American Idle

Lawrence F. Kaplan at TNR diagnosing various post-9/11 failures in the American project.

The need for a moral equivalent of the cold war evaporated on September 11. Having failed to reverse the equation during the ’90s, the architects of national greatness would henceforth make a virtue out of necessity. If most opinion-makers concentrated on the war abroad, the potential benefits at home were never far from the minds of others. Celebrating the end of America’s “holiday from history,” columnist Charles Krauthammer wrote that “this land of ‘bowling alone,’ of Internet introversion, of fractious multiculturalism developed an extraordinary solidarity. … It turned out that the decadence and flabbiness were just summer wear, thrown off immediately.” As to what awaited the United States on its return from this holiday, Commentary Editor-at-Large Norman Podhoretz wrote, “Beyond revenge, we crave ‘a new birth’ of the confidence we used to have in ourselves and in ‘America the Beautiful.’ But there is only one road to this lovely condition of the spirit, and it runs through what Roosevelt and Churchill called the ‘unconditional surrender’ of the enemy.” President Bush put the point somewhat more bluntly: “For too long, our culture has said, ‘If it feels good, do it.’ Now, America is embracing a new ethic and a new creed: ‘Let’s roll.'”

The significance of national greatness was never the movement it spawned, but rather the moment it encapsulated–a minute, really, in which it was hoped that something good might come from bad. What its adherents anticipated after September 11 was really less a return to national greatness than a return to basic national goodness, a civic quality the excesses of the ’90s seemed to have corroded. Civic attachments, a sense of shared purpose, a propensity to sacrifice for the common good–if historical precedent offers any guide, all of these should have been renewed in the aftermath of September 11. As Harvard’s Theda Skocpol noted in her 2001 study, “Patriotic Partnerships: Why Great Wars Nourished American Civil Voluntarism,” “America’s civic vigor was greatly enhanced, both following the national fratricide of the 1860s and amidst the plunge into global conflict between 1917 and 1919.” The pattern held during World War II and the cold war, conflicts that boosted everything from membership in voluntary associations to the fortunes of the civil rights movement. And, yet, not only has everything not changed since September 11; nothing has. According to a mountain of attitudinal and behavioral data collected in the past four years, the post- September 11 mood that former Homeland Security Secretary Tom Ridge dubbed “the new normalcy” resembles nothing so much as the old normalcy.