Saturday, May 11, 2002

September 11 was eight months ago today

it's interesting to see how the country has progressed. Cleanup at Ground Zero is almost done, "God Bless America" has more or less left our daily lives, and President Bush's war on terror is no longer the top story. Yet threats and homeland security remain part of the news, "September 11" is regularly invoked in conversation, and every event in New York is now defined as the "first ___" since that fateful day.

Today's America is pretty much the same as it was on September 10, both socially, economically, and politically. Socially, we're more patriotic and more concerned, but how much more? Sure, some people refuse to fly, but they're a minority. We are not a nation which perceives itself as under assault -- this isn't Israel, or Britain at the height of the IRA. And while there are certainly more American flags than ever before, this society is no longer consumed by patriotism. You could walk down the streets and have no idea we're at war -- maybe because we're really not. We're at war the same way we were at war in Iraq or Kosovo -- this news item at the back of our minds. There's no need for war bonds or Rosie the Riveter or a wartime propaganda culture. Economically, September 11 has hurt foreign countries more than it's hurt us. Our economy is still in its up and down, recession-breakout trend.

As for the political climate, even less has changed. Sure, everything is now in the name of national security -- oil drilling, farm bills, you name it. But the bipartisanship which lasted well into November has faded. The State of the Union address, which many thought would be met with the same reaction that greeted Bush's speech on 9/20, turned out to be a big bipartisan flop. In September, we needed the image of Bushes Sr. and Jr., Clinton and Gore sitting together in the National Cathedral; the sight of Bush and Daschle embracing as Bush prepared to address a hurting nation soothed our pain. Now, talk of the 2004 race has been revived, Bush and Daschle are regularly sparring over numerous issues, and the focus has returned to domestic issues. Yes, President Bush's ratings are still high, and the war on terror is one of his chief concerns. But not too much has changed in Washington --even President Bush's Middle East policy is still the same jumbled mess.

Our mourning has progressed as well. On September 11, we were shocked. In October and November, we were grief-stricken as we tuned into cable documentaries and special reports. Each month, on the eleventh, President Bush would hold a ceremony somewhere. We idolized our firefighters. That all slowly faded away. Firehouses in New York, which had been showered with flowers and candles for months, suddenly became empty of all but flags and pictures of fallen heroes. Signs proclaiming "We will never forget" slowly disappeared, and we returned to normal. Our flags are back at full-staff.

The media has also played a huge role in our readjustment. The ticker has remained at the bottom of the screen, and patriotic colors are regularly splashed across the screen as everything is sensationalized, about a "Region in Conflict" or "War on Terror." But that's important -- if they were treating this situation with solemnity, we'd all be crying zombies. They've done their part with documentaries, such as the fabulous 9/11 show on the six-month anniversary. However, when you hear about September 11 in the media, the story is likely about charity scandal or memorial controversy.

Our view of the heroes of 9/11 has remained the same -- we have deified them but forgotten them. The National Guardsmen in the airport and policemen on the streets are no longer met with unreserved admiration and gratitude. Late on New Year's Eve, I went to pick up a friend from Penn Station in New York -- and everyone thanked the policemen guarding the terminal. Four months later, everyone passed busily, once again concerned about self. This is not a criticism of New Yorkers or Americans. This is a sign of our return to normalcy. In December, every battleship return was met with live television coverage and a presidential appearance. No longer. And this may be for the better.

Finally, there's the issue of future anniversaries. How will we greet September 11, 2002? Nobody knows quite yet. But we should think about it. Perhaps the best thing would be to forgo formal commemoration and go back to where we were on September 11, 2001 -- and watch the news of that day replayed. For me, September 11 was a lost day -- because I remember so little of what actually happened and feel deprived of an experience; I didn't get to a television until 6:00pm that day. For America, it may be a day we can best remember by reliving.

On September 12, we woke up to a changed world. We also woke up as changed people. While none of us will ever be the same, it is both reassuring and disturbing that we are healthily returning to normalcy.