The children, a boy and a girl, are safely put to bed. Her mother leans over her, a reassuring but worried look on her face. Her father is standing next to her, holding a newspaper with a headline screaming the word HORROR.
They are parents trying to comfort their children in a brutal, violent world. They are depicted in a nearly 80-year-old painting that was quickly talked about from coast to coast. The artist was Norman Rockwell and the title was “Freedom From Fear”.
The image and its message came to mind on July 4th, the one day each year when Americans struggle through muscle memory to recall what Rockwell’s vision of our country felt like. Some argue that Rockwell’s America was impossibly idealized: the sunny optimism, the unabashed patriotism, the united pursuit of the good that life can offer.
But on the fourth of each year, with its parades, marching bands, and children marching their pets through city squares or biking down main streets while neighbors cheer from the sidewalks, there are serious echoes of this elusive America and one longing for what it represents.
As gunshots rang out Monday morning in Highland Park, Illinois, and parents did what they could on the sidewalks to protect their boys and girls from the carnage, felt the melancholy wisdom found in this old Rockwell painting , suddenly in present at. Freedom from fear: the only precious thing that every mother and father wants to give to their sons and daughters.
The boy and girl in this painting fell asleep during a time of war. The newspaper’s headline referred to German planes attacking London. Today’s American lightning bolts are homegrown and seem far from constant. The gunshots that plague US cities, the drills at the scene that have become commonplace in elementary schools, the caution that has been built into 21st-century childhood—how can parents compete with such menacing forces?
In Rockwell’s artwork, published in the Saturday Evening Post on March 13, 1943, as the last of his series of “Four Freedoms” paintings, the answer to the question was painfully basic. The best gift a parent can give a child in a terror-stricken world is simply to be there; to provide assurance through the power of presence that a family will make it through the night. Despite everything, this sunrise is always waiting for us.
It is for a family and it is for a nation. The shadows in the children’s room are deep and dark. But as the boy and girl slip into slumber, the parents stand silent vigil, pushing aside their own fears as parents always have. In a world spiraling out of control, it’s the best they can do.
Mr. Greene’s books include Chevrolet Summers, Dairy Queen Nights.
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Appeared in the July 6, 2022 print edition as “Highland Park and “Freedom From Fear””.
https://www.wsj.com/articles/highland-park-and-freedom-from-fear-shooting-america-fourth-of-july-idealized-parade-11657054548 The Highland Park Shooting and ‘Freedom From Fear’