Everything changed yesterday

Vulnerable: By midmorning, we were already a country wistful for its sense of security.


Terrorism Strikes America

Our Consciousness

September 12, 2001|By Michael Ollove | Michael Ollove,SUN STAFF

Yesterday, September 11th, 2001, will be remembered as the day America stopped feeling like America.

No longer can we tell ourselves that we are safe simply because we live in the United States. No more can we cling to the faith that our military and economic might are sufficient to protect us from our enemies. Never again can we derive comfort from our geographic remoteness.

Everything changed yesterday. Lying in the rubble that was the World Trade Center is the American sense of well-being.

"This will be a transforming event," said Steven David, a professor of international relations at the Johns Hopkins University, as much in disbelief as people across the nation.

We are vulnerable, and vulnerability has rarely squared with America's self-image.

"The notion that Americans as a people are in jeopardy fits poorly with the national sense of self and its sense of destiny," said Todd Gitlin, a sociologist at New York University, which until yesterday, was practically in the shadow of the World Trade Center's twin towers. "This sense is gravely shaken now."

The symbolism of the targets is unmistakable: the soaring 110-story World Trade Center towers, emblem of American commercialism; and the Pentagon, seat of U.S. military power. Said William Beeman, an anthropologist at Brown University: "This attack was clearly meant as an emasculation of America."

By midmorning, we were a country already wistful for its sense of impregnability. Paulina Krokovsky, who rolled up her sleeve at Union Memorial Hospital to give blood, said she occasionally fretted about relatives who live in Israel, where political violence is as frequent as sunsets. "I used to wonder why I should be so lucky to live in a country where we never have to worry," she said.

In our heads, if not our hearts, we have known for some time that we are not immune from terrorism. The bombings of the World Trade Center in 1993 and the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City in 1995 taught us as much. After those tragedies, parents felt compelled to reassure their children.

And now this.

What do we say to our children now? To ourselves? What do they say in Israel? In Belfast? Not, it can't happen here. Maybe, we must hope it won't happen here.

In Annapolis, Michael Darrow picked up daughter Samantha, an eighth-grader, after an early dismissal from school. She had one question for him: "Are we going to die?"

Yesterday's attack was far more destructive and more coordinated than any previous terrorist strike in this country. And this time, the targets were largely private citizens, people at work or on airplanes. If nothing else, it was an assault on our collective psyche.

"I think this is going to change our perception of ourselves in the world unalterably," said Baltimore Mayor Martin O'Malley.

For an analogous event in the United States, many reached back 60 years. "It's Pearl Harbor-esque in its significance - it's got that sense of gravity to it," said Brian Flynn, an anti-terrorist activist whose brother was killed in another act of terrorism, the bombing of Pan Am Flight 103 over Lockerbie, Scotland, in 1988. Flynn spoke by phone from his midtown Manhattan office, where he could look south and see the swirling smoke.

Through the ambush on Pearl Harbor, the Japanese hoped to dissuade the United States from involving itself in the Far East. Similarly, an objective of terrorist attacks against America may be to impel our withdrawal from places beyond our borders.

But Pearl Harbor had an opposite effect than intended. It rallied the United States to war. Similarly, said Hopkins' David, it would be a mistake for America to respond to yesterday's events by retreating from world affairs.

`Going to have enemies'

"There are people out there who can reach out and hurt us. I hope that doesn't mean we become isolationist," David said. "As long as we are the most powerful nation in the world, we are going to have enemies. Unless we are willing to become a third-rate power, we have to recognize that we are going to have enemies and try to protect ourselves."

Still, there is no question that our self-assurance will be shaken. How severely, said Michele Malvesti, an expert in Middle Eastern terror at Tufts University, depends on what happens in the next days and weeks.

If, for instance, it emerges that U.S. intelligence agencies failed to heed warnings of this attack (as they did with Pearl Harbor), the nation's confidence could be further crippled. And, of course, the country - and the world - will be waiting to see if the Bush administration responds forcefully and effectively.

To console ourselves, we may feel inclined to view the attacks, terrible though they were, as the work of a small band of militants. But Beeman, the Brown anthropologist, said we would be kidding ourselves.

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