Jewish World Review Nov. 5, 2001 / 19 Mar-Cheshvan, 5762

Paul Greenberg

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Welcome to 'After' -- NOTHING better illustrates the Great Divide in history represented by Sept. 11, 2001, than how dated is almost anything we were reading, saying or arguing about the day before.

Great Divides are like that. They divide time into a Before and After.

The world doesn't really change at such moments; we just see it suddenly, sharpened illuminated -- like a familiar landscape lit by jagged bolts of lightning.

Everything before now seems quaint, innocent, incredibly naove -- a refuge in memory, a perfectly preserved room in the house that we don't use anymore.

It's the way the 1920s must have looked to the 1940s: curiously, hilariously ancient with its flappers and flivvers. What did people ever see in Rudy Vallee, anyway? How explain the attraction of Warren G. Harding? Or an out-of-control stock market?

Pick up any newspaper or magazine published before Sept. 11, and the contents seem as distant as the Roaring Twenties.

In the Nineties, it wasn't just the stock market that displayed an irrational exuberance but the country, which could afford fixations with O.J. Simpson, Bill Clinton, dot-coms and ... well, one forgets.

Now we live differently. Like the rest of the world -- with an everyday aura of violence and subversion. Usually it's somewhere in the background, but sometimes it takes center stage. You get used to it.

I'm getting used to wearing an ID card around my neck in order to get into the newspaper building, the way I wore dog tags in the Army. It soon becomes routine.

I look at the long outdated photo of myself on the plastic tag and think: Some people look at old pictures of themselves and sigh for their wasted youth. I'm getting to the stage where I look back fondly on middle age.

Hanging from the hook on the back of my office door, next to the familiar old green eyeshade, there is now a spiffy little surgical mask. And in the bottom left-hand drawer of my desk there's a nice new supply of sky-blue, large-size latex gloves. Just In Case. Just in case one of the usual threatening letters turns out to be, well, really threatening.

I think of the days when any inky wretch worthy of the name would reserve his bottom left-hand desk drawer for a true prophylactic: a bottle of bourbon.

Ah well, silly as it all looks, I'm sure the contents of the drawer represent a sensible precaution. Maybe not the mask or the gloves, but certainly the bourbon.

And here's another difference between before and after Sept. 11. Except for good ol' Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson, the far right isn't so far anymore. We're all waving the flag now. Proudly. And mainstream opinion has suddenly discovered that defense isn't such a laughable waste of money.

The usual doves on the respectable left all seem to have molted into screaming hawks. Even Dan Rather is ready to enlist, and The New York Times' ever smooth, globally sophisticated, oh-so-urbane Thomas Friedman seems to have awakened with a start to the presence of raw evil in the world. Welcome to the world of After.

Happily, the loony left hasn't changed. It has produced a bumper crop of inane comments. So many that right-wing mags from the National Review to The Weekly Standard have run out of space to reprint all the specimens. They require no explanation; just to repeat them verbatim is exposi enough.

Even the left-wing but still sane New Republic can't resist running the best, that is, the worst of them. It's quarantined them under a separate heading entitled Idiocy Watch, Cont'd. . And it's included a few from the David Duke right, being an equal-opportunity fan of political idiocies.

But the weirdest -- and saddest -- of all these post-Sept. 11 comments has come not from the usual ideologues but from the White House's own Ari Fleischer, who always seemed sensible enough for an Official Spokesman, even remarkably low-key.

It happened when Mr. Fleischer was talking about Bill Maher, a talk-show host who'd been making some particularly idiotic statements even for him. He'd said something about what cowards the American armed forces are, bombing from afar, compared to the kind of suicide bomber who would slit a stewardess's throat. (The mystery about Bill Maher isn't why he's tasteless but why anyone should ever have thought him comic.)

Instead of passing over this embarrassment in silence, the way adults do when adolescents say unfortunate things, Ari Fleischer intoned: "All Americans ... need to watch what they do, and this is not a time for remarks like that.''

Quite aside from the question of what would be the right time for remarks like that, the defining essence of being an American is that we do say what we think, and can look anybody in the eye when we say it. The way cops and firemen do in New York. Or good ol' boys at any country store. Or, yes, even some self-important little pissant who runs a talk show. It's called freedom.

I don't know if Mr. Fleischer ever apologized for that comment, only that he should.

How curious: Of all the strange comments in these topsy-turvy times, my nomination for the most un-American (''This is not a time for remarks like that'') goes to the squarest of press secretaries.

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