Has Everything Really Changed?

The world has changed since Sept. 11-or so the

commentators keep telling us. Everything is altered, nothing is the same as

before, all is irretrievably different since the planes flew into the World

Trade Center. “Everything changed”: This phrase has been shouted from every

media rooftop in America, and it simply isn’t true. For those who lost

mothers, fathers, children, of course

everything has changed, but everything still would have changed had their

beloveds died in their beds, in car accidents on the highway, by murder, in a

war or from disease. It is the terrible, unspeakable loss that has changed the

lives of the victims’ families, not the spectacular and unusual

terrorist-caused catastrophe itself.

The change that the

editorialists speak of has to do with the sense of safety that Americans used

to enjoy, the distance we felt from the famines, floods and political upheavals

that affect and infect most of the earth’s population. But, really, how changed

are we, and how unprecedented is this piercing of our self-satisfied armor?

Oswald changed the world’s course. Napoleon changed the world’s maps. Hitler

changed what we can conceive of doing and being done to other human beings;

Hitler reduced our ideas of progress to a pile of useless dust. The Gulf of

Tonkin incident, lie or not, created widows by the thousands. Pearl Harbor was

a surprise, but not an entirely unimaginable one. World War II was a change

from the prewar era, but history is always bringing change-some of it good. The

telephone changed the world. The automobile changed the world. The discovery of

penicillin changed the world. The brilliant idea that physicians should wash

their hands before touching their patients changed the world. The computer

changed the world, but perhaps not in so profound a way as the television set.

The fact that airlines will be even slower to depart and later to

arrive is a small change, after all. The fact that Bush’s numbers are sky-high

in the polls is a change, but one that no one (not even his guys) believes is

permanent. The fact that Americans are more aware than before of their Muslim

neighbors, and the fact that every schoolchild knows that in foreign places

crowds of men in strange headgear jump up and down shouting “Death to

America!”, is not a change in the nature of the world we live in or an

unprecedented sight. Remember the huge crowds in Bavaria hailing the Nazi flag

amid the torchlight parades?

The way we know the world has

not changed one iota since Sept. 11: We do not have to reconsider our

philosophy or our religion. We have always known that Cain and Abel were not

the best of playmates. We have always known that the poor resent the rich. We

have always known that an absolute conviction in the rightness of your God

above the other fellow’s is a dangerous matter. Ask any Protestant; ask any

Catholic; ask any Quaker, any Jew, any Bahai or Hindu or Sunni Muslim. The list

goes on. There is nothing shocking in Osama bin Laden’s rejoicing at the deaths

he caused. We have always known that it is within the human capacity to eat the

brains of the conquered in a post-fight feast. Missionary jokes aside, being

willing to die for your faith is just a heartbeat away from being willing to

kill for your faith. No news there. Nothing has changed.

Our private lives-or the

majority of our private lives-are altered more by the threat of recession than

by the sight of the crumbling towers. Our lives, while lived in the context of

our country’s history, are more importantly lived in the daily efforts

we make to keep bread on the table, to keep the body from falling apart, to

conceive the children, to guide the children, to have someone to kiss at

midnight on the New Year, to save a little in a retirement account, to take a

vacation, to get a better job or hold on to the one we have, to improve our

minds, to get into the latest movie or purchase the newest DVD.

It is true that some folks have gotten the shakes. They are

afraid to live in New York. They are afraid to fly, even though joining the jet

set on their rounds is definitely the patriotic thing to do. They avoid the

subway and dinner downtown. They are not believers in the

lightning-never-strikes-twice theory. For these people, the world has not

changed in the least; they were always anxious and expected the worst. Now they

have a focus for their anxieties. Now they have a new, most fashionable

disguise. For some, these fears of vulnerability have existed since their

toilet-training days, or earlier. For others, events-personal ones: loss of a

parent or a home, enduring a cruel caretaker, poverty, disappointments-have

left their mark.

There is an intersection

between our private lives and history. But that said, we are living in history

now-in 2002-in just the way we were in 6000 B.C.E (before the Common

Era). This living in history is not a sudden

new plague infecting Homo sapiens. At some times, communal history is more

obviously intrusive on our particular

bodies than at others, but it is always there. Nothing is new about that.

The problem with the platitude or cliché or moronic opening for

the current-events talk show is that it tends to stand in the place of real

thought and stops us from exploring the meanings of what has actually happened.

It has a nice dramatic ring to say “everything changed.” But what does that

tell us-other than that a good phrase has a life of its own, and that most of

our op-ed talk-show hosts are plagiarists at heart? The phrase speaks to the

Lord of the Rings in all of us: Good

and evil do battle, and good shall triumph. Where, alas, is irony, perspective,

humility before the long line of human experience? Where are the facts? Yes,

this is the first time foreign terrorists have attacked American soil

successfully. But how big a change is that from the explosion at the federal

building in Oklahoma City? It changes whose passport we might scrutinize at the

airline check-in counter, but does it change how I exercise daily, what my

genes are up to in my body, my nail-biting habit, my contribution to my 401(k)?

It does not. Does it change the borders of countries, or will it lead to the

creation of a Palestinian state? It may be a part of the process that leads to

one, but certainly not the first or only cause.

There is something dumb loose in America right now. It is our

President speaking to us as if he were reading from a second-grade primer.

Perhaps it stems from Mr. Bush’s speechwriters, who are afraid their man can’t

deal with commas and qualifiers. Or perhaps it is the repeated use of the word

“evil” to cover an enemy who is evil,

but also more than that; the “wanted dead or alive” language that obscures the

actual complexity of events and appeals to simple instincts, fueling hot

emotions instead of clear thoughts. There is something really dumb about the

reduction of vocabulary to the repetition of catch phrases that is afflicting

our television and newspapers. Is this a sign of early Alzheimer’s given to the

nation by some bioterrorists, who are right now laughing at the result of their

malicious mischief?