Jewish World Review Nov. 16, 2001 / 1 Kislev, 5762
nation begins to cross
The attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon caught the nation by surprise. But what is beginning to happen now was utterly predictable.
It is just forming -- it is being seen, so far, not as a single phenomenon, but as seemingly unrelated incidents.
The scuffle late last week at the site where the World Trade Center used to stand -- the angry confrontation between New York firefighters and New York police officers -- was a part of it.
The brittle exchange between California Gov. Gray Davis and federal law enforcement officials, about Davis' public statements concerning possible terrorist attacks on California bridges -- that was a part of it too.
The growing anger over delays in releasing charitable funds to families of those killed Sept. 11 is a part of it, and the fact that the anger seems more than justified does not change that.
The exasperation felt by some law-enforcement officials over being asked to examine so many letters and locations for anthrax contamination -- letters and locations that turn out to have no connection at all with bioterrorism -- is a part of this. So, too, is the frustration felt by some Americans who receive letters that alarm them, but who can't get anyone to, they believe, take their skittishness seriously.
What we are seeing, almost two months after the attacks on the United States, is something that can best be understood in terms of the human body, not in terms of governance or civics. The end result is the same for a human being or a nation -- but it can be explained by comparing it to what a person in an unprecedentedly stressful situation goes through.
At first the person runs on pure adrenaline -- as so many people did in the days and nights after Sept. 11. The person may feel the responsibility to remain on full alert -- as the nation has been told to do since Sept. 11.
After a while, though, the person begins to feel the effects -- the lack of sleep, the constant vigilance, the sense that this state of things may never end. And the person reacts not by shutting down, not by fleeing, not by turning away -- just as a nation reacts not by losing its sense of patriotism or duty.
What happens to a person, after enough of this, is that he or she becomes irritable and quick to ignite. It's not a conscious choice, and sometimes it catches the person by surprise. There is the thinnest of lines between being on alert and being on edge -- and after enough days and weeks of being on alert, the line sometimes is crossed.
It is being crossed now, and will continue to be. People -- as individuals, and as a country -- are entering that driven-past-exhaustion area of the human spirit in which things begin to snap. The hold-hands-and-raise-money concerts for charity are over; the memorial services have been held; the World Series, as a hoped-for break from the national melancholy, has come and gone. Winter is on its way.
In a country long grown accustomed to wrapping matters up neatly and swiftly, the arrival of winter with the future of the war still unresolved promises only to exacerbate this. If the site in Manhattan where the World Trade Center stood is a mournful tableau, full of pain, today, just wait until it is covered with snow and ice -- and the workers still are toiling away. Then transfer that feeling to America itself, as the realization truly sinks in that not only is all of this not over -- it is barely beginning.
The fact that we were explicitly told this by our leaders, starting with the president, early on does not change things. The fact that our parents and grandparents endured this -- although not with attacks on their home continent -- for four years during World War II does not change things. We knew that. Just as we know that we are not even two months into our war.
The best thing that Americans can do is to look all of this straight in the face as it is
unfolding, and try to accept each step for what it is. People are becoming fatigued, yes
-- as individuals, and as a country. We are beginning to see the manifestations of that.
These will not be ceaselessly polite times. We are not accustomed to limitless
patience and long uncertainty. We'll have to