Monday, September 11, 2006

Moving Ahead, Guardedly

Sign of the times: don't do, just support.

(the following is reprinted sans permission from

9/11 Has Changed Few Lives
Surprisingly, the mind-sets of most Americans haven't been greatly altered.
By Stephanie Simon, Times Staff Writer
September 11, 2006

Airport trash cans overflow with toothpaste and deodorant.

Thousands of college students bend their heads over Arabic texts.

In Minneapolis, networks of sensors continually sample air for anthrax, smallpox and bubonic plague. In Nebraska, Gov. Dave Heineman is alerted when cars with out-of-state license plates are spotted cruising cattle feedlots.

On a gravel road in rural Indiana, the Amish Country Popcorn factory makes the federal list of potential terrorist targets — a list of 77,069.

Five years after Sept. 11, this is the new normal.

Nearly 3,000 Americans died when terrorists hijacked four planes, crashing two into the World Trade Center's twin towers, one into the Pentagon and another into a field in Pennsylvania.

Documentary filmmaker Ric Burns calls the attack "as seismic as an event can be …. Rarely does the future announce itself so vividly and horrifyingly."

Residents of New York and Washington remain edgy. And those who lost loved ones, or have relatives or friends serving in the military abroad, can't help but be reminded all too often of Sept. 11.

Remarkably, though, the day-to-day lives of most Americans have changed very little. We have found it easy, perhaps startlingly easy, to stick to routines and habits and mind-sets forged before we could have conceived of planes as missiles. Last month, the Pew Research Center polled about 1,500 adults across the country. More than 40% said the terrorist attacks had not changed their personal lives at all. And 36% said their lives had been altered "only a little bit."

Sept. 11 is often compared to another day of infamy, Japan's bombing of Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941. Historians, however, see no comparison. World War II demanded personal sacrifice from every American family. The global war on terrorism has touched only a few directly, even as the threat level bounces from orange to yellow to orange to red.

"Many of the predictions made five years ago by cultural pundits about positive long-term changes on our behavior, on our attitudes, even on the art we make, have proved largely untrue," says novelist Julia Glass, who won a National Book Award for Three Junes.

She finds the lack of transformation depressing, a moment missed. "You could say it's because human beings are so good at adapting," Glass suggests. "Or because we tend toward a certain set point of selfishness and complacency."

That capacity for moving on, for getting back to normal, infuriated Army Staff Sgt. Jay White when he was home last summer between tours of duty in Iraq. "It used to drive him nuts when we were standing in line and somebody was complaining about their Frappuccino," recalls his wife, Jessica.

Jessica feels that same frustration at the high school in Cromwell, Conn., where she teaches history.

"It's a feeling of isolation and loneliness and confusion," she says. Her husband left on his most recent deployment less than three weeks after their wedding. "You hear about the dramas of the 16-year-old girls all the time, and I want to go: 'You don't even know what people are going through. What your own teacher's going through,' " she says.

Though most Americans have seen little change in their lives, many do recognize the effect Sept. 11 had on their neighbors and on society as a whole. In the Pew poll, 51% said their country had changed "in a major way."

Those changes are not exactly what the pundits predicted in the days after Sept. 11.

Back then, President Bush publicly wrapped the top Democrat in the Senate, Tom Daschle, in a bear hug; unity in the face of adversity seemed the only possible course. But fighting terrorism proved a sharply partisan issue — and all too susceptible to fear-mongering.

"National security has become just another political weapon to beat each other up with," says Leon E. Panetta, White House chief of staff under President Clinton.

It has also become a top priority for many voters, a noted change from decades past.

"Generally speaking, you could almost [always] gauge the outcome of elections by the economy," says Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), a likely candidate for the Republican presidential nomination in 2008. "Now that issue has been trumped by the war on terror … and understandably. We received a national shock on 9/11."

Immediately after the terrorist strikes, 64% of Americans said they trusted their government to do the right thing all or most of the time. By the summer of 2002, the figure had dropped to 39%.

These days, the paradigm has shifted so dramatically that 36% of Americans say it's at least somewhat likely the federal government was complicit in the attacks, according to a recent Scripps-Howard poll.

Tens of thousands of people have viewed an online film that asserts the government plotted to bring down the twin towers and blow up the Pentagon — and then pin the blame on Arab hijackers as a pretext to invade the Middle East. In the weeks after the attacks, when American flags seemed to fly from nearly every home, when nearly every marquee proclaimed "God Bless America," it would have been impossible to imagine such a dark conspiracy theory gaining such traction.

In those days, many pundits predicted Americans would turn to God in their moment of stress, and, for a time, church attendance shot up. Polls showed Americans grappling with big questions about God and salvation.

