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Jewish World Review Nov. 7, 2001 / 21 Mar-Cheshvan, 5762

Bob Greene

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The bad news is that
this is the good news -- MAYBE the most telling homefront sound during the war has been the sigh of relief.

Not the actual sound of the nation's relieved exhalation at every piece of reassuring news.

It's the allegedly reassuring news itself that we should think about -- the things that, on the surface, are the cause for America's brief bursts of gratitude.

Because if these things are what we are accepting as good news. . . .

If these things are our current definition of be-grateful-for-small-favors. . . .

If this is what makes us feel better, that in itself is a comment on the national state of mind.

Example: When all Greyhound bus service nationwide was stopped when a passenger in Tennessee approached the driver, slashed his throat and caused the bus to flip, killing five passengers, America waited to find out if this had anything to do with the terrorist attacks on New York and Washington. When it turned out that evidently there was no connection -- evidently this was a disturbed, homicidal passenger acting alone -- there was the sigh of relief. Whew. It's just one guy.

That's what passes for relatively good news, post-Sept. 11: a murderer slitting a driver's throat on a bus and killing passengers. At least he's not working for Osama bin Laden.

Or: When the 1-800 telephone system shut down in the middle of the country one October morning, there was an immediate suspicion that a terrorist network had begun playing havoc with U.S. telecommunications. When it turned out to have been caused by Ameritech software misfunctions, that, too, was greeted with relief. Ameritech's screwup -- which only a year ago would have resulted in anger among consumers -- was now regarded almost with thanks. Oh, it's only Ameritech -- we thought it might be the Al Qaeda.

Last week, when the government announced it had arranged to buy 100 million tablets of Cipro from Bayer Corp. at a discounted rate of 95 cents a pill, that, too, was greeted as an upbeat development. Bayer had agreed to drop its price, and the U.S. government would be able to stockpile those 100 million pills. Good news, as news is calibrated now: an acknowledgment that the anthrax threat is so serious that the U.S. hurriedly has to purchase 100 million doses of medication.

Americans are becoming conditioned to look at each new piece of what previously would have been considered terrible news, and turn it into something sunny. When those heavy, ugly concrete barricades went up around the Sears Tower, and then the John Hancock Center, to provide a buffer against terrorist attacks, I heard from a woman who had seen the barricades and had devised a plan to make them cheery. Her idea was to have schoolchildren decorate the barricades in a peace and love motif.

There is something commendable about that -- about all of this. In dark times, the human impulse is to seek light, and if decorating anti-terror barricades is one way to do this, and giving thanks that a murderer on a bus was just a murderer, and not an enemy agent, is one way to do this. . . .

Well, resilience has always been central to the American character. When Ronald Reagan was shot, his reactions in the minutes afterward set a tone for the country. When he first saw his worried wife, Nancy, he said to her: "Honey, I forgot to duck." When the surgeons were about to operate on him, he said: "I hope you're all Republicans."

That told the country something about their president -- and something about the nation's spirit. Yet what we are all going through now seems quite different, and we are still getting accustomed to it, day by day. There is no training manual.

So when we hear ourselves expressing relief as we are told that a person who has contracted anthrax has "only" the cutaneous kind, and not the inhaled kind . . . when we feel reassured when the postmaster general says he has no plans to shut down the U.S. mail nationwide . . . when we reflect on how fortunate we are that someone in authority quickly ordered all air traffic halted on the morning of Sept. 11, thus most likely keeping more skylines, and more American families, whole. . . .

Good news has become relative. We'll take it where we can find it.

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

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