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Sign of our times 

"Let's roll!"

            United Flight 93 passenger Todd Beamer's last known words --- before he and some of his fellow passengers ostensibly tried to overcome the terrorists who hijacked his plane on 9/11 --- have become a battle cry (and patriotic marketing gimmick) in the wake of the attacks. In the immediate aftermath of the tragedy, a copyright battle developed between Beamer's widow, Lisa, who founded a foundation in her late husband's name, and entrepreneurs who sought to use the phrase for their own enrichment. (The foundation itself discussed licensing the phrase to Coca-Cola, Major League Baseball, and other uniquely American institutions.)

            The words have since shown up on countless ball caps, T-shirts, commemorative candles, quarters, and other knick-knacks. The US Air Force has painted it on the noses of fighter planes. Even erstwhile Canadian peacenik Neil Young got into the act, penning the inane song of the same name: "Let's roll for freedom / Let's roll for love / We're going after Satan / On the wings of a dove." (Whatever, Neil. We liked you better when you were stoned up in North Ontario, helplessly watching big birds flying across the sky.)

            "Let's roll!" is to the War on Terrorism what "Remember the Maine!" was to the Spanish American War. The parallels are interesting.

            It was never determined who sunk the Maine in the harbor outside Havana in 1898 --- the Spanish colonial government or Cuban rebels. But it's worth noting that sailors on Spanish boats nearby rushed to the rescue of American sailors onboard. "The Spanish officers and crews did all that humanity and gallantry could compass," wrote Captain Charles Sigsbee after his ship was sunk.

            Nevertheless, circulation-hungry American newspapers played up the incident, big time. Stories of Cubans held in the Spanish concentration camps --- "death camps," they were called --- were common. Before long, the call could be heard in the streets and the chambers of Congress, "Remember the Maine, to hell with Spain!"

            Such are the vagaries of world history: A century later, we're the ones operating camps in Cuba that, at least the foreign press, deems inhumane. The "cowardly Spanish" of the late 19th century are one of our few allies in the impending war against Iraq (a nation whose ties to the 9/11 terrorists are as tenuous and debatable as those between Spain and whoever blew up the Maine). It's the "cowardly French" --- our allies against our current allies, the British, in the war that gave birth to our nation --- who are reviled by the "Freedom fry" munching blockheads of today.

            An act of terrorism against Americans and American property is, once again, leading us into a much broader conflict with a nation that may or may not be responsible for the incident that set the wheels of war in motion.

Enter the anonymous artist who painted a sign reading "Let's not roll" --- complete with a cartoon cat wearing a worried expression --- and bolted it to a post on the corner of South Clinton Avenue and Gregory Street a couple months ago.

            It's a bold, if curious, sentiment. On its face, it's funny. The phrase strikes the peace-loving passerby as a cute, clever twist on words co-opted from a 9/11 victim to serve the cause of those willing to create thousands of other victims in his name.

            But why a cat? Upon further reflection, one suspects the sign was painted by supporters of military action in response to 9/11. Are those who'd utter such a phrase pussies?

            A clue penciled on the back on the sign only deepens the mystery. "You are responsible," it reads, and beneath that: "The Monroe County Department of Homeland Security," with a circular symbol representing a house.

            Responsible for what? The 9/11 attacks? Preventing a war waged in response to them? Encouraging that war?

            Like so many aspects of world politics these days, it's not clear what this sign means. But let's assume the sign works on the same semantic level as the original phrase, and by extension, is a rebuttal to those who've adopted it as a call to arms.

            Let's not "roll for freedom" or "roll for love" if by "rolling" we mean rolling over civilians with tanks to remove a particular political leader from power. Let's realize that Satan and the "evil axis" he's set up in Baghdad and Pyongyang are only "evil" insofar as we are "good," and promote goodness through our involvement in world affairs.

            Will a stupid-looking street sign stop the war that may be raging by the time you read this? Obviously not. A million of them failed to form enough of a "focus group" to get President Bush to reconsider his headstrong rush to war.

            But you've got to love that sign all the same. As a symbol of the freedoms Americans cherish, it may as well be a flag.

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