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[whitespace] Illustration The New Normal

After the harsh events of 2001, will America ever find a comfort zone again? Only if we try.

By Tai Moses

AS THE RUINS of the World Trade towers smoldered at the southern end of Manhattan and the breeze stirred the ashes of thousands of human beings, a new age of anxiety was born. If someone had slept through Sept. 11 and awakened, Rip van Winkle-like on the first morning of 2002, his eyes would open on an astonishing new landscape.

The events of Sept. 11 divided our world into two radically different eras. We watch wistfully as the pre-9/11 world drifts away on its raft of memory, cast in Technicolor shades of nostalgia. We will remember that assassinated world as idyllic, secure (never mind that it was neither); we will speak of it in the reverent tones reserved for the dead.

Meanwhile, the post-9/11 era looms like an unmapped wilderness. As with other unclaimed territories throughout history, a fierce battle is being waged for its psychic, political and material capital. Former president Bill Clinton has called this conflict "the struggle for the soul of the 21st century," and the spoils of war include some of our most cherished values and liberties. Leading the charge are the warriors of the Bush administration, a battalion of securitycrats and generals who are attempting to colonize the future with their own repressive agenda.

But there is a brighter side, a growing chorus of dissenting voices who reject paranoia and hubris and question the rush toward becoming a security state. There is a dialectic afoot in the country, a stirring of peaceful purpose that has been largely ignored by the mainstream media.

Just before his death in November, Ken Kesey described the state of the union in succinctly Keseyian terms: "The men in suits are telling us what the men in uniforms are going to do to the men in turbans if they don't turn over the men in hiding." With the prescience of a dying man, Kesey ventured that this was really a war between the brutal, aggressively male way things had always been and "the timorous and fragile way things might begin to be." Like many Americans continue to do, Kesey nurtured hopes for a future constructed on a model of mutual cooperation, trust and rational thinking.

No Longer Invulnerable

The attacks in New York and Washington shattered the sense of invulnerability that is a hallmark of the American psyche. After 9/11, we looked at each other with new eyes, asked new questions. Trapped in a doomed airplane with a cell phone in hand, who would you call? Pundits wrote that the country had lost its innocence, overlooking the fact that innocence is not a desirable quality in a superpower nation.

Overnight, the United States perceived a sword of Damocles suspended over its head, and the ensuing waves of paranoia initiated surreal episodes: a nationwide run on gas masks; a demand from the Postal Service that all mail be irradiated against biological threats; and, most appalling of all, Op-Eds declaring that using nuclear weapons against Muslim countries would be justified if terrorists killed so much as one more American.

Among the ineluctable truths to emerge from 9/11 is that being on U.S. soil does not render us immune from harm. The American people now have more in common with millions of the planet's citizens who spend their lives in regions where armed conflict or terrorism take innocent lives daily. We too are mired near the bottom of Maslow's pyramid, struggling to regain our lost sense of safety and security.

The most visible symptom of our psychological trauma is a zealous new patriotism. Seeking solace, the country drapes itself in the American flag like a child in a superhero cape who plays at being invincible. From homes, vehicles and clothing to store windows, billboards and television commercials, there are few places in the country where the Stars and Stripes has not found a purchase. People who never gave the flag much thought except on the Fourth of July have become suddenly, passionately, patriotic. For many, patriotism is a complicated matter, its principles inseparably linked to a dedication to the Constitution. But the now inescapable presence of the flag, supposedly a symbol of American pride and unity, sometimes looks suspiciously like overcompensation for a wounded ego.

Hardening of Outlook

It has not been fashionable for some time to assign oracular qualities to Orwell's novel 1984. Yet the book has much to say to our fractured, post-9/11 era. In Orwell's dystopia, "practices which had been long abandoned, in some cases for hundreds of years--imprisonment without trial ... torture to extract confessions ...not only became common again, but were tolerated and even defended by people who considered themselves enlightened and progressive." These paroxysmal social changes, Orwell wrote, began with a "general hardening of outlook."

In the United States today this hardening of outlook is called the war against terrorism.

It is worth wondering whether the greatest threat to our country is a handful of terrorists or the new defenders of the Homeland. Many of us define our personal safety and our national character by the civil liberties that are being compromised in the name of state security. What we are in the process of giving up may prove to be far more precious than what was taken from us on Sept. 11.

