Living A New Normal

If a nation really did have a collective psyche, right about now America's friends might suggest that it could possibly be time to, you know, maybe see somebody about this? Just think of the stress points. The largest terrorist attack ever, the most deaths by violence in a single day on your soil, the notion of your moated invulnerability exposed as an illusion, the prospect of more attacks to come. The late-dawning certainty that some people in the world hate you enough to die themselves if that's what it takes to kill you. Security and surveillance heightened, free speech strongly discouraged. A president's press secretary warning that Americans "have to watch what they say." (And when that line was left out of the official transcript of his remarks, a spokesperson for the spokesperson explaining it was a "transcription error.") The president exhorting you to get back on airplanes--but doing it from Chicago, since National Airport was still shut down by security experts. Unemployment at a nine-year high and an economy, soaring a year ago thanks to the dot-com bubble, now officially in recession. Even the hero of the hour, New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani, reverting to type: unless the candidates in the current mayoral race agree to a violation of the state's term-limits law and let him have an extra three months in office, he'll unleash electoral chaos. Hmm. Maybe it's time to get away for a little while?

Ever since Sept. 11, America has been doing all the things it can remember from World War II, whether the real one or the Tom Hanks one: standing united, flying the flag, praying, God-blessing itself. It continues to tell itself stories of heroism and self-sacrifice by ordinary citizens: the passengers who rushed the hijackers, the guy who stayed in the building with his quadriplegic friend. And it's got a therapeutic task to occupy itself: making sure Sept. 11 never happens again. Still--and maybe this is our imagination and we shouldn't even say anything, but it looks like all this consensus is starting to fray, just as our connoisseurs of stress could have predicted. (America has grief counselors the way Third World countries have aid workers.) First comes the period of solidarity: blood giving, alms giving and the kindness of strangers. Then people reverting to their old routines, their old personalities, burdened with new information and in a changed environment. Last week downtown Manhattanites who've been barred from their homes since the attack on the World Trade Center shouted down a mayor's aide who wasn't giving them straight answers about when they could return. How long can you keep feeling blessed to be alive?

But of course the notion of a national psyche, of a collective mood--of "America" itself, really--is only a metaphor: a subjective averaging-out of hundreds of millions of psyches in hundreds of billions of moods, as registered in poll results, news reports, Internet rumors and, above all, what people say when they're just talking. What's emerging is a sense that there's no single interpretation of the experience of Sept. 11--and maybe not even a common experience. The "mourning" everybody talks about is all too real for the loved ones of the people who lost their lives in the World Trade Center, the Pentagon and the airliner that went down in Pennsylvania; for more than 99 percent of Americans, it's necessarily more abstract. Supposedly we're all New Yorkers now, yet even New Yorkers who live or work above 14th Street in Manhattan didn't experience the same disaster as people downtown. Most people upwind of the smoke experienced it on television, which soon began providing atmospheric music to lend a little pizzazz to the footage of exploding, tumbling towers in which thousands were dying.

Everywhere you hear reports of people bonding over the disaster. The Mets embracing the Braves at Shea Stadium; Red Sox fans singing "New York, New York" at Fenway Park. Courtney Love wanting to join the Marines and'60s radical turned NYU professor Todd Gitlin flying Old Glory. Even the hard-right wing of the Michigan Militia Corps ("We don't adopt highways, we don't do bake sales," says cofounder Norman Olson) offering the president its help in defending what's suddenly called the Homeland, though for some reason it hasn't heard back. In Congress, the crisis has brought together Bob Barr and Maxine Waters, Barney Frank and Dick Armey--if only in opposition to the Bush administration's, um, innovative approach to the pesky problem of civil liberties. People all over the country report that they're spending more time with their kids. Even America's racial divides seem to be papered over. "From what I can sense," says Sherrie Baver, director of Latin American and Hispanic Caribbean Studies at CUNY, "people are coming together and identifying as Americans." Unless, of course, you're Arab-American. "On Sept. 11, I went out for groceries and there was an Arab-looking clerk," says Austin Brentley, 23, an African-American New Yorker. "There were kids saying, 'Why'd you go and declare war on us, Mohammed? We're gonna f--- you up.' It was awful. They must have been 11."

