America anxious on many fronts

News of corporate malfeasance and terror threats have public on edge.

The summer of 2002 is turning out to be an uneasy time for many Americans, as they watch corporations implode, listen to too many cases of child abuse by clergy, and wait for the inevitable next big event in the war against terrorism.

Only a few months ago, the nation's mood seemed to be recovering from the events of Sept. 11. First-quarter reports showed a renewed vigor in the economy. The public was standing solidly behind a united government. Airline passengers had rallied to overpower a man with a bomb in his shoes.

Now, the word some pollsters use to describe America is "somber." Faith in leaders has dipped slightly, and uncertainty about the economy – seen especially in the downward spiraling stock market – is rampant. There is a pervasive sense, unusual in recent times, of marching onward into the unknown.

The nation's current insecurity "is very deep because it involves fundamental relationships that have been stable and flourishing," says University of California historian Kevin Starr. "When was the last time you heard of a scandal with an accountant?"

To some extent America's current attitude represents a snap back from the emotions generated by last year's terrorist attacks and their immediate aftermath. The rally-'round-the-flag effect has dissipated somewhat. The war in Afghanistan, which seemed such a spectacular demonstration of American military efficiency, has sporadically continued, while Osama bin Laden remains at large.

And the government's continued warnings that another attack against the nation will surely come has worn down people's expectations for the future. In January, a CBS poll found that almost 40 percent of Americans judged that the war on terrorism was going "very well." Earlier this month, an updated survey found only 13 percent of respondents feeling the same way.

Belief in the nation's political leaders remains relatively high. President Bush's approval ratings have fallen significantly in recent months, but are still in the 70 percent range, for instance. It is corporate leaders whose standing in the United States has fallen off a cliff. A recent Fox News poll found that respondents had less confidence in the nation's business elite than in any other institution. Even the Internal Revenue Service and the news media ranked higher.

"In the aftermath of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, Americans reacted with a great deal of determination and elan.... Now the public mood is decidedly less upbeat," concludes a recent Gallup poll analysis.

The seeds for national uneasiness were actually sown before last fall, according to some opinion analysts. The election of 2000, decided in the end via a US Supreme Court decision, left many voters with a feeling that one of the fundamental institutions of US society – democracy – had been found wanting.

Now that some corporate leaders are turning out to be less ethical than they appear, there is an echo effect, as another institution of long-standing probity comes in for questions.

"A lot of our touchstones have been shaken," says Denver-based pollster Floyd Ciruli.

One strange aspect is that faith in the economy has been shaken at a time the economy itself continues to recover from recession. The problem is one of both symbolism and stockholding, say experts. The collapse of Enron and other firms makes Americans believe that no corporation may be safe. And stockholding is now so widespread that many are worried the next WorldCom may be a firm in their own portfolio.

Chicago-based outplacement specialist John Challenger goes so far as to talk about a national period of "purification" that may be following the economic bubble of the 1990s.

"We're all implicated," he says. "We were all envying our friends who went to dotcoms, and trading stock tips, or wishing we were."

Thus the current period may be similar at least in attitude to the 1930s, after the stock market crashed – though the nation is still far from a Great Depression.

Others compare it to the Progressive Era of early in the 20th century, when Teddy Roosevelt and other reformers decided that business as an institution had gained too much power, and that the federal government needed to develop the power to counter corporate excesses.

"We have periodic episodes in our history where the economy busts a gasket," says Michael Birkner, a historican at Gettysburg College in Pennsylvania. "Somebody really finds a way to manipulate the system not to the advantage of the average investor. This is one of those times."

Scandals involving the Roman Catholic church and abuse of children by priests have only added to a sense that institutions respected for centuries have come loose from their moorings.

Against that background, even more minor news stories have caused the nation to react with uneasiness. Airline pilots are generally admired – yet recently two were hauled from the cockpit, drunk, as they prepared to take off. Baseball's All-Star game is generally an innocent midsummer diversion – and this year it ended in a bizarre tie, amidst booing by the spectators.

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