“Sobs racked the body of a middle-aged man as he cradled the head of his baby, its dust-covered body dressed only in a blue diaper, lying beside the bodies of three other children, their colorful clothes layered with debris from their shattered homes.”

I held this sentence, from a Reuters report on the civilian casualties in Afghanistan, in my head all day long. By the time my girls were in bed I was storming around the house, slamming cupboard doors, and sending the day’s accumulation of Legos and crayons clattering into bins.

Fight and flight.

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Photo: ArtToday.

I’ve had more than enough of the bombs, the burning airplanes, and the deadly bacteria. I’m fed up with the men, in uniforms, in robes, or in business suits, who are reenacting thousand-year-old reflexes with modern weaponry. I’m tired of them pounding, cutting, burning, and breaking as though anything sacred, from holy Mecca to cherished babies, could be saved by the destruction of somebody else’s treasures and loved ones.

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I’m sick of the simplistic thinking that says “we will kill our enemies and then be safe.” The killing and dying didn’t make the world any safer for that baby in the blue diaper, and I cannot see how it will make it any safer for my diapered baby either.

Of course, beneath most anger lies fear, and I have been searching for mine. My fear is that our poor world just won’t be able to take this. By world I don’t mean the Earth and all its life. Blue-green algae, microscopic fungi, and hot-springs bacteria will barely notice the types of calamities that could shake the human species right off the planet. The Earth I am worried about is the one we are accustomed to, the Earth that provides grain, fruit, pure water, and endurable weather. The Earth that has coral reefs, rain forests, and alpine meadows.

That Earth was already under assault before Sept. 11. With many of the world’s nations involved in an escalating confrontation that might last for years, where will we find the attention and resources to begin to restore our wetlands, our soil, and our atmosphere? Already, across this country, budgets are being reconfigured with more money for “security” and less for organic farming, land preservation, and alternative energy.

This sends me from fear back again to anger. Where does security come from anyway? There are no more islands of safety. You can’t get much farther from the industrial world than the Arctic Circle, but we have known for years that the breast milk of women there contains PCBs. We understand that greenhouse emissions from American cars warm up the whole globe, not just America. And now we know that everything from airplanes to envelopes can be used as weapons by the desperately angry. Thinking that our country can provide itself with “homeland security” is like thinking that you can keep your left leg fed while the rest of your body starves.

When the going gets tough, so does mama bear.

I don’t think of myself as a fighter, but I can be fierce in protecting the people I care about, especially my children. The fierce part of me is not very sophisticated or very articulate. It notices hot stoves and sharp objects, but it doesn’t know how to respond to acid rain, or deforestation, or global war. It is a mother bear that lives in the den of my soul; when it is needed, it emerges instantly, massive and fierce and fast.

Lately, I think my mother bear instincts have been responding not just to my own child, but to the state of the whole world. If no place is safe until all places are safe, then we need a worldwide blossoming of conservation projects, women’s health initiatives, schools, nutrition projects, and peace brigades. The mother bear has no words for any of this, but I can feel a shift as she catches her first scent of a place to act.

The sophisticated, rational side of me is easily sidetracked, easily overwhelmed. Can we change the world? Is there enough time? Where would we even begin? These are meaningless distractions to the mama bear. What mother ever stopped to ask, “Can I get to the scissors in time?” Even when it seems hopeless, even when the blades are millimeters away from skin, you don’t ask questions — you just run, you just leap at the danger.

There are people who will beat at flames or claw at rocks with their bare hands to save one child. We tend to call these people heroes, when in reality, any one of us might act that way — if it were our child, or a friend’s child, any tragedy in the making we thought we might avert. There are also people who insist that no child is safe until all children are safe. We tend to call such people dreamers — and yet their point, these days, should be self-evident.

I don’t think heroes are enough today, or dreamers either. We need whole people — people in whom the mother bear’s full power is guided by the awareness that we live our lives and try to protect our loved ones on a shared and fragile planet. We need people who recognize a stranger’s child as one of their own.