Paul Greenberg / June 4, 2009

The War Comes to Little Rock

Monday night was different out in the newsroom. The chatter and clatter were still there as story after story was filed, but the usual hubbub was muffled, as if an invisible cover had been stretched over the nightly routine. This night was different from all other nights because it wasn’t just the war that had come home to Little Rock – it hits home with every Arkansan killed or wounded – but the battlefield itself.

There was Amy Schlesing, the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette’s correspondent with the state’s 39th Infantry Brigade. She was still on the job after five tours of duty in Iraq. And she was still working a story about American casualties. Only this time the enemy had struck at a recruiting center in a Little Rock shopping center. One GI had been killed and another wounded as they took a smoke break on what a moment before had seemed just another peaceful weekday morning in June.

The war had hit home, and so what this war is all about: defending the kind of country and society that had produced these two soldiers. Both of them had volunteered for a stint at a recruiting center back home before shipping out – one to Fort Lewis in Washington State, the other to Schofield Barracks in Hawaii.

Witnesses said the shots had come from a black Ford truck – at least 10 rounds from a 7.62mm rifle. We might have been in Baghdad. Or Jerusalem. Or London. Or Madrid. Or Mumbai. The enemy is the same, and the blood spilled just as red. Only this time it had happened in Little Rock, Ark., USA.

William Long was 23, an Army private from near Conway, Ark., 30 miles to the north. He was hit at least three times and would die within the hour after being rushed to Baptist Medical Center, where family and friends crowded into the little waiting room off the emergency room. He’d just enlisted in the infantry in January, and had a brother stationed at Fort Bliss, Texas.

At the family home out in the country, three flags fly, including a Navy ensign and the American flag. Small dogs bark from a fenced-in yard. A car parked outside has one of those magnetic Support Our Troops ribbons on it. The Christmas lights still dangle from the house, which is tucked away in a stand of tall trees.

It could be anywhere in Arkansas, anywhere in America. It’s the kind of place that William Longs come from – young people drawn to defend the rest of us. We may scarcely think about them until we see those uniforms at an airport. Or until something like this happens, and it dawns on us that it is from such places that we get the best of our best, those who seem to have duty in their very bones.

Quinton Ezeagwula, the other private, is only 18. He was hit at least twice, according to police, and taken to Baptist, too. A former linebacker at Jacksonville (Ark.) High, he’d enlisted in October. He’s expected to make it, thank goodness. Here’s hoping one day he’ll be telling his grandchildren all about it when this war, too, is history and another generation is wondering what it was all about. He’ll know.

Even today there are still those who ask in all innocence, “Why do they hate us?” And like some Christiane Amanpour or other oh-so-deep thinker on the tube, they try to find a reason for this war in our actions, not in our enemy’s fanaticism.

Talk about blaming the victim: They assume there must be some good explanation for the homicidal ire of those who attack American embassies, fly airplanes into skyscrapers, attack the West’s great cities, and, yes, shoot down a couple of unarmed soldiers talking on a sidewalk in a Southern capital.

In the end, the explanation for this long, long war – which grows longer – doesn’t lie in anything we’ve done but in who we are: a nation dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal and endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights. Has there ever been a doctrine more subversive to the despotisms of the world?

What we in the West do, right or wrong or neither, is but an excuse for the war being waged against our civilization by a rapacious enemy. It is what we are that threatens them: a beacon. Ideas have consequences; they can spread of their own accord. That is why we are such a threat to their closed societies. It is what we represent: freedom. And freedom attracts by its very existence.

Eternal vigilance, it turns out, isn’t just the price of liberty but of our existence. Local police took a suspect into custody within 12 minutes of the shooting. Now another American principle is to be followed: the rule of law. It is not just external threats that must be guarded against, but our own understandable fury at being struck again.

Vigilance – against the enemy and even against our own less than worthy impulses – is an inseparable part of this struggle. If we should ever be tempted to forget that, our enemies will remind us. As they did on a sunny Monday morning in Little Rock, Ark.

It was only a few weeks after the attacks that at last awakened America to the evil that had long been readied against us that the president and commander-in-chief visited Travis Air Base in California to talk to the pilots and mechanics and support staff that were being deployed to Afghanistan.

The president began by recounting something he’d just heard: “I’m told that one of the pilots here, a fellow named Randy, was asked if anyone at Travis had personal connections to any of the victims of the attacks on September 11th. And here’s what he said: ‘I think we all do; they’re all Americans. When you strike one American, you strike us all.’ ”

That’s how we feel today, all of us in Little Rock, in Arkansas, in America. Randy was right: All of us have a personal connection to these two soldiers, their families and friends. For we’re all Americans.

When the president told that story, it was still very early in this war on terror, but once again Admiral Yamamoto’s sleeping giant had awakened. And those who made the mistake of stirring the American spirit would soon be paying a heavy price. They still are.

After September 11, 2001, as after December 7, 1941, Americans were moved not just by rage at a surprise attack but by an understanding that we are all in this together. And that an attack on one of us is an attack on all of us. It still is.

© 2008 TRIBUNE MEDIA SERVICES, INC.

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