Americans are doers. They've built skyscrapers, won world wars, put a man on the moon, and constructed the Internet. "Just do it" is a sales slogan, but it defines a bedrock American characteristic.
Thus it is that this new war - one that so far entails watching, waiting, and waiting some more - hangs on the shoulders of people like an ill-fitting suit. Each new case of anthrax exposure, each new government warning that America is at imminent risk of attack, only seems to deepen this unfamiliar sense of not knowing what to do or how to help.
"We have unity, but we don't have action" - and action "is what we have to find," says Michael Birkner, a historian at Gettysburg College. "The more you're engaged in something, the less time you have to worry."
What Americans are being called upon to do - live normal lives - hardly seems heroic. Unlike during World War II, citizens aren't needed to roll bandages for GIs or collect scrap metal to make airplanes.
While he hasn't called for widespread sacrifice, President Bush may be starting to grasp the importance of finding an outlet for individuals' needs to do something more definitive than scrutinize the mail and less drastic than enlist in the armed services or apply to join the FBI. Without that, fear and jitters could predominate, eroding the post-Sept. 11 unity among Americans, observers say.
"History tells us presidents have six months" of wide public support, says Mr. Birkner. "Then people start asking the hard questions."
Presidential history, in fact, does suggest that a mobilized home front is crucial to victory. During World War II, President Franklin Roosevelt pushed for public action. Kids saved aluminum gum wrappers, which were used to build bombs. Older men enforced blackout restrictions. Women worked in factories.
Roosevelt understood a simple fact: "The home front and the war front are absolutely one," said historian Doris Kearns Goodwin recently. She worries that Mr. Bush doesn't fully understand this yet. "Unless the domestic side stays strong, stays powerful," she said, the war on terrorism "will never be won."
A cautionary lesson comes from President Lyndon Johnson's experience with the war in Vietnam. He refused to ask for public sacrifice. He didn't call up the reserves. He wouldn't ask for a war tax. In short, he didn't want to distract the nation from his Great Society domestic agenda. Yet as the war dragged on, dissent grew.
"The support for that war had never been built up," Ms. Goodwin said, speaking last week to the International Center for Journalists. When public support collapsed, Johnson's presidency collapsed along with it.
These days, Bush enjoys wide support. The latest Gallup poll finds 87 percent of Americans approving of the job he's doing.
But if Americans back their leaders during crises, they also chafe at feeling impotent or helpless. President Carter, for instance, got four months of strong public support after American hostages were taken in Iran in 1979. But after a bungled special-forces rescue, people started to worry about his leadership - and about American impotence in general. For Bush, failure to capture Osama bin Laden - or severe special-forces casualties in Afghanistan - could have a similar effect.
The White House recognizes the need to nurture unity. Last week, it talked up the "pledge across America" - in which elementary-school students nationwide simultaneously recited the Pledge of Allegiance on Friday. And many praise Bush for suggesting that American children raise money for Afghan children.
"It's a brilliant stroke," says Christopher Arterton, a political scientist at George Washington University here. For one thing, "it allows parents to put the discussion of what's happening on a different basis than just fear and just saying, 'There are bad people out there,' " he says. "It allows them to say, 'Here's something we all can do.' "
But on security matters, the Bush administration has been reluctant to give people specific marching orders, which is sparking criticism.
"Just saying 'be alert' doesn't mean anything," says Zbigniew Brzezinski, Mr. Carter's national security adviser. He faults the Bush team for publicizing "undifferentiated, vague, general" warnings about impending terror attacks.
"Even if the warning is generalized, [Bush] could have said, 'There are certain things you all can do' " - such as tell authorities about a truck parked in a tunnel, or alert them to unattended suitcases in the airport. "Simple things like that," says Dr. Brzezinski, "would make people feel that they're participating in increased vigilance."
Bush, concerned about the economy, has urged people to shop and travel as usual, in part to prevent further economic troubles.
Yet some Americans are yearning to do more. Some people - especially baby boomers - "are somewhat disappointed that they're not being told to sacrifice," says Floyd Ciruli, a Denver-based pollster. The "shop for America" approach is seen as "not very psychologically satisfying - and dangerous."
One thing people can do is improve their knowledge of the Middle East and South Asia, says Richard Harwood of The Harwood Institute for Public Innovation in Bethesda, Md. He expects that a national discussion about US foreign policy will soon begin. Becoming more informed, he says, is something "people can do around the dinner table tomorrow night."