Six months later, a new America

March 10, 2002|By Michael Corbin

THE WHITE concrete dividers ringing Baltimore police headquarters hopefully will keep the terrorist car bomber from inflicting much damage. The Jersey dividers, as they are called, stand guard along Fayette and President streets. The police are safe.

America will remain on a high state of alert "for some time to come," Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld told us in late January. Kabul has fallen, Afghanistan is mostly liberated from the Taliban, al-Qaida recedes into shadows and, a world away in Baltimore, like the rest of the citizens of the country, we continue as participants in a war with no visible end. We are on guard against unlawful combatants, shoe bombers, the "axis of evil."

We have the nervous tic of someone working too hard at acting normal. We have the newly minted Office of Homeland Security and Transportation Security Administration, and "the state of the union has never been stronger," our president reassures.

In the architectural banality of white concrete blocks stacked around our police headquarters, we catch a glimpse of the strange psychic disequilibrium America finds itself in six months after Sept. 11.

Perhaps in a cave in the mountains of Afghanistan, a CIA operative or Special Forces soldier found a map of Baltimore, in Arabic script, identifying the President Street address of police headquarters. Yet it strains credulity, and we unapologetically erect our barrier methods of terrorist control, notoriously blunt in their sheer defensiveness.

Like moats or a medieval castle's flying parapet, the barriers are enemy repellants built into our lives. They proliferate into a kind of symbolic cultural prophylaxis as much as a rational means of physical defense. We of necessity become credulous. Because who knows?

For terrorism foments the creeping specters of reasonable doubt. Terrorism is a kind of anti-irony. World-weary knowingness seems not so much passM-i as simply dangerous. Out of the blue sky, from nowhere, unexpectedly, like a revelation, at any time is from whence it will come.

Terrorism requires a kind of fuzzy-logic defense. Let your eyes go a bit blurry so that you can see in all directions, lash out in all directions, if necessary. The difficulty now for America is precisely in judging the relative merit of any given threat. The spectacular uniqueness of suicidal hijackers flying planes into the World Trade Center and the subsequent collapse of the towers has fundamentally altered our ability to calculate relative merit.

For some, the response to the anxiety of violent irrationality is demanding more information, like the psychoanalyst who believes he can decode the madman's mind by understanding his childhood.

For example, Mayor Martin O'Malley and Police Commissioner Edward T. Norris have become vociferous critics of the federal government - particularly the FBI and CIA - for not sharing information. A group of hijackers was living in Laurel, and one was even stopped by a Maryland state trooper on Interstate 95. "If we had only known," the mayor chastises.

If we had only known.

Yet now our parochial interest of city and state are subordinated to our country's need. Everything has changed, we reassure ourselves, since Sept. 11. United we stand. But how are we to make judgments in this new America of cordoned-off police buildings? We have a war president and a war budget, and everyone is a patriot. Our country is a different place, we hear over and over. Our city is a different place. And where are we going?

Writing in The New Yorker after Sept. 11, Susan Sontag expressed doubts about the American response. She implored, "Let's not be stupid together. A few shreds of historical awareness might help us to understand what has just happened and what may continue to happen. `Our country is strong,' we are told again and again. I for one don't find this entirely consoling. Who doubts that America is strong? But that's not all America has to be."

Writing this in November during the flush of emotion and war preparation, Ms. Sontag was widely criticized for her remarks.

Now in March, are we consoled by our strength?

Driving into Baltimore from Washington on I-95, you see one of those ubiquitous displays of patriotism fashioned on the highway overpass. A hand-painted flag and tissue paper stuck in the chain-link fence spell out "GOD SAVE AMERICA." Several months in the elements have left the display tattered, like a high-school homecoming float that has been left in the rain after the festivities. Are we not saved yet?

Colleen Kelley, 39, whose brother died in the World Trade Center attack, spoke of other American strength: "My brother happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time. There are people in the same situation in Afghanistan - in the wrong place at the wrong time. A demonstration of our love and support to those people is one of the most powerful weapons we have in this country."

"I will not wait on events, as danger gathers," President Bush said in his State of the Union address. "We've come to know truths that we will never question: Evil is real, and it must be opposed."

Baltimoreans and all Americans, the president told us, "have discovered again that even in tragedy - especially in tragedy - God is near."

Six months from the violence of Sept. 11, with God and Jersey dividers, we may yet discover something in tragedy, something in ourselves, something about our powerful weapons.

Michael Corbin is a free-lance writer who lives in Baltimore.

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