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Closing Thoughts

September 16, 2001 at 12:00 AM EDT
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ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: We hear now from our regulars. They are Richard Rodriguez of the Pacific News Service; Jim Fisher of the Kansas City Star; New York writer Roger Rosenblatt; Los Angeles writer Anne Taylor Fleming; and Clarence Page of the Chicago Tribune. Richard, in the LA Times today, you called what America faces the prospect of the abnormal. That’s not what we’re used to, is it?

RICHARD RODRIGUEZ: No, it’s not what we’re used to and I think that whole notion of going back to normal is now an impossibility for us, as citizens.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: That’s what those kids were saying, the students, too?

ROGER ROSENBLATT: Indeed. In some larger way, I think that the largest misnomer of the last few days has been that word “terrorism,” because while I think that we have lost the sense of the normal, the notion of terror is not exactly the right description to describe the people we have become in the last few days. I noticed in the first hours of this tragedy shock more than terror. And now I’m noticing these other emotions, anger, grief and so forth, and this extraordinary hunger in America for what I call the mundane, to water the lawn, to finish a crossword puzzle, to go back to work, not because we will recover the normal, but because this some sense we want the mundane to overcome our sense of the extraordinary.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Jim Fisher, would you characterize what we’ve been through?

JIM FISHER: Well, I think it’s been… It’s altered us. I think it’s probably made us more aware of what really counts that… To provide for the common defense is what the government is all about. And if you go back a week or two weeks and you look at the papers and the TV, you would find that we were a people that were picking on each other, like a little kid with a scab on his knee and he’s picking away this, the lock box this, Congressman that, endangered species this and that. And not that that’s not important, but that… In the last week, has all gone by the wayside.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Anne Taylor Fleming, in what ways do you see that we’ve changed?

ANNE TAYLOR FLEMING: Oh, I think completely and irrevocably. And I think that we finally have an irrevocable understanding that the planet is minute, that we are no longer protected by the oceans, that there are people in the world that hate us and hate us with a desperate, suicidal rage, and that we are going to have to deal with that in a much more assertive way than we ever thought we were going have to, or certainly this soon. Back to Richard’s notion of wanting the mundane again, part of me hopes that we don’t quite go there yet, that the lessons of this need do stay with us, that the sense us being part of the globe and having to deal with the globe, not just in the terrorism reign, but after that, that we are now of this planet and we have to be much less self-absorbed than we have been, much more wary and engaged with the world than we have been. And I hope we take those lessons — that is — the grief and anger and all of that mix settles out, we understand that we’re now tethered to the fate of the rest of the world in a way that we just didn’t feel before.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Roger Rosenblatt, what do you see that’s changed?

ROGER ROSENBLATT: One change we have is that this will mark the end of the age of irony. For 30 years, just about as long as the twin towers were up, we have been operating under an attitude that things were not to be believed in, that nothing was quite to be taken seriously and that nothing was real. Nothing could have been more real than the savage zealots who hit the twin towers and the Pentagon and who caused the plane to go down in Pennsylvania. So one change certainly will be that the smirk on American intelligent life, the idea of giggling and thinking that nothing was serious, that’s certainly going to change. But there was something that occurred earlier in the show, too, that I just wanted to comment on. I was just doing public radio for four hours each day in the middle of the week this week talking to people out in the area of the eastern Long Island and southern New England, and quite opposite the talk radio fellow to was talking from Los Angeles, almost everybody who responded there responded generously with great kindness… with great concern, desiring to volunteer and so forth. And if one wanted a heartening view of America the beautiful, it was available on radio out here, at any rate, this week.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Roger, I’m going to come back to the other essayists about what they’re hearing from people, but Clarence, before I do, Clarence Page, how do you see what’s changed? In one of your columns this week you wrote about a terrific need for patience that you see.

CLARENCE PAGE: Well, that’s the strategic outlook, part of what I would call, if I can borrow from Richard’s elegant reference to the search for the abnormal if you will, I don’t call this the new abnormal; I call it the new normal. We are… The world changed Tuesday. The world changed for us Americans. Life changed for us, just as it changed for my parents’ generation with Pearl Harbor. I’ve spent these last 50 years wondering what Pearl Harbor was really like. I’ve heard my parents describe it. Now I feel I know what it was like. And I also call Tuesday the end of Pax Americana — a ten-year period that began with the fall of the Berlin Wall and a period of great prosperity world peace, American dominance. We felt a false sense of security, which collapsed along with the World Trade Center. We now have the war I’ve been waiting for. What do I mean by that? I’m a Vietnam-era veteran. I was drafted unwillingly. I, like many others of my generation said, “well, you know if our country was being attacked, I’d feel differently.” But as, you know, Mohammed Ali was saying, “you know, the Vietcong never called me any names.” Well, you know, you can’t say that now. We have been attacked. Nothing concentrates the mind like a sneak attack on your country. That unifies us now, liberal, conservative, across racial lines, across class lines. It saddens me, as I have in my new column, that there is this anti-Arab backlash or a backlash against anyone who looks foreign, who looks Middle Eastern. That is sad, but the vast majority of Americans have pulled together in a way that tells me this is the new normal. We are going to approach this and we’re going to win.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Richard, the new normal, what are you hearing yourself in your own life and when you watch the television, you listen to the talk shows, what strikes you in people’s response? You heard what Roger said.