Those UNITED WE STAND placards and bumper stickers attest to the hopes of the people who display them. But as Sept. 11 gets farther away, the divisions become clearer. A new NEWSWEEK Poll shows 88 percent of Americans still approve of the way President George W. Bush is handling the situation, but that's apt to go down the first time he makes a move--a move we're told about, that is--since only 64 percent support military strikes against terrorist targets overseas that would risk civilian lives. He'll also lose ground if he doesn't make a move. Some 29 percent say they're getting antsy for military action. Just 7 percent think Bush has gone too far already in restricting civil liberties, but close to half disapprove of making it easier to monitor private phone conversations or e-mails; isn't that what the Ashcroft plan is about? Despite the pop-cultural ubiquity of Norman Rockwell's iconic "Four Freedoms" paintings, Americans don't know much about the Bill of Rights: one recent survey found a fifth of all public-school teachers can't name even one of the freedoms in the First Amendment. But they do hate feeling breath on their necks.

Already an appreciable anti-war movement has sprung up, though they try not to make the tactical error of seeming anti-American. (They also shy away from the word "peace"; it's "global justice.") "We learned from Vietnam," says Kevin Dannaher of the San Francisco human-rights group Global Exchange. A lesbian mother whom we'll call Julia lives in the South in an area with lots of military bases; she'll take her draft-age son to Canada if need be. Julia opposes bombing Afghanistan--"We should go in there and kill a bunch of people? I don't believe in an eye for an eye"--but her partner, a police officer, "thinks we should obliterate the entire country."

As dubious as the notion of America in lock step is the idea that Sept. 11 marked the end of the America we used to know. It may have felt that way the first week, but since then the place has been looking more and more familiar. According to that NEWSWEEK Poll, only about a third of Americans think it "very likely" that another, similar terrorist attack is imminent. (That third, however, is buying up those $400 "Desert Storm Special" gas masks like no tomorrow.) Only a third say they feel even "somewhat" less secure where they work or live. And three quarters say their lives have at least started to return to normal. It's possible that we now live in Pod America, a terrorist-infiltrated police state in which all familiar things and people are actually alien replicas. But more likely it's the same old place with the intensity cranked up: two thirds of Americans say getting back to normal makes them appreciate their lives more. And with the same old people: for every hero firefighter, a Yuppie hoarding Ciprofloxacin against an outbreak of anthrax. "We try to talk them out of it," says Dr. Michael Traister, a New York pediatrician. "It's insane. This is fear at work, not medical science. If it was the aim of the terrorists to disrupt our way of life, it looks like it's working pretty well."

In such actual terrorist targets as New York and Washington, as well as such plausible prospective targets as L.A., San Francisco and Chicago, hysteria might actually make some sense. A fourth-grade teacher named Chris Campbell was just four days into his second year of teaching at Manhattan's PS 75 on Sept. 11; he and his wife, Sheryl, lived in Battery Park City and she worked across the street from the World Trade Center. After the attack, they packed up and hightailed it across the Hudson. "It's not the same for you," Campbell said in a quaking voice as he phoned in his resignation. "We're from the Midwest." Manhattanites with second homes in the Hamptons began putting their kids in school out there. Yeah, OK, the Hamptons, boooo. But if you're lucky enough to have a place out of the line of fire, is it wrong to take your kids there? Is it madness not to? By the way, anyone considering getting a passport and just bailing entirely needs to reflect that last week in Switzerland--Switzerland!--a gunman walked into a regional legislature and killed 14 people. So there goes that.

Especially in New York, some people have good reason to be freaked out. Francesco Fiorillo, a high-school teacher in Ossining, half an hour upriver from New York City, says he won't go near a subway, "not unless I see armed security guards there, preferably police, and if not police then the National Guard." What's his problem? His wife, Rose, who works in Manhattan, had just come up out of a station when she heard the plane hit Tower 2. Olivia Lopez watched that same tower collapse from a few blocks away; since then she's scarcely left her home across the river in Jersey City. "To go to a Yankees game or a Mets game, I would just feel anxious. I'm nervous in my own bedroom." But isn't Becky Boyd of Roswell, Ga., overreacting when she says she's not going to any more Atlanta Braves games because "there are crazy people out there"? Plumb silly. Except that since people think Ted Turner still owns the Braves as well as CNN, they might feel even safer going to watch, say, the Arizona Diamondbacks.

