Years ago, as a tourist in Vienna, I met an old lady who called herself “the Prinzessin” and claimed to be a Hapsburg princess, now reduced to the status of tour guide. Among her collection of overpolished anecdotes was an item about complaining to her mother one day during her childhood that life was boring. “The next day,” she said, “we heard that Archduke Franz Ferdinand had been shot.” Pause for effect. “And life was never boring anymore.”
The notion that there are days when history swings on a pivot is irresistible and, to some extent, valid. The shooting of the archduke that started World War I … the bombing of Pearl Harbor … the Kennedy assassination … Before: innocence and sun-dappled lawns. Afterward: knowledge, modernity, and darkness. Will Sept. 11, 2001, really turn out to have been one of those days? A horrible day, certainly, and—yes—a day that will live in infamy. But a day when life changed dramatically and permanently for everyone, at least in America? Maybe so, but there are adequate reasons to doubt, and excellent reasons to avoid leaping to that conclusion if it can be avoided.
For the journalists and politicians we depend on for the official clichés of our national conversation, the apocalyptic note is irresistible. No crude theorizing about ratings or votes is required. It’s just the nature of journalism to make “this is more important than you think” a subtext of every story. And when you’ve devalued concepts like “crisis” and “war,” as TV news especially has done in recent years, apocalypse is about all you have left when a story this big comes along. As for pols, they are also natural hyperbolizers who are not disposed to conclude that a national crisis is smaller than it seems.
Although logic doesn’t really matter in such things, there is a logical contradiction among the official clichés of the moment that “everything has changed” and “this means war.” Victory in the war against terrorism consists precisely of everything not changing. If life has changed permanently and dramatically for the worse, terrorism has won the war. In fact, if people become convinced that—say—getting on an airplane is wildly riskier than they previously thought, terrorism has won whether that is objectively true or not.
“Everything has changed” can also become a self-fulfilling prophecy in terms of the economy, where consumer confidence matters a lot more than the direct costs of terrorism itself. Being told again and again that life from now on will be unrecognizable doesn’t exactly make me want to rush out to Wal-Mart.
Certainly it’s ironic that so many Americans seem convinced that life was wonderful until last week and will be terrible from now on. For over a decade until last week, the mantra of American politics was “change.” Voters demanded it, politicians of all stripes promised it. Life was, in some unspecified way that “the system” was responsible for, unbearable. Now “everything has changed,” and we don’t like it one bit. We long for the lost world of Sept. 10. For thousands of Americans directly affected by the attack, life has indeed changed tragically. But for most of us it’s at worst too early to say whether everyday life will be permanently and dramatically altered. And there’s something self-indulgent about assuming so, just as there was something self-indulgent about the hunger for “change” in what we now regard as the pre-Sept. 11 Eden.
While flag-waving is an appropriate and moving response to a frontal attack on our country—and perhaps patriotism cannot be fine-tuned—there are a couple of wrong notes in the current national chorus. One of course is bullying, which is always the underside of patriotism. More novel, disturbing—and, I’m afraid, more characteristic of America today—is the theme of victimization. Oh, poor us. We need grief counseling, candlelight vigils, little ribbons to wear. Those ribbons claim membership and ask for sympathy more than they communicate resolve. We share the pain of actual victims not just through empathy and financial generosity (though there’s been plenty of that) but also by feeling victimized ourselves. How long before some doctor discovers a “Sept. 11 syndrome” and some lawyer tries to sue Osama Bin Laden over it?
In the case of a president who must suddenly rally people to an unexpected cause, a bit of hyperbole is understandable. The danger for Bush is that he is promising total victory when that is not really possible or even, in a way, necessary. Terrorism is not “an enemy” that can be defeated. It is an infinite variety of tactics available to any enemy. Particular enemies can be defeated and terrorism in general can be discouraged, but the possibility can never be eliminated.
Spreading alarm about terrorism has been an industry for at least two decades. Read last January’s “Report of the National Commission on Terrorism: Countering the Changing Threat of International Terrorism.” Or, if you prefer, last December’s “Toward a National Strategy for Combating Terrorism,” the report of a completely different government commission. Both are full of scenarios, none of them resembling what happened Sept. 11, and recommendations, none of which would have prevented it.
Life was riskier than we realized before Sept. 11 and is not as risky as we fear now. Resisting the conclusion that everything has changed is one way to help prevent it from being true.