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Jewish World Review Jan. 9, 2002 / 25 Teves, 5762

Bob Greene

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Turning the page may not be the answer -- THESE may be the most dangerous days. And the fact that they don't feel like it may be the most dangerous thing of all.

No need to blame ourselves for this - our attitude is amiably predictable, and very much a part of the American way. We've turned the corner into a new year and have, reflexively, endeavored to put the past behind us; we have resolved to move on, although with new caution. We're doing exactly what we are supposed to do - even our nation's highest elected officials have told us that we should get on with our lives.

The public opinion polls show that we have, for the most part, rebounded from Sept. 11. Most Americans, according to one respected poll, entered the new year feeling optimistic about the months that lie ahead - 8 out of 10 people polled said that they felt more hopeful than fearful about what 2002 holds for them personally, which is nothing short of astonishing, in light of how Americans were feeling not even four months ago. Six out of 10 people polled said that they have confidence about what the new year will bring for the world in general.

The wrap-up stories for the events of 2001 appeared in newspapers and magazines a week ago, as they do at the end of every calendar year; the commemorative books about the attacks on the United States were delivered to stores before Christmas - Americans wanted to remember, and made that instinct part of their holiday gift-giving. Not that there is anything festive about the sight of buildings in flames - it's just that note must be taken of historic national times, and we are so proficient and technologically advanced that we can package and distribute hardcover remembrances of trauma literally before the fires have completely gone out at the site of the carnage.

We are an impatient people, and stubbornly hopeful - combine those two qualities with a new year, and it is perfectly understandable that our every tendency is to close the chapter and look for a happier one. We double-lock the doors now, symbolically; we have learned to be distrustful of something so seemingly simple as a sneaker in an airport. We turn to and honor those who would reassure us: Donald Rumsfeld could recite Casey at the Bat" at one of his Pentagon briefings, and be praised for the presentation. We are the people for whom the phrase "cockeyed optimists" was invented.

So what is wrong with this? What could possibly be criticized about our impulse to put the bad times behind us?

Nothing - in a vacuum. Determined optimism is wonderful - as a concept.

Yet the danger lies in this: Our current enemies are nothing if not patient. In that respect, they appear to be everything we are not. Time? We hate to waste time; they have shown that they have nothing but time - time to spare. We claim to be on full alert? They shrug. They have seen our full alert before. They laughed at it. Perhaps the most sobering and audacious aspect of the Sept. 11 attacks was this: Our enemies chose as their target the World Trade Center - the very target they had hit before. The very target that they had shown us they wanted. Even the Japanese hit Pearl Harbor only once.

The lesson for us? Perhaps that, as we move on, however carefully, we should keep in mind that if we play by the old rules, we are in a foolhardy contest. Perhaps that our fatal mistake will be if we assume that we set the rules here - and thus assume that if we obey and honor our rules, we will be assured of victory, of eternally placid harbors. The polls show we are feeling pretty good. That's a dangerous feeling, these days.

The next column you read here will seem like an attempt to leaven this somber underlayer. It's as lightweight as a column can be - it's about the Regine Schottenstein Diet. I hope it will make you smile. It is a column that was set in type on Sept. 11 and scheduled to be published in the newspaper of Sept. 12 - it is the column that never ran. I've been waiting since then for a safe time to run it - a safe time to run something so light. But if you wait for such a time, you just may end up waiting forever.

JWR contributor Bob Greene is a novelist and columnist. Send your comments to him by clicking here.

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