Wednesday, February 26, 2003

As you no doubt recall, it was common, in the months following 9/11, to hear people remark, "Everything changed." The date became something of a particle, in the grammatical sense, as teenagers use "like." "After 9/11, I believe I'll have the steak and cheese," is almost the sort of non sequitur one heard. It became so much of a cliche to speak of 9/11 and "things changing" that a lot of writers began to suspect it was all poppycock.

The value of 9/11--if one can use so inappropriate a word in such a context--lay in its ability to throw the mundane and the obvious into sharply contrasting relief. Few people, for a brief moment, had any difficulty whatsoever telling right from wrong. The feckless and the facile among our public figures looked feckless and facile. Susan Sarandon and Mike Farrell were getting invitations to events to raise money for firemen, not debates about war on Face the Nation. People were kind to each other on the highways, realizing that driving like a selfish bastard almost inevitably meant becoming a selfish bastard in other parts of life. Humor, when it apeared at all, was gentler with each other, though more brutal toward our enemies. Indeed, for a time, one could use the word "enemy" without irony: the only two sides to the conflict with terror were "right" and "wrong." Moral imbeciles like Robert Fisk still appeared occasionally on NPR, but the self-parody was obvious.

Millions of people who had not been inside a Church in years went, and stayed, and found the consolation they were seeking. The materialists will explain this as mere superstition, as evidenced by the fact that most of those who did so have stopped going. This is certainly possible. But it is at least as probable that the jarring nature of 9/11 briefly woke them from their stupor, but as life returned to "normal" (Is there a color on the scale for that? Is there a Code: Gray?), the conditioned responses of a lifetime of complacency dulled the clarity, as the immediacy of child-rearing dulls the remembrance of the pains of birth.

It seems perfectly true that "everything changed on 9/11." But now, even with duct tape and plastic sheeting, and friends in the Gulf wanting either to fight or come home, it feels like almost all of it has changed back.


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