In the wake of the attack on the U. S. last September, most commentators were of the opinion that a fundamental chord was struck in the collective American psyche, that our value systems were threatened in a way that would force a new sense of solidarity and community. Some even hinted that the attack and our response to it might even break the gridlock in partisan politics in Washington. Dream on!
In my October 2001 essay, “And The War Came”, I suggested that our definition of “normal” had probably changed forever and expressed the hope that we will be engaged in some long overdue examining of the American idea and soul-searching about the degree to which we are truly committed to it.
What has really changed? Of course, there has been a huge outpouring of patriotism linked to unprecedented support for the President’s war policy. There has been an enormously compassionate response to the victims of the 9-11 attack. And there has been the predictable response to the security lapses that enabled the success of the attack. Fundamentally, however, I wonder if we have fully grasped the enormity of the realities exposed to us on 9-11. Have we truly mobilized for the lengthy commitment to the war on terrorism that President Bush has so eloquently defined? Have we come to grips with the low threshold of war casualties that are acceptable to us? Has our collective anger at the attack on us produced the much-needed re-assessment of our values and priorities? Historically, wars have had major cultural transformational impact, on the winners as much as the losers. Think of the enormous American cultural transformations produced by the two world wars of the past century—in the role of government in our lives, in civil rights, in the role of women in society, in economic policy, and in our sense of destiny as a people.
In a recent op/ed piece entitled “Stalemate”, William Schneider writes that nothing has happened since the November 2000 election to heal the divisions of that bitter experience, not even 9-11, because the gridlock is a division over values. He describes the 2000 election as a showdown between Reaganism and Clintonism that has been brewing for almost forty years. The result: a tie. If he is correct, and I believe he is, the unity of patriotism we have witnessed over the past eight months is but a veneer that will be vulnerable to the foundational cracks underneath. In my October 2001 essay, I quoted Lincoln’s phrase in the Gettysburg Address wherein he questioned “whether this nation, or any nation so conceived and so dedicated, can long endure”, and I suggested that, since 9-11, we are again confronted by that question. Interestingly, I just caught up with a February 1999 speech by Charlton Heston in which he used exactly the same question from Lincoln in the context of the cultural war to which Schneider alludes. I submit that we won’t completely know the outcome of the war on terrorism in all its manifestations until we break the stalemate in the cultural war.