When I was a boy, I had to sleep with the light on. My sister had told me there were monsters that lived in the darkness under my bed, and that they come up and get you when you fall asleep. Of course, I knew that monsters didn't exist. But when you're little, your imagination can run away with you. So to my parents great displeasure, I would turn the hall light on and leave my door open. Just to be sure.
Recently, I got the image in my head of a another young boy, lying awake at night, afraid of the dark. Except this boy is in some little village in Pakistan. And there, the monsters are real.
He would have heard all about the strange, silent machines from the sky that come in the night and burn up whole villages. It's happened many times now, one just miles away. It's all everyone talks about. The great craters left where houses once stood. The dead children. The vows of revenge. And how most never even heard it coming - a faint noise from high above and then, terror.
Surely, he cannot understand much of what he hears. He knows nothing of the "War on Terror." He's probably never even heard of al Qaeda and certainly never met one. But what he does understand, he understands absolutely. Fear. He sees it in his mother. He sees it in his friends. He felt it sweep through his once happy village, like a wave of black adrenalin. That deep sense that children pick up on so well, that something very bad has happened. That we are no longer safe.
When we think of ourselves, as Americans, we think of our families and our friends, our neighborhoods with dogs and cats, and mostly decent people. Our well groomed lawns and great towering cities. Maybe we think of our culture, our music, movies, iPads, Hollywood celebrities. And of course we think of our conflicts, our joblessness, our politics, with red states and blue, and the week's big issue. Many of us have been thinking of an America we see slipping away. But whatever we think of our American experience, we almost always think of it from our American point of view. And as damaged as that experience has become for so many, we believe in its overall, essential goodness.
The young village boy in Pakistan knows none of that. When he thinks of America, he thinks of monster machines, that come with terrifying silence in the night, and burn children in their beds. That is the face of our beloved country, our empire. A mythical, omniscient beast. A nightmare.
My daughter is about the age of that boy. She gets scared in the dark too. I tell her she is safe, surrounded by people who love her, and that the only thing she has to worry about are those pesky giraffes, who use their long necks to reach in through her window and lick her face while she sleeps. That always makes her laugh. Sometimes we read "Scaredy Squirrel", a children's book character who inevitably finds that the world is not such a scary place after all. And, of course, I tell her that monsters are only imaginary. Increasingly, however, when I tell her that, I feel like I'm lying. I'm certain that my imaginary boy in Pakistan would say so.