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Editorial: Events try but don't break America

After superstorm Sandy wreaked havoc, volunteers line up

After superstorm Sandy wreaked havoc, volunteers line up to help with Sandy relief in a parking lot in Belle Harbor, Queens. (Nov. 10, 2012) Credit: Anthony Lanzilote

There have been gloomier times in our history.

The holiday season of 2001 comes to mind, as we buried loved ones and began to rebuild after unthinkable terrorist attacks. Or the holiday season of 1963 as we coped with the violent, wrenching loss of a popular president. Or the holiday season of 1941 as the United States geared up for ghastly wars in Europe and Japan.

But if these aren't the worst of times for us today, we've certainly seen better ones. As the 2012 season reaches a crescendo, too many Long Islanders and too many Americans feel battered, beaten and totally bummed out by events beyond their control.

It's as if the weight of all of our problems has suddenly hit us. We can't run, and we can't hide.

The national economic recovery is sputtering while a shocking number of politicians show an insane willingness to march right off Washington's fiscal cliff and into an abyss of economic chaos.

We're exhausted in the aftermath of a superstorm called Sandy that has left many of us on the Island and in the city feeling vulnerable in a whole new way as the specter of climate change -- quite literally -- hits home.

And then there's the disturbed young gunman who murdered 20 first-graders and six brave teachers and staff members in a hellish rain of superlethal ammo from an assault rifle designed for military combat that for some reason happens to be readily on sale in major American stores.

So the question arises as we reflect on our lives and on our republic in this season of good cheer: Could our status quo in late 2012 possibly represent the more perfect union that our founders had in mind when they drafted the preamble to the U.S. Constitution? Or have we just made a humongous, crazy mess of it all?

Some observations:

We're a nation that at times seems to be splitting apart at the seams, as red staters and blue staters go at it with a simmering cultural and philosophical animus that, in many ways, harkens back to our beginnings as a democracy.

We're a nation that has incorporated guns into our civic mythology to such an extent we would rather risk the chance of deranged young men, armed to the teeth, stalking our grade schools, campuses, movie theaters and shopping malls than to enact the muscular gun control laws that could deter them.

We're a nation that would prefer to ignore the annoying facts about climate change and instead risk disastrous hits from storms like Katrina and Sandy. We're a nation that would rather live with the specter of random cataclysm than take the steps climate experts recommend, like reducing our carbon footprint by leaving in the ground -- rather than burning -- much of our remaining fossil fuel.

And yet:

While there's plenty of truth in all of the above, it's not the final word on who we are. We have not made a lurid mess of our country -- at least not yet.

We have our weaknesses, we have our tics, and we often indulge impulsive temptations to make unwise policy.

But we're pragmatists at heart. When there's no other choice, we do what's right.


And even today, looking through the ugly prism of events in Washington, in Newtown, Conn., and on the East Coast in the wake of Sandy, we're seeing some encouraging signs of new thinking -- and of fundamental policy shifts:

OK, some shifts are stronger than others. But while House Republicans show no signs of compromising yet and Congress is edging ever closer to the abyss, pressure on the GOP is building. A Washington Post-ABC News poll finds that two-thirds of those questioned dislike the way Republican congressional leaders are handling the "fiscal cliff" negotiations. Only 26 percent approve. The country is trying to tell the GOP that it doesn't like what it's seeing. If the party wants to survive intact, it will listen up.

The shootings in Newtown have set off a trip wire in the American psyche. Fifty-four percent of Americans now favor tighter firearms restrictions, a five-year high, according to an Washington Post-ABC News poll. President Barack Obama has asked Vice President Joe Biden to draw up a strong set of gun-control measures to give to Congress no later than January. House Speaker John Boehner says he won't shut the door on bringing up the recommendations. The National Rifle Association, a key opponent of strong gun regulations, has been knocked off balance in the fight, waiting a week before responding. We have seen other heinous shootings followed by other powerful gun-control laws that the NRA and Congress slowly chipped away. But maybe this time the proposals for new laws will stick. Why? Because senseless, high-profile gun violence is happening more often now, and for many of us, it's happening closer to home. Beyond that, tighter laws make sense, while nihilistic violence does not. Even in Washington, on most issues, it's a safe bet that sanity will win out in the long run.

The issue of climate change may have reached a tipping point, too. Right now, the residents of Long Beach, Fire Island, the Rockaways and Staten Island continue to suffer from the loss of their homes and jobs. But happily, officials from Obama to Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo to New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg have taken the offensive on extreme weather and building back better. That's great news.

So, in the spirit of the season, let's just say that even in these tough times, it looks like things are getting better, incrementally, in fits and starts. But better.