Wednesday, March 16, 2005

The memory of empty skies

Last week, when I was in Albuquerque to give a couple of physics talks, I stayed in a hotel near the airport. The airport shares its runway with the Air Force base. So one morning I was treated to a close view of four F-16s, one after another, zooming by really fast (they are much faster than commercial aircraft) and then tilting up and just leaping into the sky. It was breathtaking. The ten-year-old boy in me grinned from ear to ear. Wow!

Varifrank (found via Betsy's Page) has a post that touches on a vivid memory, for him and for me: the absense of jet contrails in the sky after 9/11. That was one of the things that really brought things home, that told me that the world I lived in was not unchangeable. Yes, I saw the Twin Towers collapse on live TV. And I knew that the attack had fallen on real places -- I had been inside both the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. But those strangely empty skies were something more. They told me that a mad ideology from the other side of the world could reach the heart of our civilization and make it skip a beat.

Varifrank turns it around and talks about what the presence of jet contrails has meant in places like Afghanistan and Iraq: the United States Air Force, whose unstoppable ability to put a bomb here, anywhere, has been a fact of great political significance. A Special Forces guy or a U.S. ally with a radio can call down a thunderbolt on the enemy, and that bolt will strike this house and not that one, at the time we choose. Far better, then, to be an ally than an enemy.

But it isn't just fear that those long white skylines inspire. It is, perhaps, also hope -- hope that the thugs that run so much of the world can be brought down. And hope is powerful, in Afghanistan and Ukraine and Iraq and Lebanon and beyond. The President and those around him have spoken eloquently about using our power to nuture that hope. Even if you can't stand his accent or his politics, even if you don't trust him to follow through, you have to admit that the guy is right about this. This, if anything, is what power is for.

And that is why the man, as well as the boy, can grin as I watch those jets. Power in itself is amoral, deceitful and oh so dangerous. Only a fool or a devil rejoices in sheer naked power. But power on the side of right is a reason to be glad, and in this struggle (always remembering the darkness, never forgetting the danger) we are on the right side. The bad guys emptied our skies for a few days in September a few years back. But that was then. Look up now, fellas.


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