One year later, a lot has changed -- and a lot hasn't

September 06, 2002|By Clarence Page

WASHINGTON -- What's changed since 9/11, besides the infamous meaning we now hear in those numbers? Everybody seems to be asking that question these days. First, let's talk about what has not changed.

Americans are more reluctant to fly, but the world's most mobile society did not stay grounded for long. Airport security has become more of a royal pain. Yet we also find some comfort in that, as we try belatedly to achieve a level of security that we should have had all along.

Some high-rise dwellers said they were going to move to less-conspicuous targets, but outside of the tallest skyscrapers, not many "for sale" signs have sprouted. Real estate prices have remained high while the stock market collapsed.

We became more spiritual after the initial national trauma, but church attendance appears to have receded back to pre-9/11 levels, along with military recruitments.

The percentage of Americans who thought religion was gaining influence in American life surged upward in major polls, then receded like an ocean wave, according to Carroll Doherty, editor at the Pew Research Center for People and the Press. The percentage who thought religion was "gaining influence" rose from about 37 percent to more than 70 percent in separate polls by Pew and Gallup after 9/11, but receded back to its usual 37 percent six months later.

And, although the Pentagon says there was an approximate doubling in the number of people expressing interest in the armed forces after Sept. 11, it has not resulted in a significant increase in enlistments.

Flag sales remain brisk, but polls always show patriotism running very high among Americans, Ms. Doherty said. Six months after 9/11, for example, a Pew poll found only 16 percent thought the American flag was being shown "too much." Another 16 percent thought it hadn't been shown enough, and a commanding 68 percent thought that it was just right.

Some pundits mistakenly declared "the end of irony." This was a premature obituary. Who could miss the irony, for example, of how President Bush, after responding with excellent eloquence to the September catastrophe, slipped into such banalities as "You're either with us or you are with the terrorists."

Oh? How about Saudi Arabia? Its leaders have done a remarkable job of staying in power as a friend to both sides. Isn't that ironic?

So, what has changed? Our illusions.

Our illusion of security changed. When the twin towers collapsed "like a broken heart," as one young Palestinian-American woman wrote in a poem, so did our sense of invulnerability.

Our illusion of post-Cold-War isolationism changed. Suddenly we Americans were forced to realize that our military superiority, economic might, cultural power and general likeability would not only fail to protect us but would actually make us an attractive target for dangerous forces in the world.

Our illusion of American exceptionalism, the sense that big-league terrorism was a problem for other countries, not us, was ended. But so, I hope, was our illusion that today's baby-boom and post-boom generations had grown too soft to respond to crises as courageously as our elders responded to the Depression and World War II.

That's why, even while irony has rebounded, there seems to be a new seriousness in American life. The reappearance of movie stars on the covers of Time, Newsweek and other magazines, displacing Donald Rumsfeld and other heavyweight newsmakers, tells us that things are indeed returning to normal.

Yet, 9/11 also left us with a new respect for the eternal vigilance on which our freedoms depend, whether in the face of outside threats or of our own leaders when their pursuit of terrorists becomes an abuse of power.

It reminded us of how much we, in our land of rugged individualism, depend on each other or none of us has the right to feel safe.

It forced us to slow down, work a little less, reflect a little more and get reacquainted with some of the people we too often take for granted.

And the trauma of mass death broadcast to millions from the World Trade Center, the Pentagon and a crash site in rural Pennsylvania sent a big message that shattered another big illusion: Don't put off until tomorrow the love you should be showing to somebody today.

Clarence Page is a columnist for the Chicago Tribune, a Tribune Publishing newspaper. His column appears Fridays in The Sun. He can be reached via e-mail at cpage@tribune.com by mail c/o Tribune Media Services, 435 N. Michigan Ave., Suite 1400, Chicago, Ill. 60611.

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