WASHINGTON - Tom Ridge, homeland security czar (sounds tougher than “secretary”), has a habit of pausing to think before he answers a question. As a rhetorical device, it's dramatically effective.
Mr. Ridge may be boring on occasion, but the pause keeps him from putting his foot in his mouth. While some would quarrel with his turning the war on terror into yellow, orange, and red, he has uttered no gaffes that resonate throughout the administration. Don Rumsfeld, Colin Powell, and President Bush should be so lucky.
So ears perked up the other day when he said that life will never be the same.
Now, I've been hearing that from the President, the secretaries of defense and state, and Mr. Ridge since 9/11. For some reason, I never really got it until Mr. Ridge paused and said it the other day to a group of reporters firing questions at him at breakfast.
As I sit here, marveling that the Banana Republic down the street expects 12 bags of play sand to save it from Isabel's temper tantrum and hoping my 100-year-old frame Victorian doesn't end up a pile of sticks, I keep turning Mr. Ridge's words over in my mind.
Life will never be the same again.
I'd venture that as shattering as that day two years ago was to this country, most of us expected that life would return to normal. Normal is necessary. A hurricane now and then jolts us out of complacency and gets the adrenaline pumping, but we crave routine and the sweetness of everyday, normal life.
When they put their feet up, the candidates zipping around trying to get us angry, excited, and, yes, pumped up, say that they yearn privately for their old routines. In the grueling 2000 campaign, Mr. Bush confessed he missed his pillow. Now, Howard Dean misses his children. Dick Gephardt misses knowing what's really going on in the House. Wesley Clark will probably find that looking in from the outside had its rewards.
Mr. Ridge's sobering words remind us of the Cold War, when we lived with a different threat. Fear of the bomb became normal. Children had nightmares about Russians, who, after Sputnik, seemed as frightening as evil space creatures. Now they are our allies.
After centuries of religious warfare, it is almost inconceivable that we're in another war over religion, this time with radical Islamists. Pollster John Zogby, who has been polling heavily in the Middle East, tells us that, in just 15 months, Arab respect for America, and even its culture and people, has all but disappeared. “They don't like us anymore,” Mr. Zogby said the other day with sadness.
Americans are getting used to airport delays, beefed-up security in public buildings, and even the constant opinion polls that we don't feel safer. We are, however, becoming more leery of losing the civil liberties we have always cherished. After 9/11, a lot of Americans said things like: “Oh, go ahead. Eavesdrop on my conversations. Read my mail. Subpoena my lawyer. Anything - if it will make us safe.”
They're not saying that anymore, because, as they see Attorney General John Ashcroft campaigning for more power, they know that in other countries, the loss of such rights sometimes lasts a lifetime.
But, Mr. Ridge says, we won't ever be truly safe again.
Hurricanes, which oddly now come under Mr. Ridge's bailiwick because giant storms are threats to the homeland, are here today and, thankfully, gone tomorrow. But the terrorists are breeding more terrorists. Al-Qaeda has resumed recruiting, if it ever stopped. Iraqi practitioners of Saddam Hussein's hatred of America are regrouping. Cells of those whom Mr. Bush calls evildoers live among us.
Two years after 9/11, it's still hard to accept that as freedom-craving people, we are hated so intensely. It's even harder to accept that since we started fighting back, millions of people who sympathized with us on Sept. 11 no longer do. Now they view America as an enemy, even “the” enemy.
Those who don't like Mr. Bush's policies blame this on him. Others blame it on America's unique place in the world, noting that all the great civilizations inevitably had enemies. But are we really ready for “life will never be the same again”?
Two years after 9/11, we have become more realistic about our place in the world, less naive, more resourceful and more ready to see the nuances and the consequences of what we do and say.
But this country is not about worrying that life will never be the same. It's about being determined that the future will be better, that we will achieve and succeed despite the evil that men and nature do, that life is always worthwhile. Pause. There is no other way to think.