Leaving ‘Normal’ Behind

"Life before September 11 seemed more secure, but do we really want it back?"
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We miss the old days. Whether one calls it "normality" or "normalcy," there is a life-before-September 11 status to which millions of Americans understandably long to return. Perhaps the 1990s will become for the current generation what the 1950s were for their parents and grandparents: a time when life was simpler, the choices easier, and day-to-day existence more salutary and fulfilling.

Of course, people who want to emulate the 1950s have not looked at the decade seriously. Otherwise, they would recall that unemployment was relatively high, jobs often precarious, and legalized segregation rampant. Similarly, if the recent attacks cause us to pine for the good old days of the 1990s, we will, in our effort to find emotional respite from a scary world, ignore many of the salient features of the decade.

What was normal life before the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon? My wife, who directs a family advocacy group, says that before 9/11, "normal" meant life in a country that had progressively drifted from community and obligation. Instead, it pressed toward the fulfillment of individual desire and the reckless celebration of the self. The phrase I want had become a sufficient ground for action, rather than an opportunity for moral debate. The Word of God was being shoved to the sidelines of our public life. Our political contests had been largely reduced to competitions between interest groups seeking to feed at the public trough. The "greater good" was defined no more broadly than was necessary for short-term political gain.

What has happened since September 11?

We all know that charitable donations to New York City relief efforts have skyrocketed. Public schools have held ...

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