In most places in the United States, though, your chance of being killed in a terrorist attack is about the same as that of an iron safe being dropped on you out of a fifth-floor window. (Though of course that's what they must have thought in Oklahoma City.) The money now being spent on bottled water and Cipro might be better spent on Tension Tamer tea or sleeping pills--though in New York, it's not an either/or thing. One Manhattan pharmacist reports that he's dispensing twice as much Ambien as before Sept. 11. Was the recent evacuation drill at New Jersey's Short Hills mall a wise precaution or a knee-jerk reaction? Was an Albany newspaper columnist, as one reader complained, inviting destruction by noting that the city's Empire State Plaza is the tallest structure between Manhattan and Montreal? Only the terrorists know for sure.

So the days go by, and nothing new happens. But news leaks out about what almost happened: a thwarted attack, details unspecified, on Boston. Crop-dusters, as that farmer in Hitchcock's "North by Northwest" put it, "dustin' crops where there ain't no crops." And rumors zipping around the Internet: the supposed "Klingerman virus," on sponges sent to the unsuspecting in blue envelopes. The lines from Nostradamus about twin brothers collapsing in the city of York, or however it went, which turned out to have been devised by some college student who wanted to show how easy it was to fake prophetic rhetoric. Burak Ozkok, the Webmaster of nostradamus-repository.org, says that despite the debunking more than 400,000 different people visited his site on Sept. 13, and his host "had to put the throttle control on because of the load on the servers."

Some people have become fixated on enigmatic lines from songs on Bob Dylan's new album, "Love and Theft." (E.g., "I'm gonna baptize you in fire, so you can sin no more/I'm gonna establish my rule through civil war/Make you see just how loyal and true a man can be." ) "What did Dylan know, and when did he know it?" a Village Voice writer wondered. A photo that has migrated from the Web to the cover of the tabloid Globe all too clearly shows the face of Old Scratch in the smoke from the Twin Towers. To absolutely nobody's surprise, sales of the Left Behind series of Christian end-times novels by Tim LaHaye and Jerry Jenkins went up 100 percent. And Paul Boyer, a specialist in American cultural history at the University of Wisconsin, points out that President Bush himself has appropriated the apocalyptic vocabulary in his public rhetoric. "He has a vision of total evil and total good."

And meanwhile, perhaps to distract themselves from fretting about exactly when the Last Shoe's going to drop, some Americans preoccupy themselves with questions of deportment, attitude, good taste and "sensitivity." The movie and television industries, never too strong in these departments in the best of times, have been hit the hardest. You won't be seeing the romantic comedy "Sidewalks of New York" any time soon. Or the Arnold Schwarzenegger white-knuckler "Collateral Damage," in which a firefighter seeks revenge when terrorists destroy a building and kill his family. Or Disney's CIA comedy (no comment) "Bad Company." Or Tim Allen's "Big Trouble," in which funny bumbling hoods lug a nuclear bomb onto a commuter plane. Sony has cut a World Trade Center scene from "Men in Black 2," and delayed the start of "Tick Tock," about a serial bomber threatening Los Angeles, from December until June, by which time, they must assume, we will have forgotten all about Sept. 11.

It goes on. The scene in the pilot for a TV series called "24," which featured a plane exploding. The movie "Nose Bleed," in which a window washer discovers a terrorist plot to blow up the World Trade Center. "Deadline," in which terrorists hijack an airplane. "Designated Survivor," a disaster movie set in Washington. "Boaz the Great," in which Adam Sandler plays a Mossad agent. The episode of CBS's "The Agency," about a terrorist plot to blow up Harrods in London. The Broadway revival of Stephen Sondheim's 1991 musical "The Assassins," about the likes of Squeaky Fromme. The planned five-part "Law and Order" miniseries on a biological terror attack against New York. Another planned mini-series called "World War III." Makes you wonder if this wasn't an obsessive theme in the culture even before Sept. 11.

