On September 11, 2001, everything changed. Or so our leading opinion-makers--pronouncing an end to the risk-averse and post-heroic America they had observed during the 1990s--assured us.
For many Americans, it was true. New Yorkers still mourn their fallen. In small towns with sons and daughters serving in the war on terror, local newspapers feature daily weather reports from Baghdad. But the unglamorous truth is that, when it comes to public policy priorities and civic habits, most of us have picked up exactly where we left off on September 10. There are today two Americas--a "September 11 America" caught up in a world war, and a "September 10 America" largely oblivious to it.
Long gone are surveys from 2001 in which majorities cite terrorism as the key issue of the day. The latest polls show that, by a two-to-one margin, voters identify the economy as a more important problem for the federal government to address, while the weight they lend to issues like prescription drugs and health care has returned to pre-September 2001 levels as well. Surveys also show that the public's willingness to tolerate inconveniences such as airport security screenings and random I.D. checks has declined consistently since 2001, as has its willingness to compromise on questions of civil liberty.
Nor has America's return to normalcy been confined to the realm of public policy. It can be measured in slumping rates of church attendance, diminished faith in public institutions, and numerous barometers of civic disengagement. A series of Gallup polls even charts how, as September 11 slipped into memory, so too did people's inclination to pray or to display an American flag. (The flag industry expects this year's sales figures to amount to a fraction of what was sold the year before). Market saturation? Perhaps. But, by mid-2002, the number of Americans telling Fox News pollsters they would be willing to fight and die to defend the United States had settled down to September 10 levels too.
Does this mean that all Americans have reverted to pre-September 11 type?
Not exactly. Fear of terrorism cuts across all demographic sub-groups. Yet a willingness to do something about it, to adjust our priorities, does not. The latest Pew survey, which asked respondents whether the president should focus on the war on terror or on the economy, reveals a puzzling trend.
Evangelical Christians, whites, residents of rural areas, southerners, and self-described conservatives evince more concern about the response to September 11 than do secular Americans, African Americans, residents of cities, non-southerners, or self-described liberals. In fact, the very city dwellers most at risk tend to attach the least importance to the war on terror. If these results seem more suited to a gun-control survey, consider another way of reading the same data. A Newsweek poll in November 2002 found that respondents who cited terrorism as the nation's foremost priority voted Republican by a margin of three-to-one. In a similar vein, the Pew survey finds that Republicans split evenly on the question of the war on terror versus the economy, while only 18% of Democrats profess more concern with terrorism.
It hardly comes as a surprise, but the emergence of a partisan gap on a matter that supposedly transcends politics has come awfully quickly. All the more so, because one of the most popular analogies generated by the September 11 industry likened the new unity of purpose to that which prevailed after Pearl Harbor.
If you really wish to know what someone thinks about the war on terror, however, that person's opinions about Monica Lewinsky and the Florida recount offer a more reliable guide. Were the cause something other than self-preservation, these cleavages might not mean so much. But when a global war becomes the exclusive property of one political party--and is treated, increasingly, as a touch-me-not by the other party--the whole enterprise risks forfeiting its legitimacy.
That was written 3 years ago.