Thursday, November 22, 2001

Thanksgiving is a bittersweet holiday, fraught with memories of loved ones lost and the laughter of children with the future ahead of them. Every taste of turkey, cornbread stuffing and pumpkin pie recalls Thanksgivings past. Every child evokes a promise of the world we want him to grow up in.

This year, as in other times of war, we’re painfully aware of those absent, of the 5,000 whose lives were snuffed out in a ruthless assault on the innocent, on men and women of different races, colors and creeds, victims of vicious and intolerant cowards eager to wrap envy in the fanaticism of mindless hatred.

This year, we’re aware of the men and women in uniform, whose lives have been disrupted to protect what those terrorists want to take away. This Thanksgiving is without irony, according to some sophisticated theorists, without a double-edged contradictory meaning. Sentimentality, they say, is all. But that misses the point. It’s just that the irony has turned against the evil-doers.

There’s ironic triumph of the high-fives in everyone who took a plane to be with family and friends in defiance of those who wanted us to languish in fear. There’s an ironic triumph in all those college students who no longer ask what their country can do for them, in John F. Kennedy’s memorable phrase, but who ask what they can do for their country, seeking to join the FBI, the CIA, the Army, Navy and Marines. This is not what Osama bin Laden had in mind.

This year, we want to live Norman Rockwell’s famous painting of Mama bringing in the turkey for Papa’s carving knife. Norman Rockwell created his classic amidst the grim demands of World War II, reflecting an idealism of who we were, and what we were fighting for. The painting, first a cover for the Saturday Evening Post, became a poster that sold millions of dollars worth of war bonds.

Many of us prefer harmony around the table, but we might count as blessings the arguments that will take place there, sharpening the wits of all who live and love in a democracy. There’s enough to start an argument or two.

Last year, we fought over who won the election, which chads were hanging and whose were pregnant, which butterfly ballots to count, and for whom. This year voices will be raised against the president’s order to put terrorists on trial in military courts. Do they put our freedoms at risk, or are they necessary to protect us against a new kind of foe? Do they abuse the spirit of the Constitution, or are they what common sense demands?

Last year, we argued over the role of the first lady and whether Hillary Clinton had for better or worse (and mostly worse) assumed a “co-presidency” during her eight years in the White House. This year, we’ll talk about Laura Bush, an unlikely feminist icon in the struggle for the rights of women everywhere, and particularly in Afghanistan, where the Taliban has made women a particular target of brutality. “The fight against terrorism is also a fight for the rights and dignity of women,” she told a national radio audience, subbing for her husband.

Last year, liberals and conservatives fought over who should get most of a tax cut to stimulate the economy. This year, liberals and conservatives fight over who should get most of a tax cut to stimulate the economy. (Some debates change more slowly than others.) Last year, the kids who talked about Harry Potter the book now argue the merits of the high-tech visual effects of “Harry Potter” the movie.

Last year, the dominant jokes were over the new president’s garbled syntax and the capacity of his mind. This year, we’re still joking about his syntax and his occasional use of words no one else has heard of, but even sophomores quote Woody Allen to praise George W. as the tough, thoughtful president the hour demands.

For all the arguments we’ll hear around the dinner table, this year there’s a grace we haven’t felt for a long time. Osama bin Laden, like Hitler, underestimated us. In his Thanksgiving Day proclamation, President Bush quoted President Eisenhower urging us to celebrate “the plentiful yield of our soil, the beauty of our land, the preservation of those ideals of liberty and justice that form the basis of our national life and the hope of international peace.” Those words from a half-century ago “resonate” with a new clarity in 2001.

Every argument, criticism and compliment at the Thanksgiving table are verbal bullets that strike out against the mission of the terrorists. The lyrics of a popular song from World War II strike just the right note: “Praise the Lord, and pass the ammunition.” And, while you’re at it, a little more of the cornbread stuffing, please.

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