Accepting 'The New Normal'
We mourned, united, and adapted. But five years after 9/11, we are divided once again
The snuffing out of nearly 3,000 lives on that perversely beautiful September morning five years ago brought one consolation. For a time, at least, the American people put aside their differences and embraced their common citizenry. And we were not alone. "We are all Americans," a headline in France's Le Monde declared. People disagree about how much, or even whether, America has changed since 9/11. But one thing is almost beyond dispute: That early sense of solidarity is largely gone.
Some would say it is an inevitable story. A nation of pragmatists, we are also a disputatious tribe, prone to impatience and quick to point the finger when things go wrong-even when things don't go right fast enough. Yet at first, everything seemed to go so well so fast. George W. Bush, after some initial discombobulation, rallied the nation with a declaration of war on the terrorists and those who harbored them. No more minimalist responses; no more law-enforcement-style half measures. Yet it was a curious war footing. There would be no draft, no large material sacrifices expected of the citizenry. Americans were under orders to act normally, as though doing otherwise would be conceding victory to the terrorists.
Big Brother. For the most part, Americans began to adapt to the "new normal" even before the administration launched military operations in Afghanistan, an invasion supported by well over 80 percent of the public. Adjusting to long lines in airports, color-coded risk advisories, and Big Brotherish highway signs urging drivers to report suspicious behavior, a usually inward-looking people consumed record numbers of books on Muslims and the Middle East, learning to distinguish between true Islam and its corrupted form. Irony and humor, said to be fatal casualties of 9/11, made their comeback, helped along by the good news from Afghanistan. A dashing little war in which horse-mounted Special Forces combined with smart bombs to produce marvelously swift results, it was marred only by the unfinished business at Tora Bora, where Osama bin Laden eluded death or capture. Yet the noose, we were assured, was tightening.
Back at home, Americans were eager to do their part, even if that meant sacrificing some of their liberties. Shortly after the Patriot Act was signed into law in October 2001, 53 percent of respondents in one poll expressed concern that the government would be too protective of civil rights in its pursuit of terrorists. Americans were equally supportive of using extraordinary measures against the enemy. While critics around the world carped at the treatment of prisoners in GuantÃÂÃÂÃÂÃÂ¡namo, 55 percent of Americans in one early 2002 survey deemed it appropriate.
If World War I gave rise to the national security state, September 11 created the homeland security state. Morphing from an office into a full-fledged cabinet-level department, the Department of Homeland Security was the institutional expression of a new national obsession. While many warned of bureaucratic bloat, wasteful spending, and even more dangerous consequences-later confirmed by FEMA's performance in the handling of Hurricane Katrina-a course was irrevocably set.