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
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