Eileen Kiniery had just stepped off a New Jersey commuter train on September 11 when the first of two jets hit the World Trade Center. She is still haunted by the faces she saw pressed against the tower windows over the next hour, the stray limbs and torsos in the street, but she is equally awed by the communion she experienced. When the towers collapsed she joined several others--two Caribbean women, an African-American man and a very pregnant white woman--to flee the flaming wreckage. "I stopped this poor Chinese man in a minivan. He doesn't even speak English, and I'm like, 'Please take us to 34th Street!' He said, 'OK, OK, come on.' The beauty of that day is that we were truly one people."
The beauty of that day. There lies our best hope of prevailing over terrorism. "We're having to rethink everything in our lives in light of the new situation," says Stanford psychiatrist David Spiegel. If history is any guide, the experience may ultimately enrich us--by granting us a common purpose and restoring a long-neglected sense of community.
Anyone would choose peace and prosperity over war and recession. But good times are psychologically treacherous. Americans have achieved an unprecedented standard of living over the past four decades. Yet divorce, teen suicide and out-of-wedlock birth have all exploded during the same period. Getting rich has displaced "developing a meaningful philosophy of life" as a priority among college kids. And the incidence (not just the acknowledgment) of depression has soared to 10 times the levels seen before World War II.
Why should we expect terrorism to counter these trends? Because just as good times can lead to complacency and self-absorption, shared threats foster intense social engagement. Harvard political scientist Robert Putnam has found that community involvement--volunteerism, charitable giving, church attendance, time spent with friends--spikes predictably after a calamity. The effect is usually transient. But when people come together to defend a way of life, the experience can change them forever.
People who experienced the shock of Pearl Harbor spent the rest of their lives voting, giving blood and joining civic organizations at extraordinary rates. It wasn't the sight of smoking battleships that transformed them, says Putnam, but the experience of tending victory gardens and helping the Boy Scouts collect scrap rubber. Average citizens have yet to find such roles in the new war on terror, but we seem to long for them. Six in 10 Americans have given to charities, donated blood or worked as volunteers in recent weeks, according to the National Opinion Research Center. Some 80 percent of the volunteer agencies associated with the Points of Light Foundation report increased participation. And in New York, organizations like New York Cares have seen calls double since September 11.
Could this new spirit survive a long period of hardship and occasional disaster? Ironically, those may be exactly the circumstances needed to sustain it. As New York psychiatrist Alvin Rosenfeld puts it, "A good enemy should be cherished." Children are now reciting and discussing the pledge of allegiance and collecting money to support relief efforts in Afghanistan. Rosenfeld's 11-year-old son, Sam, has played his sax on street corners in Stamford, Conn., to support the relief effort in Manhattan. In peacetime, he might not have dreamed beyond a skateboard.