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Produced & Maintained by Idaho Mountain Express, Box 1013, Ketchum, ID 83340-1013 
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Copyright © 2002 Express Publishing Inc.
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For the week of March 19 - 25, 2003

Opinion Columns

Amid the silence,
the sound of
breathing again

Commentary by ADAM TANOUS

Who, but for the parents of Elizabeth Smart, was not stunned by the news a week ago that the young Salt Lake City girl had been found alive and apparently well? The girl had been abducted from her bedroom in the middle of the night nine months ago, literally and metaphorically a lifetime.

We were stunned because we’ve come to expect depravity and a grim end to such stories. Smart’s abduction followed those of Danielle van Dam, 7, and Samantha Runnion, 5, both of whom were later found murdered. And there were others. It was a summer when parents truly feared the madness of the world.

The news was stunning in the larger context of world affairs as well. The finding of the Smart girl was a crack of light in an otherwise darkening time. Even an inherently optimistic nation is being tried by all that is before us. We seem to be on an inexorable path to war in Iraq. The threat of an unpredictable and nuclear North Korea looms. Terrorism is part of the fabric of our lives now. The economy is sputtering with huge budget deficits on the way. AIDS is exploding in India, Russia and Africa—an explosion that not only will decimate populations but also will threaten our economic and political security. The relentless nature of these events, the very weight of them, wears on us.

So the good news—one girl retrieved from a perilous situation—lifted us for a day or two. Of course, the purity of the story was quickly tarnished by the inevitable questions raised by the media and others: Was she sexually assaulted? Was she running away? Was she "brainwashed"—in whatever manner—as her father is convinced?

Undoubtedly the story is strange and getting stranger. There were times the girl was camping 4 miles from her home. She attended a party in her own neighborhood. Dressed in flowing robe and veil, Smart was walking among an army of people looking for her. Posters of her were in coffee shops where she ate breakfast.

We wonder: How could this be? How could someone with such a high profile, in such an unusual garb, escape our notice for so long? We may be dismayed by this fact, especially considering the hundreds of terrorists reportedly living in the U.S. But we might also find some solace in the anonymity we allow for in our society. It is in a sense a measure of an open culture.

Despite its oddities, the story of Elizabeth Smart resonates with us because it serves as a foil to the undercurrent of unease out there. There are many who blame the media for the dour mood the country is in. They keep foisting negative news on us; little time is given to the "happy" stories like this—or so the argument goes.

The response to this criticism is that we are in a time that is truly different and more dangerous than anytime in our history. The old-timers say that’s malarkey; history is cyclical. This is no worse than anything that’s come before.

I disagree for this reason: The dangers we face now—an explosive AIDS epidemic, the prevalence of terrorism, the existence of biological weapons, environmental degradation—are all dangers without borders. They are not confined to a given nation state. They are dispersed, global dangers that can only be addressed by nations acting in concert. The problem is that the world, especially the U.S., doesn’t seem ready to approach problems from a global perspective. We are still in the 20th century, nation-state mode.

And so, as much as we want to escape the bad news, there is also no greater time to stay engaged in it.

David Halberstam, at last year’s Sun Valley Writers’ Conference, made a statement to the effect that good "news editors are those that can balance what the public needs to know with what it wants to know." As I see it, what we "need" to know is all that informs our political decisions and, therefore, the course of our future. All that we "want" to know informs the meaning of our lives. Both are indispensable to a thriving democracy.

There are times, though, when what we want to know—all those stories of hope—becomes what we desperately need to know.

Hope can be as illusive as it is subtle. Take last week, for example. There was the return of a girl. Then came a report of how anti-smoking education in Mississippi schools was found to be having a dramatic effect on the smoking rates of teens and preteens. And lastly, there was an experimental surgery performed on Christopher Reeve—paralyzed from the neck down—that miraculously, allowed him to breathe on his own for 15 minutes at a time. He was suddenly able to smell coffee, an orange and a chocolate-chip cookie, for the first time since his horse-riding accident eight years ago. And then after all the fanfare of the moment died down, he asked to have his ventilator machine turned off—even if only for 15 minutes. In the silence Reeve could once again hear the sound of his own breathing. It was and is to experience life in the simplest and most profound of terms: to feel sensually that you are alive, an individual in this world. This is hope in our midst.

And so, as the bad news bombards us we might remember two things. First, that we have to face that bad news head on, despite our inclination to avoid it. Living in a democracy, we are not allowed the luxury of ignorance. Second, that we must seek out and treasure the stories of hope sometimes overlooked in the process.

As we launch into a possible second Gulf War, or the next one, or as we scour populations and cultures in search of malevolence, we should keep in mind what it’s all for. In the end, all we really want is for a young girl to come home, for her and all those like her to have a chance to splash about in the sunshine for a while. In one sense, it’s not much to ask. In another, it’s everything.


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