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Postcards from the past

The war on terror isn't America's first launch into the great unknown

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IT HAPPENED EVERY FALL: THE FEAST OF THE Tabernacles, a kind of historical reenactment. For seven days Jerusalem became a tent city that recalled the vast exodus from Egypt, with echoes of the nomadic heritage of the people. ("A wandering Aramean was my father. . . .") The purpose was to recall 40 years of miraculous preservation in the wilderness while God was stamping His image on a nation of slaves. But it was also a joyous occasion, like a family reunion, sightseeing vacation, and camping trip all in one.

A secular nation like ours has no national religious holidays, but we do have our reenactments. Every year, thousands gather at Gettysburg to shoot blanks at each other. Mountain men still hold their rendezvous, and colonial regiments drill in reconstructed forts. The typical reenactor prides himself on accuracy, down to the last hand-stamped button; he can converse at great length on the history of his regiment and the manufacture of his rifle. His wife wouldn't dream of picking up a can opener or scouring her Dutch oven with a Brillo pad.

Our ancestors would probably be dumbfounded by the whole idea of duplicating their hardships for fun. But the accuracy is only skin-deep. A reenactment is like postcards from the past: colorful pictures without context, much cleaner than the real thing.

At this moment, the Bicentennial Lewis & Clark Expedition is poling its way up the Missouri (with a little help from a gasoline engine). The plan is to retrace the whole route, returning to St. Louis in September 2006. Despite having no practical purpose whatsoever, the venture strikes most Americans as pretty cool. Where the original expedition met only empty prairie or curious natives, the reenactors are greeted by enthusiastic tourists snapping pictures. Which is only fitting, for one thing Lewis and Clark did was help clear the way for the eventual possibility of picture-snapping tourists.

Not that they knew it, of course. The great appeal of their story is the notion of launching into the unknown -- that, and the fact that they succeeded. The Corps of Discovery was such a triumph we forget that in 1804 the Louisiana Purchase was widely denounced as unconstitutional, an expensive and unnecessary boondoggle by an overreaching president. The expedition itself could have met with disaster at any river bend or mountain pass -- in fact, two similar missions were launched into the southwest during those same years, and both failed. Lewis and Clark get a picturesque reenactment because the glow of success shines backward upon them.

But most bold ventures begin in doubt and controversy, like our present gamble in the Middle East. Some day, citizens of Iraq may have the leisure to dress up in period costume and reenact the fall of Saddam, or the institution of a permanent democratic government. Or maybe not. Thomas Jefferson took a risk, and it paid off. George Bush is taking an even greater risk, for an outcome that can't be fairly evaluated anytime in the near future.

Of course that doesn't stop the unfair evaluation. Instead of postcards from the distant past, Americans receive poison pen letters from the likes of Michael Moore and sober-faced distortions from The New York Times. None of this is entirely new. Media bias? William Randolph Hearst slanted the news from Cuba enough to push Washington into the Spanish-American War. Hatred of a president? Lincoln was routinely compared to an ape, Washington to a King George wannabe. Irrationality? In the 1840s an entire political party (the "Know Nothings") was founded to thwart the supposed designs of the Catholic Church. Partisan conflict? How about the Civil War? Or the bloody labor battles of the 1870s and '80s, or the race riots and political assassinations of the 1960s?

What is unprecedented is that bias, hatred, irrationality, and partisan conflict are flourishing only three years after the worst attack ever on U.S. soil. Is this a passing fever, or an inner rot? Is the United States about to reap the whirlwind sown by educational and moral neglect? Stay tuned -- like Lewis and Clark, we're launched into a great unknown.

But Christians are dual citizens, whose loyalty to an earthly country doesn't negate their interest in a spiritual country. God's history works both backwards and forwards -- past events secure a certain future. We look forward not to the great unknown, but the Great Assured; no quaint postcard, but a document signed in blood. Our father was a wandering Aramean, whose wayward steps we surely follow home.

Janie B. Cheaney Janie is a senior writer who contributes commentary to WORLD and oversees WORLD's annual Children's Book of the Year awards. She also writes novels for young adults and authored the Wordsmith creative writing curriculum. Janie resides in rural Missouri.


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