The American State of Mind
[Sorry, the video for this story has expired, but you can still read the transcript below. ]
JIM LEHRER: Finally tonight, some closing thoughts on the American state of mind two months after the September 11 attacks, hours after the fall of Kabul and the crash of American Airlines Flight 587. They come from our NewsHour essayists Clarence Page of the Chicago Tribune, Jim Fisher, Anne Taylor Fleming, and Roger Rosenblatt. State of mind, Clarence. When you first heard about this American Airlines crash yesterday, what went through your mind?
CLARENCE PAGE: Deja-vu or as Yogi Berra said deja-vu all over again. It was really a flashback. You know, I was waiting for the second bang. You know, this is something we have seen in these Osama bin Laden related terrorist episodes that there is a first explosion and then a second one. That happened with the Africa embassies, it happened with the World Trade Center. By the time that second plane hit, everybody saw it because by then the TV cameras were there. The second bang didn’t come. But there was that big black cloud over the horizon, over New York’s horizon. And there was that terrible feeling that I had inside that, you know, are we… You know, is this it? Is this the other shoe we’ve been waiting to drop? I think our mood is jumpy in that sense, Jim.
JIM LEHRER: But your first reaction was this was another terrorist attack.
CLARENCE PAGE: That was the question, right, exactly.
JIM LEHRER: Ann, was that your first reaction?
ANNE TAYLOR FLEMING: Sure I think inevitably we all do… You know, I go by the television set in the morning and I go for the impulse to turn it on or turn it off. Hoping nothing had happened and I flicked it on and there was a plane crash. I think the inevitable feeling is, it’s happened again. And I think as the day wore on, they quite quickly said it didn’t seem to be that. But the weird thing is that didn’t calm any nerves. And it seems still strangely of the picture that adds to the unsettlement, even though they’re saying fairly flat out now I think that it wasn’t a terrorist act.
JIM LEHRER: Jim Fisher, what did you think when you first heard about it?
JIM FISHER: I hate to break the… Sound like a Pollyanna but I thought it was an accident from the very first. I heard Rockaway. Then I thought JFK. I’m an old aviation editor. I remember when they used to go down in the Bay all the time there. I never thought it was a terrorist attack. I just think New York would be the last place a terrorist would want to go and try to fool around again because….
JIM LEHRER: You were thinking all of that when you first heard it?
JIM FISHER: I thought accident.
JIM LEHRER: You thought accident. What did you think, Roger?
ROGER ROSENBLATT: I thought it was deliberate. I thought it was a terrorist attack that had gone wrong, that they had wanted to commandeer the plane and head for the U.N. since the U.N. was meeting. It’s interesting. It’s the mindset that terrorism puts you in. It changes the whole way you think. Then I started to be ashamed of myself thinking because I had a choice I’d prefer it to be an accident than a terrorist incident.
JIM LEHRER: Why?
ROGER ROSENBLATT: Imagine having that choice.
JIM LEHRER: Why would you prefer it to be an accident?
ROGER ROSENBLATT: Because then it would seem that the city was not going to be a target for the terrorists and this would not be part of a scheme of terrorism but just a terrible thing that happened as an act of fate.
JIM LEHRER: Clarence, a lot of….
CLARENCE PAGE: I’d like to add to that by the way.
JIM LEHRER: Go ahead.
CLARENCE PAGE: Among my friends we were saying the same thing. Isn’t this ironic about the new age that we’re kind of relieved that it was an accident. You know, Jim, I think we Americans know if it’s an accident we can fix it. There’s some hope of fixing it. We can explore it, analyze it, break it down and find a way so this particular kind of accident won’t happen again. But terrorism is more complicated. There are too many unknowns. Where is the manual? Where do I open the hood? How do I fix this? That’s much frightening for us.
JIM LEHRER: Now, there are a lot of newspapers really came down hard this morning in the editorials saying okay even if it does turn out to be an accident, our state of mind, our immediate reaction, meaning the big “our” the big American reaction, “oh, my God” except for Jim Fisher we’ve just demonstrated it here.
