A Single Day, A Dividing Line

The dying year will be remembered for a single day. Did it, as was predicted at the time, change everything? Evidently not. Did it, as the counterintuitive types now suggest, change nothing? Only for the insulated, the detached and the heartless.

Movie stars may still consider themselves intellectuals, walking skeletons may still stroll down runways wearing clothes that no real person will ever wear, conspicuous consumers may still buy S.U.V.’s, and vapid athletes may still demand the laurels of heroism–but for the rest of us, many things have changed. And for that reason, we will, in fact, divide our lives by the passing of a single year, just as people did in 1861, just as they did in 1941.

Our newfound vulnerability is so sudden and so profoundly disturbing that only a fool would insist that nothing has changed. Ah, but haven’t we felt vulnerable since Sept. 23, 1949, the day Harry Truman announced that the Soviets had the bomb? Perhaps, but today’s fears somehow are of a different–and perhaps even greater–magnitude. During the depths of the Cold War confrontation, when John Kennedy was encouraging homeowners to build fallout shelters, our government was at least talking to our adversaries. That offered some consolation. Perhaps, we thought, we could deal with these enemies.

Today’s enemy, however, has no interest in talking, no national interest to protect, no territory to preserve. He has attacked our soil and very likely will try to do so again; yesterday’s enemy settled for proxy wars in faraway places. Today’s enemy is willing to commit suicide in pursuit of murder; yesterday’s was constrained by conventions we thought we understood. During the Cold War, few Americans thought much about taking a trip by airline, or going through a tunnel or over a bridge. Today, such a journey inspires, even momentarily, thoughts of a worst-case scenario.

Before Sept. 11, fashionable commentators analyzed politics through the prism of popular culture. Elected leaders were treated as stand-ins for movie characters, and were graded not by what they said or did, but how they performed: Did they seem Presidential or Mayoral or Senatorial? Did they come on too strong? Did they seem too weak? Were their performances too scripted, or too spontaneous? Did they favor power suits or casual clothing? This style of political commentary remains with us, so that hasn’t changed, but it reads like literature from another era, the era that came before 2001. It is read now not for insight, but for nostalgia, a vestige of another time.

Equally as dated and anachronistic are the chroniclers and keepers of the celebrity culture. In that time that has passed, such people–subjects and Boswells alike–might have had some small claim to importance in an entertainment-driven society. Now, however, the nation’s newspapers, particularly The New York Times , remind us that on Sept. 11, we lost thousands of people whose lives were more interesting, more authentic, more poignant and immensely more valuable to civic culture than those of the vapid stars and starlets who are celebrated in print and on television. Post-Sept. 11, those writers and cue-card readers who live to document some celebrity’s courageous struggle with hangnails are seen as the shallow, inconsequential buffoons they always were.

What we’ve learned since Sept. 11, and what should inspire us in the hard weeks and months to come, is that decency and selflessness surround us. Those traits may not count for much in the worlds in which this newspaper circulates, but they abound in the immigrant communities in the outer boroughs and the middle-class suburbs of Long Island, upstate and New Jersey, places so many of the dead once called home.

Manhattan’s elite was, for the most part, untouched by Sept. 11. And yet, with appalling self-importance, the powerful and the famous continue to gather at ground zero to pose for photo ops, or simply to tell dinner companions about the horror of it all and how it made them feel. In this way, they hope others–their audiences, their friends–will comment favorably upon their bravery and their sensitivity, and perhaps will speak their names in the same sentence as the groups known by their trades but not by their names: the firefighters, the cops, the medical personnel.

The grotesque continue to be grotesque. Sept. 11 hasn’t changed them, and small wonder it is that some of them insist that the world itself hasn’t changed, that their precious irony and detachment remain intact.

In less rarefied ZIP codes, however, the passage from 2001 to 2002 is filled with justifiable anxiety, a chastened view of the world and its troubles, and no small bit of defiance. Yes, the world has changed, for it now requires that we put aside fear to go about our daily lives–lives that can ill afford the armor of irony and detachment, lives that have been memorialized a dozen or so at a time since the day when everything changed.