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Tuesday, September 16, 2014
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Published: Sunday, 10/2/2005

Lessons and truths emerge from two September disasters

In September, 2001, a band of Islamists hijacked four planes, rode the winds, and changed America. In September, 2005, natural forces of wind and rain flooded America. Which September disaster ultimately was more important?

Let's not pretend that the question has any one right answer; we can't know right now, for example, whether the al-Qaeda attacks were the first of many, just as we can't know whether Katrina and Rita will have a mess of threatening siblings. But looking at the lessons of two Septembers tells us something about the President, the people he leads, the nation's culture, and the way we ought to approach the future.

No one who lived through these two Septembers can doubt that our definition of security is broader than it was in the last century, when the phrase usually was employed to describe our efforts to protect ourselves from the very clear, very present danger posed by Soviet communism. That threat is gone and so, too, is that conception of security. Today we regard security as a synonym for safety - and where once we regarded safety as the purview of the family and maybe the police and fire departments, now we think of safety as the responsibility of the federal government.

That is a jarring conclusion, coming as it does in a period when five of the last seven presidential terms have been served by Republicans who came to power after the party positioned itself as the aggressive skeptic, rather than as the benign sponsor, of big government. But now more than ever, we expect the federal government to protect us - to intercept menacing individuals with bombs or hijacked planes and to provide barriers and shelter from menacing waters. Big government got bigger awfully quick.

The two Septembers also provide insights into the character of George W. Bush. Critics deride his initial response to the terrorist attacks of 2001 but hardly anyone disagrees that after the initial shock he showed decisiveness, leadership, and resolve. It was even possible to think that the crisis prompted by Sept. 11 gave the President a sense of personal mission that he lacked. The lag between crisis and response this September, however, was far greater, and the result is that the White House now has a political challenge along with a rebuilding challenge. That's a two-front war, and the two fronts require different tools.

Both crises presented Americans with a fresh sense of vulnerability. That's a relatively new idea in American life. Buffered by ocean masses - the same natural formations that, ironically, spawned Katrina and Rita - the United States has enjoyed a sense of separateness. No longer. The oceans have always been sources of danger, but now we feel the threat more intimately. The oceans have always kept us safe from the madmen of Europe and Asia, but now we feel the threat from the aggrieved more urgently.

The two threats of September delivered different messages about our own society and culture.

The attacks of 2001 underlined our common fate; the victims were rich and poor alike. The terrorist attacks created a sense of unity, reminding us that (and this is why any metaphor in this column is dangerous) we were all in the same boat.

Not so the hurricanes of 2005. This year the victims are predominantly the poor and the striving. It was they whose homes were the most brittle in the grip of the storm, they whose options for fleeing were the most limited, they whose chances for starting anew are the most fragile. We were in it together in 2001. We are in different boats, if we are in boats at all, in 2005.

There have been four-year periods of enormous stress many times before. The years 1861-1865 tested our survival as a nation. The years 1941-1945 brought into question whether democracy itself might perish in the conflagration set by the tyrants of Europe. The years 1929-1933 provided a sober test, bringing into question whether capitalism itself might perish in a world where centrally managed economies brought brutal efficiency and rapid recovery.

But the years 2001-2005 have had terrorist attacks, killer hurricanes, economic distress, a war in Afghanistan, another war in Iraq, huge swings in national mood, political polarization, growing dissent, bitter religious struggles, frightening scientific prospects, and wildly fluctuating energy prices. That's a lot. The human psyche has more shock absorbers than we thought back in the halcyon days of 2000.

In truth we may never know whether September, 2001, or September, 2005, left effects that were more enduring than the other. Indeed, almost certainly the effects of the one will be subsumed in the effects of the other, reshaping Americans, changing our perspectives, affecting our world views. But it is certain that the truths we found in the rubble of Manhattan and Washington and the ones that were revealed once the hurricane flood waters receded will be with us for a long time.

We know now that we want swift and personal leadership from Washington, even in an era when we have been told we are to rely less on Washington. We know now that we crave security, and that there is a curious logic to the phrase peace and security that we might not have discerned in quieter and dryer Septembers. We know now that a sense of peril is communal but that real safety is individual - and that disasters are just as likely to underline the disparities in our society as to they are to sow unity in our society. We learned these things - these lessons we should have realized before the fires of 2001 or the floods of 2005 - because we had to.



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