Back to normal

March 12, 2002|By Steve Chapman

CHICAGO -- I had time the Sunday before last to do all sorts of things. I read the newspapers, finished painting a bedroom, went for a run, got some photos developed, talked to my parents on the phone and drove various offspring of mine to places they needed to go. But in that entire 24-hour period, I didn't spend a second thinking about terrorism.

A few months ago, I might have wondered if such a day would ever come. The attacks on the World Trade Center were often the first thing I thought of when I got up in the morning and the last thing I thought of when I went to bed. I'm sure lots of other people had the same experience. In the aftermath of the Sept. 11 attacks, life felt like it had changed irreparably.

For months afterward, we all lived with a new sense of vulnerability. We noticed when an airplane flew overhead. We didn't mind when a security guard checked our IDs. We paid attention when someone suspicious crossed our path. We were careful opening our mail. Terrorism was never far from our minds. For months, the news was dominated by the search for Osama bin Laden, the war in Afghanistan and the investigation of the anthrax attacks.

But yesterday marked the six-month anniversary of the attacks, and six months is a long time. A few weeks ago, when we all worked ourselves into a tizzy over the outcome of the pairs figure skating competition at the Salt Lake City Olympics, it became undeniable that life in America could indeed return to normal -- and had. We had the luxury once more of worrying about things that would have seemed grotesquely inconsequential on Sept. 12.

Nowadays, terrorism seems like an increasingly remote danger. Political and religious violence may be killing people in the Middle East, India, Zimbabwe, Chechnya, Colombia and plenty of other places. But not here. For a country that is fighting a global war against terrorism, America feels amazingly tranquil.

This atmosphere didn't come about by accident. It certainly would not have happened if more attacks had taken place, on a scale comparable to the original ones. President Bush has gotten universal praise for defeating the Taliban in Afghanistan, but he's gotten less credit for the almost total absence of terrorism at home over the last six months.

Did the administration's detention of hundreds of noncitizens on immigration violations last year prevent subsequent bloodshed? Maybe not, but if it had refused to detain anyone and additional planes had been hijacked, you can be sure it would have been criticized for failing to act.

Much of the original reaction greatly exaggerated our vulnerability. There are plenty of people in the world with political grievances against Americans and our government. But very few of them are within or along our borders. The number of fanatical militants with the desire and the opportunity to mount lethal assaults on us is not large. That's why we have managed, in such a short time, to regain our basic sense of security.

But we shouldn't ignore the perils we face. The real danger is not a weekly or daily cycle of small-scale violence, like that in Israel and the occupied territories, but the occasional spectacular atrocity. For that, as we learned Sept. 11, the enemy doesn't need many homicidal zealots; a few will suffice.

We know this enemy is patient. The span between Osama bin Laden's second-most recent operation, the bombing of the USS Cole, and his most recent one, on Sept. 11, was a full 11 months. The fact that we have passed half a year without a new episode doesn't mean there won't be one.

The restoration of normality to American life is something to celebrate. It's one reason that, unlike in previous hours of peril, we have generally respected civil liberties, including the right to dispute the wisdom of this war. It's proof that a democracy used to serenity can cope with a horrifying surprise attack without losing its equilibrium.

But the abatement of anxiety could be fatal, and I mean that literally. If we assume victory is ours, we will pay too little attention to the grave dangers that still exist. The other day, Sen. Richard Lugar, an Indiana Republican, gave a speech proposing that our program for destroying and safeguarding nuclear armaments in the former Soviet Union be expanded to other countries. No one paid attention. If we fail to keep such weapons out of the hands of terrorists, our recent successes will be no comfort at all.

We've learned in the last six months that life can return to normal. We should also have learned that the way to preserve normality is to never take it for granted.

Steve Chapman is a columnist for the Chicago Tribune.

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