“America has changed” has been the media’s new mantra since September 11. But what has America changed into? Reporters have fanned out across the country seeking those changes, and they have filled the airwaves and pages with their findings. Some who have been interviewed talked in the abstract about how they do not take as much for granted now. Others say they have become more spiritual; still others claim they have drawn closer to their loved ones. Many have remarked on the swelling patriotism within the country and how unified we all seem.
Whether or not America will truly “change” is a question to be answered in years rather than news cycles. But an AP story written by Ron Kampeas may show that the media is simply indulging in wishful thinking.
Americans are not joining the military in increased numbers, according to the Pentagon; nor are more of them going to church—unless you count mosques. Laura Bush told a group of New York women that “Divorce cases have been withdrawn at higher rates and more people are buying engagement rings and planning weddings.” But in Reno, Nevada, the “Marriage Capital of the World,” there has been an 11-percent drop in marriage-license applications since September 11. Murder and theft have increased in Washington, D.C., and Denver. An alleged post-September 11 baby boom, Kampeas argues, is just an “urban myth.” According to a survey by advertising network Euro RSCG, 36 percent of American women who have dogs are spending more time with them after September 11. Only 20 percent are spending more time with their husbands.
September 11 could have caused this country to change, because it was the kind of sudden event that often leads to shifts in historical and cultural currents. The first armed attack by foreigners upon the continental United States since the War of 1812 and the destruction of the country’s two largest buildings, right in the heart of its financial district, should have caused people to stop what they are doing, look at themselves, and look at their country. Such a horrible event could have cause the citizenry to demand of our elected leaders different policies on immigration, abortion, and America’s role in the world, and should have caused us to realize the effects of U.S. foreign-policy decisions and to rethink a government so big that it couldn’t prevent 22 terrorists from slipping into our country unnoticed and hijacking four planes to use as missiles. It could have caused the public to take a hard look at this country’s institutions and ask >if they are worthy enough to pursue justice for the deaths of so many innocents—and if not, how they could be reformed to be so.
But before that could happen, President Bush told the citizenry that he wanted their lives to return to normal, and the media joined in his efforts. It became our patriotic duty to “go back to normal.” The terrorists would win if we didn’t become “normal” again. So how can we have changed if everything went back to normal? Your guess is a good as mine, but it seems that the public took the President’s words to heart. And normal before September 11 was divorce, abortion, birth out of wedlock, political correctness, illegal immigration, multiculturalism, murder, empty pews, drug abuse, an overstretched military, corruption, casinos, Enron ripping off its stockholders, the United Nations, Howard Stern, Britney Spears exhibitions, 500 channels, ESPN, Wal-Mart, and The Jerry Springer Show. If President Bush was so eager for the country to return to normal, he obviously didn’t find much wrong with it before September 11.
Don’t expect the subsequent war on terrorism to change much in America, either, unless it turns into an utter disaster. Once upon a time, the nation literally did go to war. Millions were mobilized into the Armed Forces, millions more went to work in defense plants, and millions more had their food and gasoline rationed, bought war bonds, saw sporting events cancelled, gave up luxuries and travel, and participated in civil defense. Scientists, businessmen, lawyers, journalists, celebrities, and plowmen all played their parts in the war effort. Such mass mobilization of the American people was bound to affect culture and values in any number of ways—perhaps mainly for ill. We would not have had a civil-rights movement without World War II; we would not have had astroturf without the Korean War; and Muhammad Ali would have been just another heavyweight boxer without Vietnam.
Since Vietnam, we have left war to the professionals. While the results have been officially positive (we haven’t been defeated since), wars have lost whatever cultural meaning they once had. An all-volunteer force means that most Americans will not have to worry about the loss of a loved one in battle; they can just follow the war from their TV sets or computers as if they were watching a sporting event: the United States versus the Taliban (or Somalia, or Iraq, or Shangrila, if it happens to harbor terrorists). Most Americans will not have to worry about all the disruptions wartime caused for previous generations, unless some fanatic decides to detonate a nuclear warhead in downtown Chicago.
We no longer even declare war. Our elected representatives in Congress just pass a resolution in support of the President’s policy and then go back to their main interest of dividing the take. It’s a nice little technicality that allows us to avoid the Geneva Convention when we’re dealing with Taliban prisoners. Lebanon, Grenada, Libya, Panama, the Persian Gulf, Haiti, Bosnia, Kosovo, Somalia—all of these resemble the colonial campaigns and conquests of the British Empire more than they do the wars of a republic. Maybe that’s the idea after all—the British colonial forces were all volunteer, too.
Reflecting on the Gulf War, I remember that patriotism was strong. People flew flags everywhere, tied yellow ribbons around trees, held parades for our returning heroes, and sang songs. Some earnestly hoped that America would be changed by the experience and become a better country. Two years later, Bill Clinton was elected President.
Change doesn’t happen in a vacuum, nor does it happen just because we wish it. It happens when men are willing and when they know what they want to become. So far, the real winner of this “war” has been the status quo.
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