It goes on even more. Advertising executive Vince Engel told NEWSWEEK he was writing copy for the Monterey Bay Aquarium's new jellyfish exhibit and realized he shouldn't use the slogan "Where Art and Nature Collide." The whole ad business, in fact, has gone into chronic-worrying mode. Engel says all his firm's clients requested sensitivity checks, and New York's Cliff Freeman & Partners, known for its edgy ads for Mike's Hard Lemonade and Budget car rental, will temporarily tone down the irreverence. As its creative director, Eric Silver, says, "There will be very few airplane jokes."

Halloween, still a month away, is already giving everybody fits. In Madison, Wis., the local zoo's Tunnel of Terror will be renamed the Tunnel of Thrills and Chills; the Paper Warehouse chain has banned graveyard-themed decorations. At Chicago's Comiskey Park, says White Sox spokesman Scott Reifert, "the music that's played and the tone of the game presentation will be keyed down a little bit, just trying to be respectful." We will/we will/soothe you? Ellen Holtzman, arts-program director of the Henry Luce Foundation, says museums "are reviewing their exhibitions to monitor any 'inappropriate' images." MTV yanked a compliment to singer Alicia Keys as "da bomb" from a message board. And the giant Clear Channel Radio organization "suggested" a moratorium on dozens of songs including Bobby Darin's "Mack the Knife," the Beatles' "Ticket to Ride," Billy Joel's "Only the Good Die Young," Peter, Paul and Mary's "Leavin' on a Jet Plane" and "Blowin' in the Wind," the Animals' "We Gotta Get Out of this Place," Tom Petty's "Free Fallin' "--well, you get the idea. Oh yes, and "New York, New York."

Now that's the America we remember: a place with abundant leisure for nitpicking, navel gazing, euphemizing, minesweeping the culture for hidden affronts to tender sensibilities, and gently ministering to bruisable psyches. "I confess that I wince at a lot of the talk I'm hearing these days," Nicole Aragi, a New York literary agent, reflected last week. " 'How can one continue ordinarily with work?' 'Is there any point to what we do?' 'How should we explain this to our children?' Et cetera, et cetera. These are not so much self-indulgent questions as deeply privileged ones." The novelist Barbara Kingsolver published a piece in the Los Angeles Times pointing out that two years ago an earthquake in Turkey killed 17,000 innocent people in a day, and suggesting we might want to rethink the idea that the lives of our citizens are "more worthy of grief and less willingly risked than lives on other soil." But Americans haven't been that interested in other soil. Before Sept. 11, reports from abroad took up only a third as much air time on TV news as they did in 1989. In January 2000, a Gallup poll asked Americans how important the issue of foreign policy was in the presidential campaign: it ranked number 20. In November they elected--sort of elected--a president who'd hardly ever been to Europe.

The note found in the suitcase of the hijacker Mohamed Atta said that "the time of fun and waste is over." Maybe he was simply alluding to the hijackers' un-Islamic last nights of vodka and lap-dances. But it sounded a bit like the lines from W. H. Auden's poem "September 1, 1939" (later disavowed by the poet, but that's another story), which more sophisticated Webheads have been zapping hither and yon in quasi-Nostradamian wonderment: "... The clever hopes expire/Of a low dishonest decade:/Waves of anger and fear/Circulate over the bright/And darkened lands of the earth,/Obsessing our private lives." As the economy heads south, the Special Forces head east and the terrorists head God knows where, sports cars, small-batch bourbons and smuggled Cuban cigars seem a little obscene. And certainly the entertainment industry has been getting with the program. Days before Atta's screed came to light, MTV's CEO Tom Freston spoke to NEWSWEEK in strikingly similar terms of the retrenchment we're apt to see in pop music: "My desire, my problems, my possessions--that kind of party is over." And even the Emmy Awards show, our electronic hearth's annual rite of self-celebration, is putting its bare shoulder to the wheel: business suits, not tuxedos; opening remarks by Walter Cronkite, not Ellen DeGeneres. The celebrities' arrivals will not be televised; instead, a spokesperson explained, there will be "a modified arrival area with a red carpet." This may not do much to mollify folks--all the way from Al Qaeda to the American Enterprise Institute--who thought our culture was getting a mite decadent, but now that we're a nation at war, every little bit helps.