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Jewish World Review Oct. 8, 2001 / 21 Tishrei, 5762

Michael Long

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A little hindsight

A letter for readers in the future. -- October 7, 2001

Dear Friends,

I can't know what history will record about the American attitude in the days after September 11, 2001. The academics of the future might not get it right; after all, history is often rewritten for purposes other than memorializing the truth. So here's a record addressed to whomever in the future cares to read it. Your books will turn our days into a historical narrative within some larger context, but that perspective is not all you ought to know. Here's what it's like in the moment, speaking for those of us who are living it.

We're regaining our composure from the attacks of 9-11-that's what we call it, ironically reminding us of the emergency phone number. It has taken about a month to begin to feel normal again, though few of us have regained much enthusiasm for flying. But we're doing that anyway, too.

Don't let any self-hating history teacher tell you that 9-11 was anything but an "attack." It wasn't the cry of a disenfranchised people, or the end result of U.S. foreign policy, or the desperate act of men who had exhausted discourse. It was an act of war carried out by men so evil that they trained their violence solely on civilians, and then bragged about it to the world while their friends fired celebratory shots into the air and threw candy to children in the street.

In the hours after the attack, we were terrified. We didn't know what was coming next, and it was clear that the government didn't have much of an idea, either. We all pretty much agree that it was wise for the President to stay out of harm's way by flying to Louisiana and then to Nebraska; he might have been a target, and we couldn't afford to lose our leader, especially for the sake of making a macho stand on the White House lawn. We were face-on with the unknown, and we didn't know when the terror would end.

A month out, fear has given way to anger, and anger to steely resolve that manifests itself as the proudest patriotism that anyone living has seen since the Second World War. There are flags everywhere, absolutely everywhere. People buy little cotton flags on sticks and then tape them to their car radio antennas. We post flags in the back windows of our cars, too, and every fourth or fifth flag you see is a drawing of flag made by a child. The popular slogan at the moment-written on bumper stickers, posters, websites, buttons-is "United We Stand." A few years ago, this was the motto of a growing third political party. Now it's a motto for everyone.

We expect to win this war-a war that seems like a cross between a police action and a nightmare. We also understand that losing would not be an event but a perpetual and terminal condition. Our land won't be overrun, our government won't be deposed, and our leaders won't fall to a coup. Instead, every one of us will live in low-grade fear every day of the week that some bad guy will blow up the grocery store; that our plane will be blown out of the sky; or that a crop-duster will unload anthrax spores into the air. To lose would be to resign ourselves to life as the western outpost of middle eastern routine, where getting killed in a random attack is a hazard of getting up in the morning.

Are we on the brink of World War III? It doesn't look that way, but it seemed more possible in the days just after the attack, and such an outcome was surely the strategy of the terrorists. They sought to incite us into a rapid and careless response that they could first portray as an attack on Islam, and then leverage into a quickly realigned world of Muslims versus everybody else. (And now that our retaliation has begun-just today, with bombers over Taliban strongholds-Osama bin Laden called explicitly for the world to align itself into believers versus non-believers in Islam. But he's too late. We've already divided the world into believers and non-believers in civilization.)

We didn't fall into the trap. And everyone agrees that a good part of the credit goes to the strong leadership from the White House. By the way, did you know that up until the attacks, President George W. Bush was relentlessly portrayed in the news and entertainment media as an immature simpleton?

Not anymore.

We're proud of our leaders, and we're starting to remember why we have every right to be proud of our nation and ourselves, too. Americans have spent the last three decades so numbed to the concept of right and wrong that many of us wondered if a majority would have sense left to stand against even a frontal assault such as 9-11-or if we would be overwhelmed by the "blame America first" crowd. But the verdict is in: we are standing together for the right thing as never before.

Can anything good from this horror? I think so. Only time will tell-that is, you know what happened and I still don't-but I believe we are headed toward a world in which civilization more readily stands against barbarism. I believe we are honoring the dead by acting on the fact that there is a time to stand on differences and a time to stand on what we hold in common. And I believe we have entered nothing less than a new American era in which truth and discretion once again have a place at the table. There is some good coming out of the bad. We're thanking God for that-we're thanking Him for a lot of things lately.

It is October 7, 2001 in America, and we are still standing. Right here. Right now.

All the best,
Michael Long

JWR contributor Michael Long is a a director of the White House Writers Group. Comment by clicking here.


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08/17/01: First Amendment: Chickens home to roost
07/27/01: Dispatch From The Front: The Gun Control War
07/20/01: Summer song
07/03/01: It's a Wonderful Recount

© 2001, Michael Long