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Jewish World Review Jan. 31, 2002 / 18 Shevat 5762

Bill Tammeus

Bill Tammeus
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A different feel to my life and to my country? -- IT'S easy to speculate -- but difficult to know -- how America is different because of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.

The quick answers seem too facile. They would have us believe we are more patriotic, more together, more religious, vigilant and caring, more philosophical, generous and bipartisan, more willing to work out our differences without resorting to violence, divorce or simple meanness.

You hear this from many people, including President Bush. On a recent trip to Missouri, for instance, he said this:

"The evil ones hit us and they caused a lot of fright and a lot of fear. But they also caused folks all across our country to search their soul about life. ...

"What the evil ones did is they reminded us that there are things important in life, such as loving your neighbor like you'd like to be loved yourself.... If you want to fight evil, make a contribution to a local charity. Go to your church or synagogue and mosque, and figure out how you can make a community become a better place."

But recent reports indicate not much of that is happening, despite early indications of changes in both attitude and behavior. These reports suggest that people, traumatized by Sept. 11, may have changed some beliefs but their actions have changed little.

For instance, a new survey by Harvard political scientist Robert Putnam says the attacks may have brought Americans closer to one another but they haven't changed what people do. Putnam wrote a book, Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community, published in 2000, that described a decline in Americans' sense of solidarity.

For the book, he surveyed some 30,000 people. For his post-Sept. 11 follow-up study, he re-surveyed 500 of them. His conclusion is that after the attacks on New York and Washington, people trusted government more, were more interested in politics and felt more connected with friends and neighbors. But they haven't done such things as increase attendance at worship services or join community organizations. They haven't, in other words, put their new feelings of concern and vulnerability into much action.

Similarly, a recent Associated Press report looked at various claims about change since Sept. 11 and found many of them were myths.

For instance, first lady Laura Bush says divorce is down and weddings are up since Sept. 11, but the data show just the opposite. And despite a lot of talk about how Sept. 11 drove more young people to join the military, the fact is that even though more people are inquiring about the armed services, the number actually signing up hasn't changed.

All of this tells us a couple of things. One is it's difficult to measure societal trends. But there's also this: Large cultural change happens slowly, even when it seems that dramatic events have altered everything.

Cultural historian Jacquez Barzun, in his recently revised book, From Dawn to Decadence: 500 Years of Western Cultural Life, takes note of the gradual way societies change by not listing many specific years in his text. Rather, he'll mention a century, sometimes telling readers whether an event took place early or late in that century. He does that, he says, because seldom does a single event on a particular date mark a watershed in history.

All these qualifiers about Sept. 11 may well be true. There is, nonetheless, a different feel to my life and to my country. Because my nephew died when the airplane in which he was riding hit the World Trade Center, I'm much more aware of how fragile life is. And I sense that others have been changed by a similar recognition of life's breakabilty.

Members of my family and I experience waves of anger and sadness, but so does the whole nation. And even though social scientists and reporters can't find much evidence of it yet, we're beginning to act differently. Never before would I have written to the parents of the first American soldier killed in Afghanistan by hostile fire. But I did write -- just to say how grateful I am that their son was willing to respond to the evil deaths of Sept. 11.

What we don't yet know is whether a new sense of community, of connectedness, of shared grief and resolve can be sustained. History would tell us no. But with enough will and commitment, we can help write a more humane history of our era.

JWR contributor Bill Tammeus' latest book is "A Gift of Meaning." To order it, please click on title. To comment on his column, please click here.

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Reprinted by permission, The Kansas City Star, Copyright 2002. All rights reserved