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The world is a strange place in the middle of the night. Writers of horror stories depend heavily on evil things going bump in the night, but not enough has been said about the quietude of early morning, of the remarkable clarity of one’s thoughts at 4 a.m., presuming they haven’t been muddled by an all-night binge.

So I sit at my trusty computer, with the only sounds coming from the water trickling through the radiators in my room, thinking about what it is like to be alive and afraid in 2002.

For younger people, this world of theirs, with its suburban D.C. snipers (now allegedly and finally caught) and the madmen in Iraq and North Korea on the threshold of going nuclear, must seem a uniquely fearful place. It will probably not comfort them to know that we, their parents and grandparents, have also lived with what seemed like the sword of Damocles hanging over our heads.

My father believed fervently that nuclear war with the Soviet Union was as inevitable as day following night, and spent much of our lives preparing a concrete bunker in the basement, which he stocked with a generous supply of canned food and bottled water.

Our generation participated in atomic war (that’s what it was called then), drills where we’d actually crouch under our desks to shield ourselves from flying glass and prepare for the aftereffects of a nuclear holocaust as one might prepare for life after a heavy thunderstorm.

Then, at various times in our lives, we felt the cold chill of vulnerability. The first reports of the assassination of John Kennedy, when we heard rumors that the vice president too had been mortally wounded, and that the ship of state itself might be under wholesale attack. And the news that Russian ships might be heading for a showdown with us as we blockaded Cuba after the unsettling revelation that Castro had been armed with the missiles of October. And now October has again brought home that sense of fear and vulnerability to a new generation.

In the midst of the national debate over whether to invade Iraq came the reports of a sniper on the loose in suburban D.C. and the unnerving acknowledgement by North Korea that it too has violated its agreement with the U.S. and is pursuing nuclear weapons. I work in a place where management has just installed a large-screen wall-mounted television in the coffee-break area. The television is tuned to CNN, and it has now become impossible to get away from the constant fear with which we are confronted by "breaking news."

The news has a constant theme since 9-11 — our way of life is under attack, and how best do we respond to the threat. The decision to go into Afghanistan after al Qaeda caused no controversy. The goal seemed simple and direct: Destroy the terrorist bases and Osama bin Laden. Lost were the warnings that this was only the first step and the process was not simple at all.

The predictions have proven true. It now appears that bin Laden escaped capture and the new regime in Afghanistan is already in peril. The president, never much one for "nation-building," finds his administration faced with just such a task.

Meanwhile, the criticism over preparing for war with Iraq increases, partly because Mr. Bush has the annoying habit of contradicting himself on an almost daily basis. Our celebrity culture takes itself so seriously that the revelation of a secret anti-war memo from Barbra Streisand or an open letter to the president from Sean Penn is news in the New York Times, not the National Enquirer. Soon we expect Martin Sheen will challenge the president to a national debate over Iraq. And why not? The Democratic Party has not added much to the debate.

The history lessons of appeasement, if we have forgotten them, have been brought home with the news from North Korea. The Clinton administration tried to bribe North Korea into dropping its quest to join the nuclear club and, it turns out, was not only duped but endangered our national security.

One wonders whether the Nobel Committee considered Jimmy Carter’s na�ve efforts there a contribution to peace when, in reality, we are now closer to war. Now the same folks that supported the debacle of North Korea are telling us to trust Saddam Hussein and that maybe North Korea can be bribed again to forgo the bomb.

It’s time that we remember what it was like when we were kids and were being threatened by a bully in the neighborhood. It was impossible to appease the bully. Give him your lunch and he took liberties with your girl. There was no virtue in being a lover of peace in dealing with a street thug. He took it for a sign of weakness. In the end, if you didn’t stand up to him, you ended up living your life in fear and humiliation. You had to bloody his nose to get his respect, even if it meant you took a black eye to get it.

A bully only understands force, and force in the end — not appeasement — was what brought peace.

Our mistakes of the past helped create the dangers posed by Iraq and North Korea today. Because we are powerful, some critics mistake us for the bully, but it was Saddam who gassed his own people, it was the North that invaded South Korea, not the United States.

I will try once again to go back to sleep. The clarity of the night will soon recede as dawn approaches.

Tom Cardella can be heard before and after the Eagles-Bears game Sunday on 94-FM WYSP.

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