After September 11, 2001, how could America not change? And how, after September 11, 2001, could America change? Staying the same and not staying the same are both forms of resistance, of retaliation. The enemy wished to destroy what we were, so let us be exactly what we were; but we were too frivolous and too complacent, and so we cannot be exactly what we were. And yet American frivolity is one of the world's joys, the expression of an unprecedented civilizational happiness. But then we are also at war, and we must remember that our happiness is not a miracle but an enterprise, the creation of values and institutions that must be protected. After what happened in lower Manhattan, then, it is stupid to watch "Sex and the City" and it is stupid not to watch "Sex and the City." Mourning must end, but the end of mourning must not be confused with the end of seriousness. Identity in the wake of catastrophe is always a spiritual mess, a vexing tangle of continuities and discontinuities.
A question should be asked in a way that permits an answer. The question of whether the United States has changed as a result of the slaughter near Liberty Plaza must be formulated more usefully. Changed, with respect to what? The aspect of American life that most urgently demanded to be revised after September 11 was, obviously, the aspect of American security. The ease with which Mohammed Atta and his lethal band planned and executed their attacks remains a scandal. Their freedom of action was not a price of our freedom, it was an abuse of our freedom; and you do not have to be John Ashcroft to think so. (Indeed, it is Ashcroft and his ilk who are impervious to transformation, who find in the crisis only an opportunity to make their ideology into policy.) The quality of the thinking at American airports is a much more pressing matter than the quality of the thinking at American movie studios. Terrorists cannot be allowed to hide behind the American passion for immigrants. And governments, even "friendly" governments, that deal with the inflammations of their own societies by exporting them to Western societies must begin to feel the ire of American foreign policy. Alas, at the Immigration and Naturalization Service, at the Department of Transportation, at the Department of State, and elsewhere, the post-September definitions of American safety do not appear to have altered many assumptions and many practices.
In American politics, the continuities since September 11 have been troubling to some, especially to the president. The refusal of the Democrats to go along with every proposal of the administration has been construed as "partisanship" or worse. It is certainly the case that sometimes the Democrats have disguised political self-interest behind their moral and constitutional responsibility to make their objections known; but it is no less the case that their moral and constitutional responsibility is real. And the White House has not exactly been overwhelmed by a spirit of historical largeness. The sense of destiny that characterized George W. Bush in the weeks and the months after the attacks, that lifted him unexpectedly above his own sorry limitations, was long ago dissipated by business as usual. He liberated Afghanistan and went back to fund-raising. The hollowness of the president, the poverty of his resources for leadership, is plain, and it is "partisanship" to find anything Churchillian in the man. If anything has been continuous in the United States before and after Al Qaeda struck, it has been the mediocrity of our politics.
We are at war with terrorism, and we may soon be at war with Iraq. Will American culture interfere with American purpose? Can we keep our heads amid the mindlessness of American entertainment? For we are being tested in what is not exactly the most intelligent period in our history. It helps, no doubt, that the fevers of "new economy" capitalism have subsided, though the financial havoc that this "correction" has wreaked upon many Americans is a high price to pay for a restoration of sobriety. But more generally it is unrealistic to expect the atrocity of September 11 to transform America into Sparta. Anyway, our calling is not to be Sparta. It is to demonstrate to the world that a more or less happy society can fight for itself, for its people and its principles. To defend ourselves even as we delight ourselves: those are our duties. We should change, or not change, as those duties, and our better selves, demand.
This article originally appeared in the September 9, 2002 issue of the magazine.