“This changes everything,” I recall thinking as I rode in a Washington Metro car full of scared and silent people on the morning of September 11, 2001. And it did, for a while. We stayed scared (I certainly did) through anthrax attacks and all manner of false alarms that fall. But, looking back, the public reaction—certainly the media reaction—seems overblown. Remember those pundits who, in the grieving wake of 9/11, predicted the end of irony? They’re probably watching Jon Stewart now.
For all its excesses, America is an extraordinarily stable country. The overlooked consolation of terrible, seemingly earth-shattering events like the slaughter in Tucson is that the country is not forever changed by lunatics with guns or even zealots flying airplanes into buildings. The shock wears off; life goes on, altered somewhat, perhaps, but not fundamentally.
President Obama gave a hopeful speech last week calling for a “new era of civility.” And it’s possible that politicians and pundits will tone down their rhetoric, for a time. But as columnist Charles Krauthammer wrote last week, military metaphors are part of politics—indeed, a healthy part. They represent the sublimation of war by politics.
Writing in The New York Times, Yale historian Joanne Freeman pointed out that in the 1840s and ’50s, before the Civil War, congressmen often brought their weapons onto the House floor and sometimes brandished them. Maybe that is why we feel so queasy about the Arizona shooting. All the talk of “Second Amendment solutions” and “don’t retreat: reload!” has a vaguely pre-revolutionary, pre–Civil War air. Could there be real violence in the streets, large-scale clashes between political thugs or between police and protesters? We did, after all, once fight a civil war.
But that was a very long time ago. Since then we have had ominous rumblings. The 1960s felt pre-revolutionary to some. When JFK was killed in Dallas in 1963, the suspicion quickly fixed on right-wing hate groups. But Lee Harvey Oswald turned out to be an addled lefty who had moved to Russia for a time. Later in the decade, rioting students and poor blacks made Middle America fearful. But Richard Nixon was elected, Vietnam finally ended, and the inner cities settled back into their perpetual state of sad neglect.
We tend to look back nostalgically at the good old days and assume things were rosier then. But what good old days? The ’50s, when nuclear war threatened? The ’40s, when World War II happened? The ’30s, with the Great Depression?
And yet the country has rocked along, growing, on the whole and over time, more prosperous, healthier, and safer. These blessings are not inevitable. Think of other countries where riots can turn into revolutions, where women and minorities are oppressed, where there is no equality before the law—just whatever protection your tribe or local strongman can offer.
The United States has highly functioning governments that provide services and security and a court system that metes out justice. Maybe we shouldn’t just take it for granted that the government check is in the mail, that your sons and daughters cannot be drafted, that the police cannot barge in without a search warrant, that you can sue your neighbors, and that all those talking heads—and you on the Internet—can say almost anything you want, thanks to the First Amendment. Maybe we should be grateful.