The country is more united, and less; more fearful and more secure, more serious and more devoted to American Idol. It is like looking at your child's baby pictures. You know exactly who it is: every feature is both different and the same, despite new expressions, and furrows and knowledge.
Holding two contradictory ideas in your head was supposed to be a sign of first-rate intelligence. Now it just feels like a vital sign. To say we have changed feels like rewarding the enemy, but to deny it risks losing the knowledge for which we paid a terrible price--knowledge about who we become under pressure, in public and private. People talked about living on a higher plane, with an intensity of fear and faith and gratitude, when it was easy to salute and hard to sleep and nothing was bland or phony or cheap. But we could not live there forever; it was like the day you graduate from high school or your first child is born or your father dies--days of power and insight that grab you for a moment and, when they let you go, leave marks on your skin.
What marks can we see now? President Bush says great good may come from the evil that struck, but you need a long lens to bring that hope into focus. We resist the idea that we have changed because so much of the change of the past year feels like damage. Lives have been lost or broken. Whole sectors of the economy are in intensive care. We talk about the need to balance freedom and security, but both have shriveled in the heat of the threat. There seemed to be a spirit of infectious virtue everywhere we turned a year ago; we have since looked from the pulpit to the boardroom to the baseball diamond and wondered if there was an honest man anywhere in sight.
So, having hardened the soft targets and stored some water and a flashlight, we try to move on as though nothing fundamental has been lost, head down the road in our gas-guzzling cars and not mind if there's a checkpoint along the way. The Fourth of July fireworks in Omaha, Neb., this summer culminated first in a proud, fiery, red-white-and-blue U.S.A., then in rockets that formed smiley faces, then peace symbols. Which mood best fits the moment? Berkeley, Calif., the antiwar town, is busy promulgating laws that would ban coffee that's not environmentally friendly. The most popular TV show for the year was Friends--whose Manhattan-based characters, notes Chicago Tribune TV critic Steve Johnson, "never seemed to realize the skyline had changed." Applications are up for both the Marine Corps and the Peace Corps; does that reflect good hearts or bad job prospects?