ROGER ROSENBLATT: I’m getting what Roger has said, also. I find that the communal spirit in America seems to be strongest when people feel the common hurt rather than a common anger. And the example of the firemen and the policemen in New York has been extraordinary for Americans to watch, that the sense of their heroism is somehow definitive of the mood of the country at this moment. But there is this sense of a country coming together in pain, there is I think no optimism about the future; that is, we… Everyone has a sense that we have to do something, we have to retaliate; we have to seek military action. But we also understand from the example of the Israeli government, which has pursued this policy of tit for tat for sometime now, without success, that whatever this biology of anger is now in the world, that it’s going to create more anger, it’s going to insight more and that there is… that seems to me a tragic sensibility, where we know we have to do something that is not going to finally end this, but we are going to do it anyway. It seems to me that the notion of a society that we are creating, the notion of community is coming out of a sense of the tragic, not out of some sense in the 1940s that we are going to get this enemy and we are going to put a final period at the end of the paragraph that we write.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Jim Fisher, how do you see that? You heard what Clarence said, we’re going to be able to succeed in this. Who are do you see the more tragic case that Richard has laid out for us?

JIM FISHER: I can remember sitting on the couch with my father on December 7, 1941 and remembering Pearl Harbor. So I would say that… Of course my being four and being sixty-four, it’s hard to tell that you it was exactly the same as I remember everything, the same — but I think there’s a real parallel there. But I don’t see what’s wrong with anger. I would guarantee you that one of the things you’re going to see… I’ve been thinking about this and I’ve talked to other people about it, this phenomenon that we’ve had the last few years called air rage. I would be willing to bet a dollar to a donut that air rage is now over because if somebody gets up in a 737 flying between Kansas City and Phoenix and is… Looks like a Scandinavian hero of a Scandinavian movie – and is drunk and starts raising Cain, he’s going to get the wail tarred out of him by the fellow passengers. People need to be angry at certain times in life. And I think if you go back to World War II, we were angry, we won. I don’t see that anger is always bad if it’s something that we should say oh, we should never be angry. I think it’s a very healthy thing. We haven’t been angry enough.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Clarence Page, I want to come back to you because you were more optimistic than Richard. How do you respond to what Richard said?

CLARENCE PAGE: Well, I understand Richard’s emotions or his thoughts. And I would never argue with Richard; he’s just too good. But you know, the fact is that we do have a situation in which sometimes tragedy, as I said before, concentrates the mind. Pax Americana made us spoiled, in my view. We had economic prosperity; we had a crime rate the lowest in 30 years; we had a declining welfare rate. At the time of the millennium celebration, remember, we arrested a man who was on his way to blow up Los Angeles Airport. By all indications, that actually made us more snoozy. We felt more confident, hey, we can lick these terrorists; they’re not so smart. We already these guys who tried to blow up the World Trade Center and they failed. And all of the investigations we’re going to see now, we will see that we were just a little too optimistic, a little too complacent. And we’ve got to be kind of hard-nosed now and make some new decisions. This ain’t the Cold War; this ain’t World War II; it ain’t Vietnam; it ain’t World War III as we imagined it. It is something quite new but we’ve got to approach it like a war and we’ve got to win. I think we will.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Roger Rosenblatt, how do you see what lies ahead? You’ve heard the President and other leading officials of the administration say that this could be a long campaign; there could be a need for great sacrifice from Americans. Do you think Americans can make that kind of sacrifice, take casualties, for example?

ROGER ROSENBLATT: Yeah, I do. It’s very hard to know and to deal with an enemy that on the one hand you can’t find, on the other doesn’t seem to care whether or not he dies in his cause, as a matter of fact from what we learned, that death is a kind of reward for the cause. So we’re dealing in a situation where everything is elusive and very hard to hit. But coming back to our own attitudes, I must say that, going back to that public radio talk that I was doing with people in a rather large area for many hours this week, there was anger, but there was an admixture of anger and mostly sorrow. I think most of us are still headed for a sorrowful zone, no matter how normal our other thoughts are. And there was resolve, and there was the idea that we are certainly going to try to wipe away this enemy before this enemy wipes us away, since it is really a genocidal attack on America. Americans now become the target. But is there the resolve to win this war with all of those other feelings? I think certainly.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Anne Taylor Fleming, how do you see the question of resolve?

ANNE TAYLOR FLEMING: I think Roger’s right. I would certainly agree with him. I see a lot of resolve. I see mostly grief. I don’t see much anger. I would use instead of the word anger, I see outrage. And I think if you listen to people in the streets or even on the shows and the students who were on this just before we came on, there’s a sense that it is a long haul, that there isn’t an instant solution. I mean I’ve heard people this week say on shows, you know, the American people aren’t patient. When asked to be patient, the American people will be anything — if it’s explained appropriately and if they understand what they’re enlisted in. You know, I guess I would argue with Richard a little, at peril probably, but along with the tragic, I’m sort of where Clarence is. I mean there was a sense of a great oh, self-trivialization over the last eight to ten years. I mean if you look at the media a few weeks ago, what were we seeing — Gary Condit and the sexual peccadilloes of our leaders. I mean what I’m hoping, if that was the mundane, let it be gone. Let us understand the gravity of our position in the world, let us understand the unutterable gift of being American and how fragile and magical the idea of freedom is and how threatening it is to people. But let us also understand the hatred that’s being generated places. And again, I go beyond the terrorists. What I’m hoping out of this is that we look beyond the immediate and see that, in parts of the world, there is hatred directed at us that is not turning suicidal but might and that we really need and have a chance finally to address that in ways that our myopia and our narcissism of the last stretch of years has precluded. So you know, I guess out of my desperate sorrow and outrage, I am optimistic on some level.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Thank you all very much for being with us.