CLARENCE PAGE: God bless Jim Fisher.
JIM LEHRER: But the immediate American reaction was another terrorist attack. They said it’s been fed by the fact that the Congress of the United States has yet to get its act together on an airline security bill two months after this thing happened. Do you agree with that?
CLARENCE PAGE: I certainly do. By the way I’m like Jim Fisher when it comes to the anthrax attacks. I thought from the very beginning this was an American nut for a lot of reasons I won’t even bother to go into right now. Now we’re starting to see the FBI coming around to my train of thought there, but it is true because of the current atmosphere we immediately think Osama bin Laden right off the bat. Yeah, I think Congress looks even worse now. We saw them looking not at their best when they allowed partisan politics to get in the way of reaching a settlement over airline safety, over whether the security people at the airports ought to be federally employed or not. These are issues that we turn to Congress to settle and do it pretty quick. We have Thanksgiving holidays coming up. We’re talking about them being at an impasse perhaps through New Year’s. This is not good.
JIM LEHRER: From the perspective of Kansas City, Jim, does the congress look like it’s doing its job on this or is this just business as usual?
JIM FISHER: Well, I hate to sound like a contrarian but who cares? I just flew out to Phoenix last week. The people at the gate were doing a great job. I don’t know what the government could do more. The most… The happiest thing I saw is the bars on the door. A woman looked over to me and says, well, they’re not going to get in the cockpit if anything happens we’re going to have to do it ourselves. I think a lot of Americans have decided that they’re going to fly, they’re going to do the best they can, those bars on the door have made, I think, hijacking a futile endeavor. Why would you want to get a bunch of people going to Phoenix and terrorize them and let the plane go on? What the hijacker wants is control. And if the pilots– and I hope they never do– if they won’t come out, hijacking is — it’s a no-win situation.
JIM LEHRER: So the Congress, what the congress does or doesn’t do doesn’t matter from your perspective, that is not a big issue that they haven’t been able to get their act together in two months.
JIM FISHER: No I think congress is looking just like they always do, banal.
JIM LEHRER: And from Los Angeles, Ann?
ANNE TAYLOR FLEMING: I think people are very concerned. One of the things that… Whether this was an accident or a terrorist act, I think the general sense of unsettlement is pervasive. I think people have behaved extraordinarily well. I don’t think you hear panic but I think you do hear an enormous amount of unsettlement. I respectfully disagree with Jim. I think flying is a nerve-wracking experience now. The plane I was on, there was no bars on the door. I mean they were stopping people, you know, middle-aged women and taking away their tweezers, but meanwhile you knew that the luggage was going on that they weren’t checking still. That’s still a state of affairs.
JIM LEHRER: Are you personally… Are you personally a little afraid when you fly right now?
ANNE TAYLOR FLEMING: I have to be honest, I am.
JIM LEHRER: Go ahead.
ANNE TAYLOR FLEMING: And avoiding it, Jim. Flat out avoiding it. I know a fair amount of people are. You know, I think Americans are enormously resilient, enormously optimistic but at the moment I think there’s an overwhelming sense that while people are still supportive of the war, things might be going well in that immediate sense, you know, the fall of Kabul, et cetera, that the huge underlying issues– airline safety, economic security– our overwhelming dependence on oil– all of these big underlying elephants in the living room are still there. We’re dealing with the immediate and dealing with it fairly well, but these huge underlying, nagging things, I mean, who’s talking conservation? Who’s saying, you know, let’s cut our dependence on foreign oil and we can obviate some of these problems? I keep feeling that the American people are ahead of the curve, as I often do these days, and that there’s a pervasive sense of unsettlement that is profound and I think accurate.
JIM LEHRER: Do you agree with that, Roger? Do you feel a sense of unsettlement?
