Return to Normalcy

Struck, but not conquered, Americans will get back to business

"We are going to wake up tomorrow a different country," CNN's Jeff Greenfield declared Tuesday night. "Our luck has run out." Greenfield, who noted that the Empire State Building is again New York City's tallest, was speaking not only of the physical landscape, but also of America's mental maps. "We will not get on an airplane the same way again, we will not feel the same way about security again," he added.

Greenfield's points could be heard from countless commentators trying to grapple with the September 11 attacks. "The world has just changed today," said Democratic spinmeister James Carville. "Everything that was before today is going to be different tomorrow."

These observations are certainly correct on one level, and the pain of the day's violence will only become more extreme over the coming days, as the names and life stories of the victims become known. There's no longer any doubt that many capable and powerful people hate America. As someone scheduled to board an airplane heading to the West Coast this Friday evening, I can confirm that the psychology of flying has changed.

So too has the dynamic of federal politics. Before 8:45 Tuesday morning, Washington policy makers were engaged in partisan battles over issues of Social Security surpluses, lock boxes, across-the-board spending cuts, and capital gains tax cuts. By midday on Tuesday, with the Pentagon in flames and the Twin Towers reduced to rubble, lawmakers had put all the bitterness behind them. I'll be surprised if anyone complains when the lock box is opened to pay for a beefed-up military and intelligence establishment.

Yet, except for the devastating loss of life, these are all changes of degree, not kind. Even the psychological burden of feeling ever vulnerable to attack has a precedent in the Cold War, with omnipresent and credible threat of imminent nuclear annihilation lasting through the 1980s. The brute fact is that daily life in the United States will not change significantly in Tuesday's aftermath. Adults will get on with their work, students with their school, children with their play. Churches may be a little more crowded in coming weeks, and airplanes a little less. But we'll move on, even as we mourn.

This is as it should be. To the extent its message can be discerned at this point in time, the attack was a generalized assault on the freedom the United States represents-as much an attack on consumer capitalism as it was on U.S. foreign policy. To restrict that freedom would be to surrender to terrorists. There is already a call for reinstating the draft. Proposals to restrict encrypted communications and give the government more power to monitor our financial lives are sure to follow. One particularly gloomy commentator predicts we'll soon be carrying national identity cards. There's reason to hope he's wrong. As Reason Editor-at-Large Virginia Postrel notes, both politicians and commentators have taken pains to talk up the importance of protecting our civil liberties as we pursue justice and guard against future attacks.

I just got a call from my friend in Seattle, who'll join the ranks of married men this Sunday. He wanted to know if I was still planning to fly out for the ceremony. I asked whether he'd thought about postponing it. "Hell no," he said. "That's what they want us to do, change our way of life. I'm getting married on Sunday, just as I was before."

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