Former British prime minister Harold Macmillan once began a speech by telling a joke using the allegorical tale of Adam and Eve at the moment they were sent out of the Garden of Eden:
"Don't worry," Adam says. "We are just living in an age of transition."
That line echoes, in a light way, what Americans have been saying in a more serious way since Sept. 11:
Everything has changed.
The pivotal event of 2001 was a bitter apple-bite into an uncertain future. And despite the best efforts of pundits to peer into a crystal ball, the question remains:
Changed to what?
Transitions, like trains, are easier to ride when one knows where they are heading. Otherwise, it's better to peer into the past for guiding examples.
Sept. 11 is not the first time Americans felt a loss of their special Eden - that national feeling of invincibility, freedom, and innocence. Southerners felt vulnerable after the Civil War. All Americans saw a threat after Pearl Harbor and after the Soviets were first into space. (See related story, page 10.)
In the '50s, another shock arrived when a national spotlight fell on racism. Many white Americans, like the mythical Eve, had to admit they had long been deluded into eating from the racist tree. As activists began to fulfill the ideal of equality, pop culture helped, too. Consider, for example, these lyrics from the show "South Pacific," in which Lt. Joe Cable regrets what people may think if he marries his love, the Polynesian girl Liat:
You've got to be taught
To hate and fear
You've got to be taught
From year to year
It's got to be drummed
In your dear little ear
You've got to be carefully taught.
By the late '60s, the nation had turned a corner as the goal to end racism seemed a possibility.
For baby-boomers, the loss of Eden came in Vietnam. They saw a noble cause go awry in a jungle war, even as their leaders lied to them. But they reclaimed their nation's purity in fresh ways. Again, lyrics, such as these from "Woodstock," helped set a new tune:
We are stardust, we are golden
And we got to get ourselves back to the garden.
Americans have a knack for dissolving the appearance of evil with the solvent of goodness and virtue.
In 1991, the "evil empire" of the Soviet Union - as Ronald Reagan so sharply proclaimed it - finally crumbled because America had stood for the principles behind freedom. Communism collapsed under the weight of its weightless lies. It was a system that simply didn't work, even without being called evil.
Today, nearly four months into the post-Sept. 11 "transition," Americans have been asked by another president to join the fight against "evil doers." Those seem like words from a movie or book, like Darth Vader or Lord Voldemort. Such words attach harmful actions to a person, leading to a simplistic response that eliminating a person labeled evil is all that's needed.
But more needs to be done than capture Osama bin Laden. America has shown it can rejuvenate itself after a threat to its homeland or principles, becoming stronger and safer while also helping others.
Liberating Afghanistan was only a first step. It affirmed that no nation deserves to be hijacked by violent leaders to be used as a base for killing innocent people abroad. Now the US and its allies are feeding the Afghans and helping form a democracy.
But wait. Are these actions done out of goodwill or US self-interest? Is the US only trying to prevent further terrorism on itself, or is it also sowing ideals abroad that have sustained it for 225 years?
In all the reactions to Sept. 11, the question must be asked whether Americans just want to rebuild their cocoon or weave a larger safety net for the world with broader acts of virtue.
Is going out to drive and shop "just like normal" the way to beat the fear-mongering terrorists? Or would it be better to sacrifice oil consumption and reduce US dependency on Saudi Arabians, many of whom are taught fanatical Islam? Or should the US somehow persuade Saudi royalty to embrace a Turkey- or Jordan-style Islamic democracy?
To be obsessed with "evil" may only push the US into becoming just another gated country, instead of reaching out in universal ways.
A nation founded on ideals knows that the answer to the dark arts of terrorism is to turn a light on what that nation stands for, and can act on.
Then it will know that Sept. 11 did change everything - for the better.