ROGER ROSENBLATT: I do. I also think that there’s a countervailing element of sort of sobriety and a somber feeling and autumnal feeling, if you will, in this season, that is attractive in its own way. People are making better discriminations on what’s important in the news. They’re making better discriminations on what’s important in their lives. But if I might return to the question of government for a second –
JIM LEHRER: Sure, you may.
ROGER ROSENBLATT: I not only think that Congress is behaving poorly on these air safety issue, I think Congress is behaving poorly on several issues, and they’re doing it at the worst time possible because this is a time when people, however suspicious they are ordinarily of government, want to give wholeheartedly their support to anything in government. And if I may speak of bison and if I may speak of civil liberties, if you start doing pork barreling nonsense on saving the bison or that industry rather, they’re certainly not saving the bison, and tampering with….
JIM LEHRER: You’re talking about in economic stimulus package.
ROGER ROSENBLATT: Yes, sir. I’m talking about that and I’m talking about the civil liberties interference in being able to get in on a conversation between a lawyer and a client. Patriotism here is a very important thing to pay attention to, Jim, it seems to me. And the patriot is the one who supports the basic principles, the basic tenets of his or her country especially in a time of danger. So I am particularly concerned that Congress is toying with a very delicate business when it tests our patriotism in an automatic way, when patriotism should never be automatic and we should watch it when it’s greedy and we should watch it when it starts tampering with civil liberties.
JIM LEHRER: Clarence, you’re here in Washington. They’re way out there. They’re in New York and Los Angeles.
CLARENCE PAGE: I’m in the real world.
JIM LEHRER: And Kansas City. What is your reading of why Congress on these issues… Forget whether you have one position or another on the issues, that they just can’t resolve these things in this atmosphere?
CLARENCE PAGE: It’s downright reflexive, Jim. There’s a sense that they each come to the table with their agendas — their constituents — they’re lobbyists. When we get a big new history- shaking issue like terrorism, now everybody’s pet cause becomes an anti-terrorist cause, even saving the bison industry. It’s just reflexive. It’s just like with President Bush who railed against the ways of Washington on the campaign trail after the crisis began his first reflex was a very Washington thing. He created a new office just like Harry Truman created the national security advisor after the hydrogen bomb, President Bush creates the homeland security director who has a very amorphous office right now. Another layer of bureaucracy — so Washington is still finding its way.
ANNE TAYLOR FLEMING: Jim, can I say one thing the other day I was riding along with my mom who has lived many a life. And I said to her what do you think? She said it feels to me like we have an antique government for a modern situation. It just blew my mind. I thought that’s exactly what it feels like. It feels like they’re on a an old page and the whole country has moved on and is saying help us, we’re willing to be patriots, we’re willing to do this but for gosh sakes get with the program. Understand we need things to happen and we need things to happen now. Blow open the discussion about oil and conservation. Get the air marshals going. I mean the whole thing seems like sea sludge. And I think people are really feeling that.
JIM LEHRER: You feel that way in Kansas City, Jim?
JIM FISHER: No, I’m sorry.
JIM LEHRER: Oh, Jim.
JIM FISHER: I think most of Americans are just going on with their lives. We’re not… Most of them are not dependent on government to do everything. We’re going to get on those planes. We may worry a little bit what goes in the baggage but we think that will get worked out. It just seems to me that the government is doing as good a job as they can. This is a war. If you go back and look in the history of World War II, there was pork-barreling bills back in World War II to build dams on the Missouri River which weren’t really needed in 1944. So that’s nothing new. We’ve done that. You look at the civil war. There’s a lot of pork in the civil war. I think most Americans are just going about their lives. Congress and Washington and maybe even the media has become a little superfluous to them because we’ve found out that in light of the 11th of September, there are more important things to worry about than Gary Condit or the latest celebrity murder in LA or whatever goes on among the rock’n'roll groups.
JIM LEHRER: Well, I was with you Fisher until you said the media was irrelevant. Then you lost me. Okay.
CLARENCE PAGE: Let’s stop preaching and go to….
JIM LEHRER: We’re going to leave it there. Thank you all four very much.