The dan­ger we can con­front

Cecil Whig - - OPINION - Ruth Mar­cus

pro­tect them. Frankly it’s none of your busi­ness where I take them and why I took them.

Your com­ments up­set them more than any­thing they saw on stage.

— Along came the al­li­ga­tor. A hor­ri­fy­ing story at the end of a hor­ri­fy­ing stretch, a heart­break­ing coda be­fit­ting a na­tion on per­pet­ual edge.

That the story would go vi­ral was guar­an­teed: a 2-year-old grabbed, his fa­ther try­ing in vain to fight off the pri­mor­dial beast, an un­fore­seen dan­ger lurk­ing in what is sup­posed to be the hap­pi­est place on earth.

It is hu­man na­ture to be mes­mer­ized by such a tale. In the early days of ca­ble news, we could not avert our na­tional gaze from Jes­sica McClure, the 18-month-old who fell into a well in her aunt’s back­yard in Mid­land, Texas. Baby Jes­sica’s res­cue was the sub­ject of roundthe-clock cov­er­age dur­ing the 58 hours work­ers la­bored fran­ti­cally to free her.

Decades be­fore came the Lind­bergh Baby, snatched from his crib at 20 months, his de­com­posed body found two months later, af­ter a tabloid frenzy and a nationwide man­hunt, just five miles from home.

These sto­ries tug at the heart­strings but they also evoke our deep­est in­se­cu­ri­ties — that peril is om­nipresent and vig­i­lance un­avail­ing, that hap­pi­ness and se­cu­rity can evap­o­rate in the unlucky hap­pen­stance of a fleet­ing mo­ment.

You can be a ran­dom tod­dler in a scruffy back­yard day care cen­ter or “the most fa­mous baby in the world,” as The New York Daily News called Charles Au­gus­tus Lind­bergh Jr., put to bed by your nurse in your coun­try man­sion. No one is safe. You do not have to be a par­ent to suf­fer night­mares.

Which is why the tim­ing of the al­li­ga­tor story mag­ni­fied its im­pact. It hit an anx­ious na­tion al­ready reel­ing from the mas­sacre in Or­lando. Un­imag­in­able would be the word here ex­cept that these episodes — San Bernardino, Charleston, New­town, Aurora, Tuc­son, Fort Hood, Vir­ginia Tech — have be­come all too imag­in­able.

We glance at the news alert, then brace our­selves to learn in which bucket of evil and an­i­mus the lat­est be­longs: who by air­plane and who by an­thrax; who by Is­lamic State sym­pa­thizer and who by racist skin­head; who by de­ranged loner and who by alien­ated co-worker.

The threat may not be ex­is­ten­tial, as Pres­i­dent Obama likes to re­mind us, but that does not make it any less un­set­tling. The al­li­ga­tor lung­ing out of the bu­colic pond is al­ways scarier to con­tem­plate than the fiery high­way crash, even if the lat­ter is far more likely.

Mean­time, our na­tional jit­ter­i­ness is not solely a func­tion of wor­ries over ter­ror­ism or gun vi­o­lence. We are a coun­try on edge — about Amer­ica’s role in the world, about the func­tion­ing of the Amer­i­can po­lit­i­cal sys­tem, and about the re­silience of the Amer­i­can dream.

Nearly half of those sur­veyed by the Pew Re­search Cen­ter say the United States is a “less pow­er­ful and im­por­tant world leader than it was 10 years ago.” Just 19 per­cent of Amer­i­cans say they can trust the govern­ment “just about al­ways” or “most of the time” — among the low­est lev­els in the last half-cen­tury. Fewer than half ex­press “a lot” of con­fi­dence in the na­tion’s fu­ture. Just onethird say they be­lieve the next gen­er­a­tion will be bet­ter off than their own.

And then there is the elec­tion, in which Don­ald Trump ig­nites and in­flames this fear, with omi­nous, overblown warn­ings of danger­ous ter­ror­ists “pour­ing in” to the coun­try by the thou­sands.

“If we don’t get tough, and if we don’t get smart, and fast, we’re not go­ing to have our coun­try any­more,” Trump, typ­i­cally hy­per­bolic, as­serted on Mon­day. “There will be noth­ing, ab­so­lutely noth­ing, left.” Left unchecked, he said, Hillary Clin­ton would “bring vastly more rad­i­cal Is­lamic im­mi­gra­tion into this coun­try threat­en­ing not only our so­ci­ety but our en­tire way of life.”

It will not sur­prise you to hear me say that the coun­try does face a se­ri­ous threat — from Trump and Trump­ism. A fear­ful public is al­ways sus­cep­ti­ble to the tyrant who vows to im­ple­ment quick so­lu­tions, and if high-handed uni­lat­eral ac­tion is re­quired, so be it.

A ran­cid fore­taste of im­pe­rial Pres­i­dent Trump came Wed­nes­day, when he ad­vised con­gres­sional lead­ers, “Don’t talk. Please, be quiet. ... We have to have our Republicans ei­ther stick to­gether or let me just do it by my­self.”

If you are thinking now about that gator, a men­ac­ing crea­ture who emerges un­ex­pect­edly from the swamp, jaws clamped on in­no­cent prey, I would not dis­suade you from that anal­ogy. But I would ar­gue: The coun­try is not a help­less 2-year-old. Trump is scary but not un­stop­pable, not­with­stand­ing his threat­en­ing march through the Repub­li­can pri­maries. We should not con­fuse the dan­gers we must en­dure with those we can fight off.

Ruth Mar­cus is a syn­di­cated colum­nist. Con­tact her at ruth­mar­cus@wash­post. com.

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