In the last few weeks we've heard endless reiterations of the phrase about the world never being the same again. And who can really deny it? Anyone looking at the scene where the World Trade Center used to be, or trying to imagine what madness would drive human beings to such acts, could hardly think otherwise. At the same time, we can admire the Israelis, or dare one say it, even the Palestinians, for not telling us: "Now you know what it feels like." Many must be thinking it.
But if you've lived long enough, and lived in the right places, you've probably had the same thought a half-dozen times in your life: What will the next "normal" look like? I first had it, living in Brussels, in May 10, 1940, the day the Germans invaded Belgium, the Netherlands, and Luxemburg. I was nine. Two weeks later, we were caught by the German army -- my mother and grandmother and I -- in the French city of Boulogne, and like hundreds of thousands of other refugees, sent back where we had come from. A year later, walking across frontiers at night, we escaped from Brussels, through the occupied part of France and eventually to Spain and Portugal. Had we waited a few months longer, or had we been less lucky on those frontiers -- we would almost certainly have joined the six million others who were exterminated in the camps of Auschwitz, Buchenwald, and Bergen-Belsen.
Many of us recall a similar sensation -- not the personal fear, but the larger anxiety -- when John F. Kennedy was assassinated in November 1963. There was television then, and so it was all there before our eyes, the endless replays of the Zapruder film of the bullets smashing Kennedy's head in his open car, the murder of Lee Harvey Oswald in the Dallas jail, the long, somber funeral cortege in Washington for the slain young president, the endless worry and uncertainty, continuing almost to this day, about the dark forces -- the Pentagon? The CIA? Fidel Castro? The Russians? The mob? The right wing? -- that planned and carried out this assassination.
Then, too, there was a similar question: What kind of world will we find when we come out from our dens and living rooms into the bright light of the post-Dallas reality? Then, too, we spoke about the end of American innocence, about our new and unfamiliar sense of domestic vulnerability. These things happened elsewhere, but despite our own history of presidential assassinations -- Lincoln, Garfield, McKinley -- we thought ourselves immune. And then, of course came Martin Luther King, Jr., and, a bare two months later, Bobby Kennedy. If there was no organized connection between these assassinations, what dark thing was loose among us that would strike down three of our brightest and most promising leaders in so short a time?
In the days after the attacks on September 11, there were also a lot of comparisons with Pearl Harbor, distinguished only, as many said, by the fact that in 1941 we knew who the attackers were: The planes were marked, the enemy visible, the target military, not civilian. And the damage, terrible as it was, the loss of life, took place thousands of miles from our own shores on an island, not yet a state, that then seemed a lot more remote than it is now. Yet then, too, a world seemed to come to an end, and another was being formed. Three and half years later, it burst upon us with the force of 20,000 tons of TNT over the skies of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
As Americans, unlike the French or the British or the Irish, or the Israelis -- or the Cambodians, Vietnamese, Bosnians, Kosovars, Rwandans -- we take our domestic safety, long secured by two oceans, almost as a birthright, an entitlement. (Even our Constitution leaves no real place for chronic, partial war. It presumes we are either totally at war or totally at peace.) It's why we tend to be so indifferent to, and ignorant about, the rest of the world and why, when some foreign force threatens us, we are so enraged and fight so fiercely, even ruthlessly, to put it down. We are willing to go to any length, pay almost any price, for the privilege of our disengagement. Until the first plane hit the first tower at the World Trade Center, George W. Bush's unilateralism -- the disdain for treaties and international opinion -- was a shining example of how deeply attached we were to our indifference.
We probably have, as Frank Rich recently wrote (in a piece called "The Day Before Tuesday" in The New York Times, "lost our illusion of impregnability." Maybe we've even been awakened from the dream "that we could have it all without having to pay any price, and that national suffering of almost any kind could be domesticated" and thus purged of its pain. For the past months, indeed years, we've been diverted by an ever, more marginal set of trivial matters: shark attacks, TV "reality" shows, Gary Condit.
But predictions about our sudden, and presumably welcome, loss of illusion are hardly a sure thing. The attribute Americans have yielded most grudgingly has been our innocence. It's been both a great national handicap and a nearly unique source of strength. We are about to discover, for example, how much of our civil liberties and personal freedom have depended on that innocence. Conversely, our innocence is also one of the things that always infuriated Europeans about us -- and very possibly one of the things that helps fuel the rage of the terrorists who attack us. We know their weakness and shall show them that they are not immune from the consequences of their arrogance. (Like their fellow fundamentalists in the Middle East, Jerry Falwell, and Pat Robertson also think we had it coming: This was God's punishment upon us for the abortionists, the feminists, the homosexuals, the civil libertarians who roam among us. Our guilt is our innocence.)
The rhetoric that emerged soon after the attacks -- the calls to send the bombers, to retaliate, to make war, the declarations (as one talk-show host said) that while innocents are killed in war, "you have to accept collateral damage" -- indicates that the old mind-set is still our gut response: Hit the bastards hard and get it over with. Or as Bush says: eradicate the evil of terrorism.
The true measure, the real horror, of this terrorism and what it portends for the American world just emerging is that it defies the surgical strike, so-called, the quick campaign. We are not, as George M. Cohan's great song said, going to get it "over, over there," anytime soon. Almost certainly there are more determined bombers out there --maybe bombers with far more lethal weapons than just a Boeing 757 packed with fuel. And out there could mean very close to home.
No Western country has been hit with the ferocity, or at least with the anonymity, that hit this country on September 11. But beginning with Guernica and extending through the systematic starvation of millions of Russian peasants, through the death camps, to the devastation of London and Coventry, through Pol Pot's atrocities and the bombings of countless busses and schools and McDonald's in Israel, civilians, including children, have been the targets of mass murder. Each time, some people have asked: How could they?
The world -- our world -- will indeed never be the same again. America, as Daniel Schorr said, is indeed "being re-made" in ways that remain largely unpredictable but may never be as free again, and will almost certainly depend in part on the wisdom and historical perspective of our leaders. What's almost certain is that the globalization we have simultaneously celebrated, banalized, and feared is coming at us in ways that no one ever anticipated. Within hours of the attack, Bush and Secretary of State Colin Powell were on the phone pleading for an internationalism that the administration in its retro-innocence had spat on when it had words like global warming, biological warfare, or land mines attached to it.
We have much to learn from the rest of the civilized world -- not necessarily in order to emulate, but to choose the lessons that we might adapt, in our own imaginative ways, for our own circumstances. The September attacks have already driven the country beyond the trivialization of recent years, have very possibly begun to restore some sense of community (which, contrary to our Robert Putnams, is also not an unmitigated virtue), and powerfully revived our appreciation of the importance of government: Nobody is now saying, as some people did only a year ago, that in our new high-tech world the Internet and the free market will do it all by themselves. That belief was perhaps the most extreme expression of our pathetic innocence. That, at least, we are well rid of.
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