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Let freedom ring -- or at least let's not let it 'Crash'

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Wednesday, June 22nd, 2005 — As the Fourth of July approaches, I am reminded of an experiecnes left over from the last great day of national remembrance and celebration.

On Memorial Day my husband, Pat, and I went to see the movie, "Crash." The juxtaposition of these two lenses -- one of national pride and remembrance, the other of a community in distress, now, today -- left me feeling a bit stunned about what it means to be an American.
"Crash" is filmed in Los Angeles. As much as we might look down our Northern California noses at La La Land, claiming we are different in every way, this movie brings home a tragedy that pervades the entire American landscape. It is a frank observation of prejudice -- based fears that control people's lives.

There are no clear good guys or bad guys, as far as I could tell. And there is no clear beginning or end to the cycle of prejudice -- no obvious point at which one could intervene. There is lots of anger, some lying beneath the surface, and some desperate and lashing out. And there is life-altering fear.

We asked the woman who took our tickets what kind of comments she had heard over the past few weeks.

"Disturbing," she said. It was. But it was the kind of disturbing that causes one to reflect on what has been experienced, disquiet of ideas and feelings. That is not a bad thing.

In this case, the movie forced the question: Who are we -- whom have we become -- as Americans? For me, the celebrations of Memorial Day and July 4 are times to commemorate the spirit of people who believed in the cause of freedom, even at the cost of their lives. I feel a great debt to them. We, as Americans, can honor these men and women by making the freedom they loved a personal and national priority.

Instead, looking through the lens of "Crash," some of us have succumbed to a downward-spiraling fear that threatens to rob us of one of our most basic freedoms: the freedom of association with others -- any and all others.

The disturbing story of "Crash" cannot be explained simply. Its roots are as varied as the cultures it portrays. But many have said, and I agree, that 9/11 and the War on Terrorism are to blame for our current level of "fear mentality" that breeds narrow-mindedness and short fuses.

If that is so, then we are in danger of letting the terrorists of the world have the last laugh.

I am not suggesting we become Pollyannas, those who see and espouse only the bright side of things. Fear is an appropriate response to perceived danger. Fear can be constructive -- when we identify the specific object of our fear.

With terrorism, the motivations are mindless and the targets are limitless -- and not identifiable. When we cast a large net, the most unlikely persons become suspect.

I remember watching the events of 9/11 unfold on our television screen. Of all the images we saw, the one I remember best was of the CNN studio crew. People of many races and skin color were working side by side. It struck me, that this easy interaction of diverse people was what I treasured most about being an American.

Even then, I worried that this one precious reality might be threatened as we reacted to the incomprehensible terrorist attacks. "Crash" portrays the citizens of Los Angeles in the stranglehold of a crippling fear that colors their relationships, whether close or chance encounters. Rich and poor alike, they have allowed their prejudices rob them of the freedom to enjoy each other's company.

People are alone in a crowded city, even in their homes. So great is the fear of ethnic labels, people try to hide their identities, even from themselves. Locks are changed morning and night. All that was missing were the hummers. This is not a picture that is exclusive to Los Angeles. We have all experienced some form of this hunkered-down life.

For centuries America has been a beacon of freedom and diversity. These are our greatest assets -- source of national pride and identity. (In case you doubt the level of diversity in Palo Alto, check out any school roster.)

Last year, the 9/11 Commission rightly recommended an overhaul of America's outdated national-security bureaucracy. The commission cited a "failure of imagination" on the part of the intelligence agencies. Think big, the commission instructed. And so the War on Terrorism has gone on an all-out offensive, imagining and preparing for the worst.

Is it time to reassess? Excessive security campaigns encourage damaging suspicions, even in our own communities. What is most frightening these days is that we could become afraid of freedom itself.

This summer, many of us will travel to new communities, within America or abroad, or next door. As good ambassadors for America, we can imagine the best in people we meet, and hope that others will see the best in us. Life is too short and friendships too important to wage personal campaigns against terror.

If we look through this distorted lens, we become bogey men to each other, and frighten ourselves just as much as we may frighten others.