From violation to enlightenment

An essay on America's mental journey since Sept. 11

It's Sept. 11, 2011.

You can't get a decent ball game or '30s movie on your stadium-seating TV.

The 500 channels are all carrying commentary and discreet advertising to memorialize the 10th anniversary of 2001.

Only "Crossfire" gives half the show to something else, a debate on whether the country is ready for campaign-finance reform.

The saturation coverage misses only one thing: how it felt to be an American in 2001 - and perhaps even grow up a little.

"What, me worry?" Our grin at the beginning of that year wasn't really goofy. After all, we had gotten through an election that shook all branches of government without permanent damage. But heedless began to seem witless amid falling dotcoms, real or rigged energy shortages, and unemployment that was no easier to take when we were told the jobless rate was twice as high in '82. Chairman Greenspan's earlier alarm at irrational exuberance began to seem quaint as we hoped for just a little tap dance now and then.

Forget all the money that Enron, then the world's largest energy trading company, gave to its fellow Texan in the White House. The spectacular bankruptcy would

wind up being investigated for its business and labor practices. But didn't everybody own a couple of shares of some fallen idol in 2001 or, aargh, know someone who sold it early at $84 instead of late at 84 cents?

How piddling all our getting and spending seemed when Sept. 11 broke our hearts with flame and mass murder from the skies. Suddenly our anthem's "rocket's red glare" and "bombs bursting in air" would stick in our throats - and be played wordlessly at a Ground Zero memorial by a sobbing solo trumpet.

More Americans (at least 3,650) were killed in a single day on American soil in the Civil War Battle of Antietam. But the figure of more than 2,300 Americans killed at Pearl Harbor was exceeded by even the mercifully declining estimates of World Trade Center dead or missing (2,940) plus the terrorists' victims at the Pentagon and in Pennsylvania. Then began the toll of anthrax victims.

Of course it wasn't the numbers. Americans in 2001 were becoming newly introduced to the essence, if not the remembered words, of John Donne's 17th-century devotional lines: "Any man's death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind."

America has always had citizens involved in mankind, whether a Clara Barton, who organized the American Red Cross, or an unpublicized Peace Corps volunteer in the African desert.

The year 2001, though, rang in with cries of American "triumphalism," letting the rest of the world and its treaties go by. Even after Sept. 11 and the with-us-or-with-the-terrorists rhetoric, one op-ed blared: "The US goal: unilateral supremacy." But that referred to official Washington.

Americans in general were seen by historians and other close observers that year as looking beyond unilateralism, beyond the isolation of what one called their "continental island."

They were becoming sensitive to others' problems being their problems.

They were realizing that the cold war could really end and a partnership with Russia be invaluable.

The upshot of 2001 was not only the headlined surge in writing wills, adding insurance, buying cellphones, stocking up on guns, putting out flags, ballooning the shares of a smallpox-vaccine company.

Americans also turned or returned to traditional places of worship, at least for a time - drawn to search deeply for consolation, inspiration, and ways to separate spiritual interpretations of religion from murderous distortions of it.

They were showing a fresh appreciation of one another as if conscious of human fragility.

They had a new regard for the demands of national security - and a new cherishing of civil liberties placed in the balance.

They looked back to Sputnik and other developments of the '50s for a comparable impact on education and many other facets of American society.

They waved goodbye to some aspects of the politically agitated '60s, showing a new solidarity with a once sadly distrusted government.

College students lost some rosy expectations, gained an interest in community service, and tried to pursue political debate without seeming unpatriotic.

In short: The violation of America kindled the enlightenment of America.

At the end of 2001 Americans were a little like Civil War photographer Mathew Brady, standing back to place the fallen in a wider view.

The terrorism of Sept. 11 was still at the burning center. But many Americans seemed primed to start doing what was advised by classic humorist James Thurber: "... let's not look back in anger, or forward in fear, but around in awareness."

These Americans were prepared to mend society at home as well as track terrorists abroad.

They understood the links that were being made:

President Bush saying terrorists fund their crimes with drug-traffic profits and challenging Americans: "If you quit drugs, you join the fight against terror."

US Sen. Jay Rockefeller saying: "What one does about unemployment, and how one helps people who are unemployed, is as much a measurement of the fiber of America as how we combat terrorism - terrorism which in fact helps to cause unemployment and lay people off."

Various voices saying every personal step of energy efficiency not only spares a bit of earth's resources for all but shrinks America's thralldom to Middle East oil.

It's as if many people beyond Princeton University were listening and nodding when its new president, Shirley Tilghman, concluded a memorial service for the Sept. 11 victims, declaring, in a spirit of resolve, to honor their memories "in the ways we choose to live our own lives...."

Maybe, looking back today, you even saved that holiday card from 2001 that needed no text: a traditional beribboned Christmas tree ball spangled with stars and stripes.

The commentary in 2011 may confirm or deny whether America's millennial Age of Enlightenment lasted beyond the next Super Bowl. And whether that spangled holiday ball came to symbolize America bestriding the globe, or America picking itself up, dusting itself off, and becoming more a part of it.

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