Freedom From Fear
Reading Phillip Roth’s latest novel, Nemesis, about the polio epidemic in 1944 Newark, sparked in me the image of Normal Rockwell’s oil paintings, The Four Freedoms. These were based, I’ve recently come to learn, on Franklin D. Roosevelt’s 1941 State of the Union address, in which he professed four essential human freedoms required for a better future: freedom of speech, freedom of religion, freedom from want and freedom from fear. While freedom of speech and religion are ingrained in our consciousness due to their inclusion in the amended U.S. Constitution, it’s the freedom from fear that resonates most with me, and it’s the one most easily taken for granted. As if the rising body count and horrific happenings of World War II weren’t enough to instill terror in all citizens during the summer of 1944, the polio outbreak caused people to dread the very air they breathed, the water they drank, the hands they shook, the food they ate, the animals who prowled the streets, the neighbor who exhibited signs of illness – all were the possible source of an invisible virus that stole mobility, breath, innocence and the lives of so many people, young and old.
This combination of war and illness must have terrorized even the most composed person at that time, and I wonder how we’d respond to such threats today. I recall the aftermath of 9/11, when a tinge of uncertainty even entered the consciousness of those hundreds of miles away from New York and DC. I took my kids to the Field Museum in downtown Chicago the weekend following the tragedy, and though not crippled with fear, I had a more heightened awareness that morning in the sparsely attended halls of natural history. And I wondered how much more palpable my fear would have been had the attacks been on a less grand scale. What if, instead of large buildings, the terrorists had attacked busses, movie theaters and cafes? How would we have responded then? Imagine those living today in Bagdad, Ciudad Juarez or Mogadishu.
Or imagine the fear of parents in Haiti, whose children’s only choice is to drink tainted water. Imagine the toll that’s taken on those in our own country who live in neighborhoods that make travel by night impossible, whose children’s walks to school are accompanied by the real threat of violence. Imagine the fear of the young citizens of war-torn countries, whose peaceful slumbers give way to earth-shattering explosions or the crack of gunfire.
I will go through my day today with a concern no greater than what to make for dinner. It’s a blessing that’s almost impossible to grasp, a gift bestowed upon so few in the world, past or present. It’s a gift I will work hard not to overlook.