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World filled with global woes
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Militants have formally declared a new Islamic state consisting of parts of Syria and Iraq. Russia, loaded with nuclear weapons and resentment, is looking menacingly at Ukraine. China is rich and restive. Israel is in upheaval over the deaths of three teens. There is no reason to believe Iran is refraining from pressing forward with nuclear-weapons research. North Korea is unpredictable and unreliable. Things are pretty bad.
Now let's backpedal exactly 100 years. The archduke has been assassinated, Austria-Hungary is looking to Germany for support, a blank check is on offer, and before long Russia and France will have mobilized. Things are really bad.
All of this raises questions we might contemplate on this long holiday weekend, anchored on the anniversary of the Declaration of Independence and its proclamation of American freedom:
How do we measure the peril our nation has faced: in 1776, when it was young and idealistic; in 1812, when it was vulnerable; in 1861, when it was torn asunder; in 1917, when it waded into European affairs for the first time; in 1941, when war came to Pearl Harbor; in 1950 and 1961, when threats rumbled through Southeast Asia; in 1979, when American diplomats were held hostage by the Iranian Revolution; in 2001, when foreign terrorism crashed into our domestic life; and in 1827, 1857, 1877, 1893, 1907, 1920, 1929, 1937, 1973, 1981 and 2008 (and many more years), when economic distress endangered Americans' well-being.
The very act of typing all those episodes raises a secondary question: Is the human story -- or the American story -- simply a tale of woe, challenge piled upon challenge, danger built upon danger?
On this Independence weekend, the sober lesson might be that crises are always with us. There are very few periods of serenity, and the promise of "domestic tranquility" in the Constitution was a chimera, promised and yearned for, yet illusory, maybe impossible.
But on this holiday weekend, should we take that as a gloomy lesson to be swallowed or should we be inspired by the nation's ability to confront crisis for a chance for life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness?
Yes, we live in a perilous time. It is more perilous than that of the 1950s, perhaps, though a Cold War raged. It is less perilous than that of the 1940s, when a hot war raged, testing humankind's most cherished values.
The hard times are always with us, more or less. But above all, this weekend, and this recitation of all the woes we have confronted, should remind us that our heritage and values require more rather than less from us -- and have given us more rather than less.
David M. Shribman is executive editor of the Post-Gazette (dshribman@post-gazette.com).