Everything Has Changed

Or Has It?

Ever since September 11, Americans have been constantly lectured by the government and pro-war media about how everything has changed since the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. "Everything has changed" has become the mantra of post-September 11 America, although the mantra seems to have different meanings for different people. To the people who were directly affected by the attacks, the changes have been concrete: loss of life and limb, loss of family, loss of property, and loss of work. To the rest of us, the changes since September 11 have been an awful lot more abstract.

For many Americans, "everything has changed" about what they buy, with people running out and buying gas masks, antibiotics, guns, new home security systems, or anything else that they think might protect them against attacks by demented foreigners who have targeted them personally for sacrifice in the name of evil. For other Americans, "everything has changed" in their recreational habits, because they no longer feel safe taking walks after dark, watching romantic comedies, or even celebrating Halloween. For such Americans, "everything has changed" because of the feeling that terrorist attacks could come at any place, at any time, even at the Citgo gas station outside Prairie View, Wisconsin at 2:45 in the morning.

For American politicians, "everything has changed" in that the practice of healthy, democratic debate about domestic and international affairs has given way to the obligation to stand behind the President, giving him the power to do whatever he wants, without question. For the wealthy citizens and corporations who write big checks to politicians, "everything has changed" since September 11 in that they can expect even bigger tax breaks and subsidies in the name of patriotic unity.

For American news organizations, "everything has changed" about the way that they interpret journalistic ethics: no longer does journalism attempt to provide objective information gathered independently from governmental supervision. Since September 11, "everything has changed" and so journalists deliver government-produced misinformation and propaganda directly to the public without even attempting to corroborate skeptically examine its content. Reporters now lecture each other and their audiences that it is the duty of all members of the press to be loyal supporters of the government first and professional journalists second. As pro-government essayist Kathleen Parker of the Tribune Media Service insists, "To self-censor during wartime simply means being a responsible citizen, which comes down to asking this question; For whom is this information most helpful, the American people or the enemy?

For people who are accused of crimes, "everything has changed" now that President Bush has proclaimed that the police and prosecutors can eavesdrop on conversations between defendants and their lawyers and that the right of suspects to be given a trial by jury may be suspended at will. "Everything has changed" for American political dissidents now that the police have been given permission to open the mail, scan the email, tap the phones and bug the homes of people suspected of having dangerously radical ideas, with practically no judicial review, in order to bolster "homeland security." For religious and ethnic minorities in the United States, "everything has changed" in that they have become subject to violent attacks from people who suspect them of being "terrorists" and are being interviewed by homeland security officers merely on the basis of their ethnicity, religion, age and gender.

Has everything changed since the attacks of September 11? Certainly not. Most things are just as they always have been. For the most part, Americans still live as prosperous, peaceful, free people.

Nonetheless, many things have changed for Americans in the last couple of months: we are a little less prosperous, a little less peaceful and a little less free. These changes are not the result of the four airplanes that crashed out of the sky on the morning of September 11. These changes are due to the choices that Americans, as members of the government and as citizens, have made since September 11. To the extent that Americans are less prosperous, it is due almost completely to the fact that we have chosen to withdraw ourselves from economic interaction with each other. To the extent that Americans are less peaceful, it is due to the fact that the majority of Americans have decided to abandon the principles of peace in favor of the emotional satisfaction of war. To the extent that Americans live in less freedom, it is due to the decision of American politicians and their constituents that it is better to feel safe than to be free.

The decisions that Americans have made this autumn to change their lives have been hastily made in the aftermath of shocking attacks that destroyed the generations-old illusion of American invulnerability. In the months to come, as our panic fades, Americans will have to answer a difficult question: Are we comfortable with the changes that we have made in our society since September 11? If we prefer to live in a state of vigilant security to the detriment of our freedoms, if we prefer to make due with what we have instead of creating new and better things, if we prefer to lash out at others rather than to strengthen our nation from within, then we ought to stay the course. On the other hand, if we truly wish that our nation could be as it was before September 11, then Americans will have to have the courage to stand up and re-embrace the values of creative ambition, freedom, and peace that have long defined the best that America has to give.

The declaration that "everything has changed" is a declaration of a national resignation, a declaration in favor of passive reaction to the tragedies of life. We cannot control, even with our great military engine of vengeful punishment, the sad fact that tragic events will occur from time to time. We can control our reaction to these tragedies. When things seem to change for the worse, we Americans do not have to meekly accept these changes. If we want to live according to the values of freedom, peace and prosperity then we must act individually and collectively to change our society according to those values. If we choose as a nation to abandon those values, we have only ourselves to blame for the consequences.

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