The revival lasted three months.

By January, church attendance was back to normal. The Barna Group, a polling firm for religious groups, found no movement in standard measures of faith, such as Bible reading. "Spiritually speaking, it's as if nothing significant ever happened," says David Kinnaman, a Barna vice president.

So what, then, has changed since Sept. 11?

The American Civil Liberties Union has devoted vast amounts to fighting Bush administration policies such as eavesdropping without a warrant on certain phone calls and imprisoning American citizens indefinitely without charges or access to a lawyer. Those efforts have clearly resonated: ACLU membership has grown more than 80%, revenue has jumped 34%, and the group has nearly doubled the size of its national staff.

Other civil liberties groups have been equally charged. At New York's Center for Constitutional Rights, Legal Director Bill Goodman has handled cases brought by terrorist suspects imprisoned at Guantanamo Bay and by U.S. soldiers forced to serve beyond their terms of enlistment. He has sued on behalf of immigrants detained after Sept. 11 and foreigners who allege they were tortured by American agents.

The center's caseload has "been taken over by post-9/11 litigation," Goodman says.

The government, too, has been consumed by its new focus on terrorism. The FBI's budget has doubled. Federal spending on air security has quadrupled. The Department of Homeland Security has checked 2.7 million truckers against a terrorist watch list.

In Los Angeles, Edina Lekovic, a Muslim, senses Sept. 11 fallout when she leaves the house in her head scarf. Strangers stop her in the supermarket to ask if her father forces her to cover her hair. They wonder aloud if she's oppressed. Then they grill her about jihad.

"Life has gotten a lot more complicated," says Lekovic, communications director for the Muslim Public Affairs Council, a national policy group. "To be a Muslim in this day and age is to be in a pressure cooker, 24/7. You have to constantly explain your faith…. [We] went from private citizens to public ambassadors."

For Chris Simcox, the new normal means a new vigilance — and long nights pacing the Mexican border with a gun. Long disturbed by illegal immigration, Simcox says he had an epiphany after Sept. 11: "The next terrorists are not going to come in on visas." So he moved to Phoenix and founded the Minuteman Civil Defense Corps to help guard his country.

Simcox says he has signed up 8,000 volunteer Minutemen. His themes are also seeping into election-year politics. Randy Graf, an Arizona Republican running for a U.S. House seat, explains his call for a crackdown on illegal immigration this way: "We all remember what happened on Sept. 11."

"I tell you," Simcox says, triumphant, "the sleeping giant has awakened."

The fallout from Sept. 11 has affected the world of culture as well.

Musicians have channeled sorrow, rage and fear into anthems to that indelible day. Classical composer John Adams gave us a haunting elegy with "On the Transmigration of Souls." Country singer Toby Keith served up a lusty cry for vengeance with "Courtesy of the Red, White and Blue (The Angry American)." And Bruce Springsteen poured out his empathy for terrorism's victims — and its perpetrators — in his 2002 album, The Rising.

With his novel A Disorder Peculiar to the Country, Ken Kalfus brought black comedy to the age of terror. He sets his satire about a divorcing couple in Manhattan in 2001; at one point, husband and wife each think the other has died in the World Trade Center — and each is secretly delighted. It's a deliberate effort, Kalfus says, to disprove what "we were told after 9/11, that irony was dead."

For her part, New York writer Martha McPhee, a former National Book Award finalist, had one of the main characters in her cross-cultural love story, L'America, die in the collapse of the north tower.

"It's not surprising that novelists want to try" to take on Sept. 11, McPhee says, "because what a novel tries to do is make sense out of something that makes no sense."

That's what Americans have tried to do as well these last five years: make sense of the senseless. Shock waves from Sept. 11 reverberate still, but carrying on with the familiar humdrum of our lives lets us feel stable, even as radiation detectors are installed at the Super Bowl and security guards at the airport order us to toss our bottled water.

"Probably no American life is totally unaffected by 9/11, but very few people are immobilized or totally preoccupied with it," says Robert Jay Lifton, a psychiatrist at Harvard Medical School.

Lifton studies the psychology of survival, and he says we as a nation have not fully come to terms with the fear, the anger — or the humiliation — 9/11 evoked. We have learned to live with the new normal, yes. But that doesn't mean we've moved past that bright September day of unthinkable horror.

"It's a powerful event which has not been fully absorbed," Lifton says, "and in many ways floats in and out of our psyches."


Times staff writers Richard Fausset, Janet Hook, Jenny Jarvie, Lynn Marshall, Scott Martelle, Charles McNulty, Ann Powers, Maria Russo, Mark Swed, David L. Ulin, Henry Weinstein and Robert W. Welkos contributed to this report.

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