New Attitude

January 29, 2002 at 12:00 AM EDT


CLARENCE PAGE: There’s a phrase I used to hear a lot that I haven’t heard much lately: “Get over it.” Bush voters said it to Gore voters after the Supreme Court ended the long Florida vote recount. ( Applause) Ex-mayor and ex-convict Marion Barry shouted it to his critics on his last victory night. ( Cheering ) But I didn’t hear anyone telling Yankee fans to get over it after their team’s big World Series loss. Even the Yankee haters I know– and I know quite a few– restrained themselves.

I think it is because of September 11– you know, the day that changed all of our lives. Getting over it went out of style real fast. The terrorists committed acts too monstrous for us to get over. Yet months later, wounds are beginning to heal. Slowly and cautiously we are getting back to normal, even as we try to figure out what “normal” is. Three months after the attacks, a Washington Post poll found that almost two-thirds of Americans thought the country has “permanently changed for the better.” My friends are telling me the same. Relentless American optimism is showing itself once again.

In the face of a common threat, we pull together with startling unity, trivializing many issues that previously divided us. Sales of Confederate flags went down. American flags went up. Red-state and blue-state America became red, white, and blue again. If we didn’t put aside these differences, we told ourselves, the terrorists win. We said that a lot. Every simple move toward the normal became an act of defiance. We clutched our evidence of what the terrorists have not won like little trophies. We put aside our differences with our leaders, like President Bush and former Mayor Giuliani, and saw them transform into strong, reassuring wartime statesmen. We suppressed panic or mob action against Arabic or Muslim Americans. A few acts of bigotry were quickly overshadowed by many acts of kindness. “There are no bigots in foxholes,” an old wartime saying goes. We became one big foxhole, and watched each other’s backs. In our personal lives, we gained, like all survivors do, a new appreciation of our lives and the people in it. We traveled less and stayed closer to home.


CLARENCE PAGE: We looked upon faith and family with more appreciative eyes. While restaurants that attracted tourists lost business, many neighborhood restaurants and pubs stayed busy. There we could talk about Kabul and Kandahar the way we usually debate the Yankees or the Cubs.

People wanted to be with people. And a lot of us hugged our kids a lot closer. An unsuccessful terror attack illustrated our new national mood. When the airline passenger known as Richard Reid tried to light his explosive sneakers, the flight attendant was alert; the passengers sprang into action; disaster was foiled; the suspect went to jail.

Here, then, was the new normalcy: Stay alert, but go on about your business. Otherwise, we remind ourselves, the terrorists win. “When tragedy strikes your neighborhood again and again,” one Washington, D.C. mother told me, “you can’t run from it. You learn to live through it.”

America is learning. 9/11 was a defining moment for this generation. We don’t want to get over it. Instead, we’re learning how to live through it. Out of our sorrows for the precious lives we lost, we gained a new appreciation for the precious lives we still have with us. To paraphrase Nietzsche, that which did not kill us as a nation made us stronger as a people.

We are sending a new message back to the terrorists: If you thought you would divide us, you blew it; try to get over it.

I’m Clarence Page.