In 1939, as Britain prepared for their involvement in the second world war, experts predicted air attacks on major metropolitan areas. A preemptive public relations campaign was launched in an effort to raise and sustain the morale of British citizens during the indescribable horror of what would be known as The Blitz. The most poignant surviving reminder of this morale-raising campaign is a widely recognized poster with a simple phrase: “Keep Calm And Carry On.”
As I write this, I have just returned to a hotel room from which I was evacuated due to some burnt toast down the hall setting off the fire alarm; it interrupted my nap, it inconvenienced my morning… but that was it. I cannot imagine being raised from bed by sirens, night after night, to sit in a crowded subway tube listening to bombs going off overhead, not knowing if your family, friends, and home would survive the night. When faced with an inconvenient fire alarm with no real repercussions I can keep calm and carry on, but The Blitz? It’s a simple message, true. But is it too simple? Is it simple to the point of being naïve, or even childish?
Yesterday fifty people were killed when a shooter opened fire in a crowded night club in Orlando. A terrorist inflicted mass murder on Americans, and within minutes liberals were already crying for more restrictive gun laws and conservatives were demanding retribution. The focus was a panicked, emotion-driven frenzy of demanded action. In the midst of this impassioned, agitated turmoil, perhaps it would do us good to remember a simple lesson from the past.
Keep calm, and carry on.
In 2001 our world was rocked by another attack that changed the face of America. In the aftermath of that we forgot the lessons of the poster from the Blitz and we demanded action – and act we did. We surrendered essential liberties, possibly forever; we engaged in torturing innocents to “preserve our way of life;” we passed legislation which enabled the indefinite detention of American citizens without being formally charged; for the first time in American history we authorized the assassination of American citizens without a trial; we began spying on Americans en masse; we systematically deconstructed the Constitution in the name of patriotism; we placed normal Americans on “no fly” lists and restricted their travel without charging or convicting them of anything; we’re now entertaining a presidential candidate from one of the main political parties who believes we should discriminate based upon religion. In short, this flurry of action accomplished but one thing: we became something America was not. We lost who we were.
Yes, Orlando was an act of war. It was an act of terror. It was an act of heinous cowardice perpetrated against innocent, unarmed civilians in a dastardly way. Now everyone has a different solution to the problem.
Woah, slow down there. Wait a second. Who said this was a problem?
Certainly it is bad. It is, without a doubt, something no sane person ever wants to see occur once, let alone ever again. But that doesn’t necessarily mean it is a problem that needs to be solved. In the same way the Blitz in London wasn’t a problem, but a symptom – a temporary condition faced by a united nation mobilized against what it believed to be unspeakable evil. The Blitz was merely a symptom of good fighting against evil. And in the face of that, the people knew that they must unite, support each other, and… keep calm, and carry on. This was not a problem which demanded an altered course simply because they faced opposition – it was a symptom that they were headed in the right direction.
Facing the horrors of the Blitz didn’t mean they were doing something wrong. Nowhere in life should we expect that doing everything right means that life suddenly ceases to be hard, or difficult, or sometimes outright painful. As Captain Picard on Star Trek once said, “It is possible to commit no errors and still lose. That is not weakness… that is life.”
Yes, yesterday in Orlando we lost something. We lost lives. We lost friends and family. We lost a sense of peace, of safety, of harmony. The closer we are to the madness that occurred the more our world was rocked. But in this moment of tumult, of terror, of pain, we should know that this is not a problem, but rather a symptom. And in this case, it is a symptom of something good: freedom.
Thomas Jefferson warned us of this when he wrote that “the tree of liberty must be refreshed from time to time with the blood of patriots and tyrants.” This quote is most often used to conjure images of active warfare, but such is not always the context in which it must appear. Jefferson knew that freedom is a dangerous aspiration, for to live free is to abandon many comforts and safeties of what can only be known by living as a slave. Living free sometimes costs us something.
The reason that terrorists engage in terrorism is to create a sense of fear – and thereby incite action which causes us to voluntarily surrender our liberties, our freedoms, and our independence. Franklin Roosevelt once said that “We have nothing to fear but fear itself.” We would do well to remember that. When our world is rocked by senseless, hateful fear, we can choose to focus on that, or we can remember something else.
We can remember that these Americans were targeted because they were exercising liberties unknown in most of the world.
We could guarantee that this would never happen again by forbidding gatherings, by outlawing nightclubs, by telling Americans that their actions should be dictated by the constant, paralyzing fear of the worst possibility, however remote, that could ever happen. We can spread dissension by hating Muslims, or people with guns, or gays. We can allow fear to divide and conquer us as we assume violence against us is a “problem” that needs to be fixed with “action.”
Or we can keep calm, and carry on.
We can refuse to be cowed into submission by terror. We can demand that our way of life not be constricted, denied, and shaped by fear. We can go forward from here with the rallying cry, “Try what you will, but you will not terrorize us out of our freedom!”
These Americans were killed because they were exercising their liberty. Let us not dishonor them by surrendering our own. Let us honor their memories by remaining free, by living as Americans, by demonstrating with our lives that we aspire to something higher. In the face of fear, let us be courageous. While others demand action, let us remain calm. When this is labeled a problem, let us recognize it is but the price of remaining free.
Let us keep calm, and carry on.