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An unreal response


HOW WE'VE changed, and how we haven't:

A year later, Sept. 11 has saturated our consciousness. It's a background hum, something that's always there.

The airplanes hitting the towers and the Pentagon went from unbelievable to unforgettable, from seeming impossible to seeming inevitable. And then the long mourning began. It continues.

But for the moment, we are not (despite all the claims to the contrary from the Bush administration) at war. We faced and won a fairly limited conflict in Afghanistan, and though there is much left to do there, including participating in the occasional firefight, there is no war being waged.

We have not attacked Iraq, though the administration repeats, every day, that we're about to. And there is no war on terrorism, no military action against al-Qaida or other groups, being prosecuted by the United States anywhere in the world, with the exception of the occasional skirmish in Afghanistan. But, of course, one supposes there are intelligence operations going forward and that military operations may follow.

Nevertheless, the currently fictional "war on terrorism" has led to a profound change in the way the United States is governed. Certainly the most concrete shift in the lives of most of us has been in security arrangements. We are checked, identified, searched and herded to a greater degree than we were previously, perhaps more than Americans ever have been.

And though some of this is understandable or necessary, the government has also claimed broad new powers, commensurate with the claim that we are at war. Americans and others have been held without charge or counsel. The government has instituted new surveillance of communications. Attorney General John Ashcroft, Homeland Security Director Tom Ridge and the defense establishment have emerged as centers of unprecedented government power.

They can assume such powers because of a new mood of patriotism, not to say xenophobia. The University of North Carolina has been reviled for suggesting that its incoming freshmen study the Quran. My yoga teacher's neighbor reported him to homeland security, perhaps confusing a South African Hindu pacifist with a Middle Eastern Islamic terrorist. And the neighbor reported -- on what basis or to what point is not clear -- that the house was being frequented by Canadians.

We underwent the still-unsolved anthrax attacks, and the FBI not only leaked that scientist Steven J. Hatfill was a suspect, but agents showed up at his house with the media in tow, presumably in order to publicize their effectiveness. The propaganda effort seems to have backfired.

We've faced an economic struggle. That may have as much to do with folks like Martha Stewart as folks like Osama bin Laden, but the attacks are surely a factor. Sept. 11 has contributed to a mood of uneasiness and insecurity that has affected investments and had direct effects on certain industries, such as energy and travel.

The expansion of government "homeland security" and defense programs, an economy in recession or slow growth, and a tax cut have returned us to deficit spending.

In the first few weeks, many people speculated that American popular culture might change, that people wouldn't tolerate so much violence, so many explosions. But the entertainment industry is right back where it was, and we might actually expect a new generation of movies in which well-muscled behemoths such as Vin Diesel battle skinny bearded clones of bin Laden.

The single biggest step that could be taken to increase our real security -- peace between the Israelis and Palestinians -- seems further away than ever, and fundamentally out of our control. Indeed, the political situation in the Middle East has not changed in any fundamental way, and we are having a surprising amount of trouble enlisting support in the Arab world.

A year later, the flags and stickers that appeared last year are fading and tattering. But flags and the repression of yoga teachers are not enough as we emerge from the backlash and pride into an enduring and real response.

Crispin Sartwell teaches philosophy at the Maryland Institute College of Art. He can be reached at

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