The danger we can confront
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.