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Jewish World Review June 14, 2002 / 4 Tamuz, 5762

Bob Greene

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We act as if they are people separate from us | As you will recall, one of the most frequently voiced questions after the attacks on the United States last September was this one:

Will Americans keep their resolve for the long term? Will the spirit of unity that swept the country on Sept. 11 and the days after sustain? Will we stand together, for as long as it might take?

You can find the answer -- or at least an answer -- to that question in the following series of other questions. Read this list -- all of these are questions we have heard repeatedly in recent months -- and see if you can figure out what the common thread is. And why that common thread is significant.

- "What are they going to do to make our airports safer?"

- "What are they planning to do to find out where bin Laden really is -- do you think they really have the slightest idea?"

- "What did they know about possible hijackings before Sept. 11 -- and why didn't they tell us what they knew?"

- "When are they going to make some arrests in the anthrax investigation -- and why are they taking such a long time to find out who mailed those letters?"

- "Do they really think the war effort is going the way they want it to -- are they as confident about their chances of success as they say they are?"

- "Are they worried that, with all the restrictions on individual freedoms in the name of national security, they are edging toward becoming a police state?"

All right -- did you find the connective thread?

It's this:

The word "they."

It appeared in all of those sentences -- in all of those questions, questions Americans keep asking -- and the "they" refers to the government.

But our government -- our democracy -- was founded on the principle that there is no "they." The bedrock foundation of a representative government is that "they" are us -- that the government is us, that we the citizens elect and delegate our leaders to stand in for us and act in our behalf. We're not their subjects; they work for us. But even that is not quite right; they work for us in the sense that they are paid with tax money, but they are not so much our employees as our delegates. They and we are the same.

Except it hasn't seemed that way for a long time. Such a chasm has grown between elected officials and the citizens who elect them that many citizens consider their official representatives to be, if not their opponents, then certainly their presumed antagonists. Same for the heads of departments who are not elected, but who are put in place by those who are elected -- often, in the public mind, there is deep suspicion and cynicism toward what is regarded as a ruling class.

Put aside for a second whether there is any truth at the base of that kind of suspicion; that's not what these words are about today. What is at issue is what the country was like in the days just after Sept. 11 -- and what the country is like today, almost nine months later. An argument can be made that we have drifted back to what, and who, we were before, and you can see it in the constant use of that word -- "they" -- to describe the men and women we have delegated to represent us.

Whatever wall might have been torn down in September -- the massive, if invisible, wall that has for so long separated the governors and the governed -- it is now back up. This might not matter if the United States were just like most of the other countries around the globe -- if every country proclaimed that it believed in the things we do.

But that's not the case. We are the ones who are always telling the world how proud we are of our democracy, of our history of electing men and women from among us to lead us and speak for us. We are the ones who always signal that there's no "they" in this country -- that the glory of America is that we ask our fellow men and women to serve us, to be our voice. Maybe we didn't even much notice how the "they" theory had taken over, until that September day -- maybe we didn't notice how over the years we had gradually lost the conviction that our leaders were really just us, until we desperately needed them to be us at our very best.

In the hours after the September attacks, when the members of Congress stood shoulder to shoulder -- party affiliation meaning nothing -- and, as if by instinct, sang "G-d Bless America" . . .

Poignancy aside (and the there-are-no-atheists-in-foxholes truism way, way aside), it was a small moment that felt large. They were us again -- they were fragile, determined, afraid, angry, human, prayerful, small, huge, humble, resolute, shaky, magnificent. . . .

There was no "they" in those first days. We didn't have the luxury. We were them and they were us.

Now -- perhaps it had to be -- the they is back. You hear it in every question. What are they going to do about this mess? We demand to know.

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JWR contributor Bob Greene is a novelist and columnist. His latest book is Once Upon a Town: The Miracle of the North Platte Canteen. (Sales help fund JWR). Comment by clicking here.

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