaced celebrity. Value superseded virtue. Profits corrupted prophets. The bottom line became the top 1 percent. We became them. They became us. The world has turned topsy-turvy in my 50 years. Which brings me to 2001.

I look at the devastation in lower Manhattan and I am profoundly saddened. I rejoice in the truly heroic deeds of the anonymous thousands, but I wince in pain as we are called on to rally around the flag. "USA, USA, USA. Oh yes, please -- don't forget to buy!" Overnight, we have become a nation of designer patriots.

Patriotism has no more to do with waving the flag and chanting than it does with hoarding weapons and living in well-stocked underground bunkers. Looking back through our nation's history, the term patriot is properly applied with respect, reverence and with great reservation. True patriots are those persons who stand accountable, often alone, for their beliefs and for their values. Theirs is often an unpopular view contrary to the prevailing common wisdom.

At this time of national self-examination and international scrutiny, we need to be critical of what we've become. We can no longer be the 800-pound gorilla on the bus. We must no longer view ourselves as the sole arbiters of freedom and justice throughout the world. The promises of earlier generations must be realized even as we articulate our vision for the future. We must do this now.

It sickens me to think that we're spiraling into the abyss, hell-bent on repeating the follies of our past while adopting the foibles of our forefathers. We shall pursue and eradicate the evil men who perpetrated the horror of Sept. 11. We have no choice.

I understand and accept the machinations of realpolitik. But I am equally saddened and frightened by the hatred and injustice that will remain long after the last Taliban has left for paradise.

For 50 years, I have been brimming with hope, positive attitudes and a firmly held belief that our nation will eventually become all that it professes to be. We are still that shining city on the hill. However, a pall hangs over the skyline and a discomfiting emptiness fills my heart.

BRUCE D. MITCHELL is a school counselor in Hamburg, where he promotes character development and nonviolent conflict resolution.
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