In the months since the attacks, for example, the Justice Department arrested scores of young Arab and Muslim men and held them without charges, in undisclosed locations. Their names were not released, nor were they permitted to send word to their families. They simply vanished. Georgetown University law professor David Cole calls this "the practice of disappearance," and it is something we associate with repressive regimes, not with participatory democracies. Not only do such activities compromise the nation's integrity at home but they are sure to undermine American credibility abroad. If we cannot adhere to our own ideals and values, to the standards we've called on other nations to uphold in the past, it calls into question some of our fundamental assumptions about who we are.

Must We Shop 'Til We Drop?

Just after the attacks, a renewed sense of community was visible across the nation as Americans saw their own grief, fear and concern reflected by friends and neighbors. There was a relaxing of the rampant materialism, along with its ugly stepsisters isolation and compulsion, that has been the undoing of community in this country. Community cannot compete with shopping malls or 200 satellite television channels, with Gameboys or the 70-hour workweek. Community requires people gathering with others and talking, singing, questioning and arguing, a rialto where ideas and creativity are the currency.

Since our economy is dependent upon mass consumerism, it wasn't long before government and big business invented the concept of "economic patriotism."

This Frankensteinian creation asserts that consumption is an American value, extols the nepenthean powers of the dollar and, in effect, discourages national introspection at a time when it would be most valuable. Presidential exhortations to get back to normal assumed we would want to restore the world we had as quickly as possible. But not everyone is content to shut up and shop. The pre-9/11 world cannot be restored, not with a credit card, not with a new car. Many citizens concerned about the deteriorating economy are resisting the consumption orgy and are exploring alternatives that would make our country more self-sufficient and prepare us for the tough times that may lie ahead.

History's Lessons

An anonymous rescuer, digging in the rubble of ground zero, spoke of his struggle to express to his family what it was like. But every time he tried to speak he found himself mute, for there exists no suitable analogy for those murdered buildings, for the thousands of lives snuffed out by suicidal terrorists armed with box cutters. Sept. 11 is not like anything but itself.

True, 9/11 is the crisis of our time, our national flash point, but it is only one of many such flash points in history. This is far from the first time that powerful external forces have impinged upon human beings in a modern society, and it is not the first time those forces have been called evil. Each time it seems the crisis must generate a new paradigm in which such atrocities will never be allowed to happen again--and yet they do happen again. What messages do Hiroshima and Babi Yar, or Dresden and Antietam, have for us? What will Sept. 11 tell us?

Perhaps just this: That our suffering is not unique; that we haven't yet got it right; and that the pursuit of peace continues to be the noblest of vocations.

Making the World Over

"A country is only as strong as the people who make it up and the country turns into what the people want it to become," James Baldwin wrote. "We made the world we're living in and we have to make it over."

How do we move from anxiety to action? From insecurity to confidence, from national paranoia to collective poise? Is our democracy so fragile that four airplane bombs can erode 225 years of liberty? It has never been more clear that we will only have true and lasting security when the rest of the world has true and lasting security. That is the challenge of this particular conflict, the struggle for the soul of the 21st century.

On the beautiful, glass-bright morning of Sept. 11, a man--an ordinary, unremarkable American--called his wife on his cell phone. "We're all going to die," Thomas Burnett said as United Flight 93 careened over the Pennsylvania countryside, "but some of us are going to do something about it." All we know of the rest of Tom Burnett's narrative is that his life ended horribly. He and his fellow passengers did not let what must have been abject fear prevent them from acting--that is the true definition of courage. What happened aboard Flight 93 was the country's first real victory against terrorism, and it came out of the tradition of democracy. The passengers came up with a plan and they voted on it. Some of the men would rush the hijackers and force the airliner to crash, rather than allow it to be used in another suicide attack on Washington, D.C., where it was surely headed.

It's a terrible irony that for a short time, while the condemned jet was aloft, the ideal of American democracy also reached its apex. The rest of us can only strive to do as well. Fortunately, Tom Burnett's last communication to the world was an unintentional gift to us all, a battle cry for the age of anxiety. We are all going to die sooner or later. Let that consciousness not prevent us from acting in each other's best interests, from trying to create a better, safer world.

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From the January 2-9, 2002 issue of Metro Santa Cruz.

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