Jewish World Review Sept. 11, 2002/ 5 Tishrei, 5763
WE DIDN'T CHANGE after all. Things changed, yes. Flags waved. A president emerged. The economy slid. The enemy scattered. Politics cooled. The allies rallied. The allies chafed. Politics returned.
But we didn't change. We thought we would. After the shock of the bolt from the blue, it was said that we would never be the same. That it was the end of irony. That the pose of knowing detachment with which we went to bed September 10 was gone for good.
Not so. Before the first year was out, it was back, all of it. Irony. Triviality. Vulgarity. Frivolousness. Whimsy. Farce. All the things no healthy society can live without.
We returned to normality. No, not the "new normality," that state of suspended apprehension that followed the first weeks of shock and fear. The new normality dissipated into the ether with amazing speed. During its brief few months of existence, it seemed reasonable to deputize the postman and the milkman and the cable guy to snoop around your house looking for suspicious characters. Today that TIPS program seems slightly loony, as it should to true normality.
True normality. Can you doubt it is back when the culture king of 2002 is Ozzy Osbourne, now locked with Anna Nicole Smith in a race to the cultural bottom? It's all back: reality TV, Geraldo on the scene, "Sex and the City," and every sequel known to man: "Austin Powers," "Stuart Little," "Men in Black," and Yoda, flying no less.
Last year's summer tizzy was shark attacks. After September 11, it seemed absurdly, self-indulgently trivial. After a real catastrophe, we'd not succumb again to media-manufactured scares. We wouldn't? This summer it is the child kidnapping epidemic, an invention of insatiable 24-hour cable news (there has been no increase in incidence, just coverage) catering to our perennial need for a fright-of-the-season.
As for irony, it is back by the shovelful. Of course, there was the decent interval during which Jay Leno would look plaintively at the audience after a gag that fell flat and say, "What do you expect? I can't do any 'stupid Bush' jokes anymore." Now, not a night goes by without a "stupid Bush" joke. Reverence for a sitting president is unnatural, abnormal. It couldn't last. It shouldn't. It didn't.
Perhaps we should have known a year ago. After all, no one speaks of the American character having been changed by Pearl Harbor. True, the war changed America, catalyzing technological advance, internal migration, and the emancipation of women and minorities. But those were the products of four years of war, not of one day of infamy. They were the residue of exertion, not of shock.
National character does not change in a day. September 11 did not alter the American character, it merely revealed it. It allowed--it forced--the emergence of a bedrock America of courage, resolve, resourcefulness, and, above all, resilience. What the enemy did not know (nor at that time did we, fully) was that beneath the shallowness and the triviality, the outward normality of America in post-Cold War repose, lay the sleeping giant that Admiral Yamamoto knew he had awakened on December 7, 1941, and that Osama bin Laden had no inkling he had awakened on September 11, 2001.
The world then witnessed an astonishing demonstration of resilience, the kind only a nation of continental size and prodigious productivity, of successful self-government and self-conscious spirituality could summon. The financial system, a target of the September 11 attack, was up and running within six days. The Pentagon never even shut down. An army of volunteers working 24 hours a day had ground zero ready for remembrance and reconstruction months before anyone expected. After anthrax, and the inevitable initial confusion, we were turning out antibodies against the new warfare as remorselessly as we turned out Liberty ships in World War II: mountains of antibiotics, tens of millions of doses of smallpox vaccine, new protocols, new training, new surveillance.
Most impressively, within weeks we had invented a new kind of warfare. A man on horseback guides bombs from a B-2 flying in from (and returning to) Missouri. The enemy--hardened and ready, girded and gloating, eager to bleed us in the fabled graveyard of empires--runs for his life, shattered.
The real story of the year since September 11 is the shoe that never dropped. At home and abroad, everyone thought it would. In the first weeks after the attack, people were afraid to fly, to move. Yet the second blow never came. That does not mean it never will. But how many predicted that we would go a year unscathed? How many thought that sheer resolve, fearsome technology, heightened vigilance, brute force, and a dragnet stretching from Yemen to the Philippines would make the jihadists the hunted and give us a year of respite?
The respite will not last if we simply look back with satisfaction on our initial resilience. The respite will not last if we see September 11 as just the anniversary of a tragedy, a remembrance of the fallen, a celebration of a day of courage. It was all that, of course. But it was much more. It was the opening salvo of the Great War of the 21st century, against an enemy as barbaric as any faced during the 20th.
This September 11 marks not just a day of infamy, but the close of Year One of that war. And to win it we will need to demonstrate--as we did in the other great wars of necessity--patience, endurance, determination, and a willingness to bear any burden.
That is a solemn calling, but it need not elicit grim solemnity. Success will require that both sides of the American character--the visible fluff and the (once) buried steel--remain in play. Last September 11, we thought that the one must banish the other. The great lesson, the great triumph, of Year One is that fury and grit did not drive out lightness and laughter. And a good thing too. To prevail in this long twilight struggle, we will need them all.
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© 2002, The Weekly Standard. Reprinted with permission