Rudy and Judi are in Boca. Bulls have been sighted on Wall
Street. Churchgoing is back down, and "Portraits of Grief"
has been retired as a daily hymnal.
The national New Year's resolution is Closure or Bust.
"9/11" is now free to be a brand, ready to do its American
duty and move product. Ground zero, at last an official
tourist attraction with its own viewing stand, has vendors
and lines to rival those at Disneyland. (When Ashleigh
Banfield stops by, visitors wave and smile at the TV camera
just as they do uptown at the "Today" show.) Barnes & Noble
offers competing coffee-table books handsomely packaging
the carnage of yesteryear. On Gary Condit's Web site, a
snapshot of the congressman's own visit to ground zero sells
his re- election campaign. NBC, whose Christmas gift to the
nation was its unilateral lifting of a half-century taboo against
hard-liquor commercials, deflects criticism by continuing to
outfit its corporate peacock logo in stars and stripes.
Though President Bush has been a bulldog in counseling
patience and declaring that the war isn't over, it's not
clear how many Americans believe him. The further our
distance from the World Trade Center - in both time and
geography - the easier it is to forget. This is in part how
it should be. It's inhuman, as well as impossible, to
function on constant alert, to wake up every morning afraid
to switch on the news lest we be ambushed by another
unthinkable catastrophe. But must a return to normal mean a
return to the same complacency and civic fatuity of Sept.
10? If so, that's a pitiful memorial to the 3,000 who were
slaughtered on Sept. 11, regardless of whatever is or isn't
eventually built on the site of ground zero.
A week ago The New York Times ran a detailed history of the
failures of the Clinton and George W. Bush administrations
alike to combat terrorism, including the utter lack of follow-through
on the recommendations of the 1997 Gore commission on airline
security, which might have prevented some of the Sept. 11 hijackings.
Yet the adjacent news article on the same front page revealed that
this sorry history, far from teaching us a lesson, was already
condemned to repeat itself. The Department of Transportation
announced that its "new" standards for hiring airport security
screeners would not require a high-school diploma, allowing
thousands of the existing screeners to stay in place.
The department's motto seems to be: If it's broke, don't
fix it. Never mind that even four months after the attacks,
the state of passenger screening remains such that American
Airlines let Richard Reid board one of its flights but
turned away one of the president's Secret Service agents.
Now we're asked to believe that high school dropouts are
our best front line of defense against the cunning likes of
Mohamed Atta, the recipient of two university degrees.
There has been a lot of talk about patriotism and sacrifice
since Sept. 11, but talk is cheap. Real airline security is
expensive, and you get what you pay for. Congress,
exercising its favorite form of bipartisanship, that which
serves its corporate donors, did hand the airlines a $15
billion bailout in September but it allotted nothing like
that sum to putting teeth into the airline security bill
passed with such fanfare in November.
How fleeting is infamy, after all. Osama bin Laden didn't
make it as Time's Man of the Year, the Taliban have been
routed, been there, done that. We can take solace in the
fact that there has been no major follow- up terrorist attack
since Sept. 11 and so pursue cut-rate security at a leisurely
pace - all the while forgetting another part of pre-Sept. 11
history, namely that the typical interval between Al Qaeda
actions is 12 to 24 months. Contrast the $8.3 billion that
Congress has appropriated to domestic security with its latest
"absolute insanity" (in the words of John McCain) - a dubious
$22 billion slab of corporate pork that it bestowed upon Boeing
in the form of an Air Force contract to lease 100 new wide-body
jets that might be cheaper to buy outright. You can see how much
our national priorities have changed since the day the world changed.
On the home front, sacrifice often seems no more pressing
than in the capital. As Bill Maher has said, supporting the war
effort by plastering flags on a gas-guzzling foreign car "is literally
the least you can do." Yet the new patriotism that was said to be
a product of America's New War often seems to be little more than
vicarious patriotism reminiscent of the pre-Sept. 11 fetishism of the
Greatest Generation. We all applaud our selfless men and women in
uniform, whether at ground zero or in battle, but we are not inclined
to make even a fractionally commensurate sacrifice of our own.
We have no interest in reducing our dependence on the oil from the
country that nurtured most of the hijackers, Saudi Arabia, or revisiting
an upper-brackets-skewed $1.35 trillion, 10-year tax cut to find the
serious money needed to fight future hijackers and bioterrorists effectively.
Among media bloviators, wartime sacrifice is even more of
an abstraction. Many of the same hawks who predicted
American defeat three weeks into the war in Afghanistan,
Democrats and Republicans alike, are now prematurely
declaring that war over so that someone else's children can
be sent at once into what they predict, with undiminished
certitude, will be a slam-dunk battle in Iraq. "The next
time you hear some self-styled patriot, on or off TV,
telling you how easy it would be `to take out Saddam,' "
wrote the commentator Mark Shields of these armchair
generals, "first ask him to give you the names and
hometowns of two enlisted members [of the armed services],
then ask him if he is volunteering his son or daughter for
that `easy' mission."
Just as patriotism isn't the jingoistic bluster that Mr. Shields
punctures, neither is it the new form of political correctness that
has broken out since Sept. 11. In the new p.c., anyone who says
anything critical about the president or his administration is branded
an anti-American akin to the Marin County Taliban. But if Donald
Rumsfeld is good at his job, that's his talent, not a magic spell that
automatically rubs off on John Ashcroft and Norman Mineta.
If George W. Bush has been a strong practitioner of war, that doesn't
elevate his pettier domestic policies, whether an Enron-friendly energy
plan or an inequitable economic "stimulus," to the holy grail or brand
his critics as evildoers akin to Saddam Hussein (as one conservative
group did to Tom Daschle in a recent ad).
The reason all these ersatz forms of patriotism have taken
hold since Sept. 11 is easy to see. There's a vacuum of
leadership in defining what real patriotism might be for
the many Americans who are not in uniform but who came
together on Sept. 11, eager to be part of a national
mobilization even if they weren't packing off to war
themselves. On the domestic front, Mr. Bush's most frequent
call for sacrifice, woefully amplified by a
Marriott-sponsored TV ad to which he lends his image, has
been for Americans to take more vacations. We can only hope
that the book he read over the holidays, Edmund Morris's
"Theodore Rex," will give him a broader vision of what
Teddy Roosevelt Republicanism can be at home. The Democrats
are no better; they snipe at the president's domestic
priorities and offer small- bore programs for the
recession's growing victims without seriously suggesting
that the better-off sacrifice any of the tax cut that
Democrats helped put over the top in the first place.
This is where we were, and it is why our new closure feels
so empty. Rather than visit the new, tourist- friendly
ground zero, a sharper antidote to complacency may be to
travel uptown to a Sept. 11 exhibition at the New-York
Historical Society, where a 25-minute impromptu video of
the attack, aptly labeled "a Zapruder film for our time" by
The Times's Sarah Boxer, runs continuously. The video is
jagged and its images are not suitable for framing. It
plays out as spontaneously as its cameraman, Evan
Fairbanks, shot it. There are no logos, no crawls, no flag
graphics, no network anchors to mediate between the viewer
and the unfolding events - in fact, no sound at all, either
on the tape or from those watching it in stunned silence.
Even jaded New Yorkers are shocked all over again by seeing
hell naked, unexpurgated, stripped of all the branding and slick
packaging that has accrued to it in the weeks since. Confronting
that morning again, you suddenly remember the senselessness of
the slaughter and the hope we had that change, not a return to
business as usual, was what might give it meaning.