Redefining Communities

Prior to Sept. 11, President Bush focused on a project to build up communities by reinforcing such values as citizenship, respect, and caring. This "Communities of Character" initiative centered on a few social programs and emphasized compassionate, activist government.

But like so many issues, that initiative has all but dropped off the political agenda. Instead, Americans on their own are participating in community life to a greater extent since the attacks - donating money and blood, going to church, volunteering, and just reaching out to others in need.

One formal piece of the communities of character may have already begun in the "National Neighborhood Watch" suggested by Attorney General John Ashcroft, when he released the photographs of suspected terrorists, asking Americans to keep a watchful eye for these individuals and/or suspicious activities.

Mr. Bush can still outline ways citizens can re-engage with their communities and help the government maintain a high level of security.

Alert, vigilant citizens are a frontline deterrent to terrorist activity. Examples of patriotism can be part of this effort. One was last week's national recitation of the Pledge of Allegiance by elementary and middle-school children. Another is the White House campaign asking US children to send money to Afghan children.

Such efforts can build more authentic communities of character and bind Americans together in ways that strengthen civil society. Walter Berns, a professor of government at Georgetown University and author of "Making Patriots," has pointed out the way Americans have come together following the terror attacks. He said, "It's as if Americans remembered [the Apostle] Paul, 'For we are members, one of another.' "

Vigilance against terrorism may help to "stitch together" Americans, as Bush calls it, into tightly bound communities of character.

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