What do we tell the children at moments such as this? The North Koreans declare that they can send nuclear missiles into Japan, Guam, South Korea and even all the way into the American heartland if they feel like it.
The president of the United States responds with rhetorical muscle-flexing of his own. He calls up “fire and fury like the world has never seen.” He therefore invokes echoes of Harry Truman and Nagasaki, whose 72nd atomic bombing anniversary we mark today, and John Kennedy and Cuba.
Such modern confrontation, the New York Times tells us, raises “alarm among allies and adversaries … making the possibility of military conflict … seem more real.”
So what do we tell the children at moments such as this?
At odd moments when they’re not hypnotized by their various electronic devices, some of them overhear their parents whisper war talk at the dinner table. Others catch worrisome snippets of debate on CNN.
“What’s all this business about bombs?” they ask.
“Nothing, children. Go play with your brand new ‘Call of Duty Infinite Warfare’ video game. Have fun. Go blow something up.”
Maybe we tell them what Rex Tillerson said. He is Donald Trump’s secretary of state, and this is supposed to matter. But his message is far different than the president’s. Tillerson aims to comfort.
“I think Americans should sleep well at night, have no concerns about this particular rhetoric of the last few days,” he says.
I come from the generation that grew up with air raid drills. Our teachers expected the Russian bombers at any moment. All the children at the old Howard Park Elementary School, No. 218, were instructed to leave our desks quickly and huddle in the hallway.
There were too many windows in our classrooms. Out there in the hall, where we crouched on the floor, we were told we were safe. (As long as we kept quiet, anyway. No talking while crouching. Anyone caught talking during a nuclear holocaust would be kept after school. To sweep up the ashes, one suspected.)
By the time of the Cuban Missile Crisis, maybe five years later, we were old hands at this. At all-male City College, we made jokes about final-hour romantic invasions of all-female Eastern High, right across the street, if we heard the Russian bombers were on their way.
So what do we tell today’s children?
Take it easy, I suggest. Having nuclear bombs doesn’t mean a nation actually uses nuclear bombs. North Korea’s leader may be erratic, but he’s smart enough to know that any nuclear confrontation with the United States would mean sheer catastrophe for millions – but especially millions in North Korea.
Nations like to pound their chests every once in a while. It makes everybody feel macho. But we’ve been through scarier times than this, and cooler heads prevailed, as they will this time.
And the kids can go back to blowing things up in their child-friendly video games.
A former Baltimore Sun columnist and WJZ-TV commentator, Michael Olesker is the author of six books, most recently “Front Stoops in the Fifties: Baltimore Legends Come of Age” (Johns Hopkins University Press).
Top photo: President Trump (Photo by Drew Angerer/Getty Images)
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