While surfing the Internet recently, I came across a web site about Vikings. Glancing through the material, I discovered many interesting trivia tidbits about those rugged Norsemen. Did you know that they often used fleas to navigate? Neither did I. It seems that fleas generally jump or crawl in the direction of the north. The Vikings also provided many words to our daily vocabulary: starboard, "Wednesday," "Thursday," and "Friday." However, the most fascinating etymology was of the Viking word "berserkr." The word came into the English language as the word "berserk." Berserkr was the name of an ancient Norse heroic clan and means "bear skin"-as in the wearing of bear hide as clothing.
The term berserkr took on the connotation of one who fights with an uncontrolled frenzy. The berserkrs would go into combat yelling as if insane, biting their shields or pounding upon them with their swords in such a ferocious manner that it would frighten even the most combat-hardened enemy. The berserkrs' fearsome fame as fighters made such an indelible mark upon history that the term is commonly used to describe insane behavior.
For example, bin Laden and his followers have gone berserk in their recent terrorist killing spree. While we rage against bin Laden and Muslim fundamentalism, we run the risk of going berserk ourselves as Americans. Our hysteria over the horrific tragedy may cause us to lose our collective moral high ground.
We can't criticize others and then behave like them. Some Americans condemn killing innocent victims in random acts of terror and recently killed an innocent Sikh-American thinking that he was a Muslim. Numerous others of Arab or Muslim dissident have been threatened or beaten while houses of worship and businesses have been firebombed by American demonstrators singing, "God Bless America."
The going berserk goes even further. While we are concerned about chemical contagion by crop dusters, which has not occurred, many Americans have been self-contaminated. Even if we aren't burning or beating Muslims, Arab, or those that we think might be, we tether on the verge of going berserk in our response to the events of 9/11. Gas masks are sold out in most army/navy surplus stores. That's borderline berserk. Gas masks will be of little value in a chemical attack and not all gas masks protect wearers from all gases. Still further, to effectively protect oneself from an attack, one must be wearing the mask at the time of the attack, and terrorists do not signal when they will strike. America will certainly have gone berserk if we start going to work or school dawning gas masks. Gas masks will soon become the air raid shelters of the early years of the Cold War.
In addition, it is crazy not to reexamine our government's policies in the world and especially in the Middle East where terrorist from both sides wage their decades long war against each other. Someone will have to sit down with both sides and say that we will help secure a lasting peace by economically assisting both sides when they cease acting like a Middle Eastern version of the Hatfields and McCoys.
We can also go berserk with paranoia. When we don't fly, go out in public, or think that if you look un-American, then you are. It is then that we give in to terrorism by allowing ourselves to become voluntary victims. FDR's words to America during the last worldwide war are fitting for us today: "So, first of all, let me assert my firm belief that the only thing we have to fear is fear itself-nameless, unreasoning, unjustified terror which paralyzes needed efforts to convert retreat into advance."
We have much as Americans about which to be proud. Many Americans willingly sacrificed their lives, whether in the skies over southwestern Pennsylvania or in fire-filled hallways in the Pentagon or the World Trade Center. We are generous in giving of time, blood, money, or other necessaries in recovery effort. To our credit, we are still providing massive amounts of food for hundreds of thousands of starving Afghanis.
So, we have a choice between becoming berserkers or becoming better Americans both here and abroad. In this time of insecurity and instability, we need to make every effort to think through our behavior less we look like war-crazed Vikings or Muslim extremists.
This article appeared in the Dixon Telegraph on 1/3/02.