A Guarded Nation Celebrates the Fourth

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Tourists walk by a security fence in front of the Capitol

Suddenly, and still, everyone's a patriot. In New York's West Village for the first time in recent memory American flags outnumber the rainbow-colored gay pride banners. In Washington, God and country have seldom been so part of the national discourse, as seemingly every member of Congress wants to go on record as supporting God, country, motherhood, puppies and all other American icons. And Fourth of July barbecues suddenly seem like civic duty; a majority of Americans polled say they will continue to celebrate, undeterred by any terror threat.

That's understandable on this, the first post 9/11 Independence Day holiday. But has everything really changed? Are we fundamentally altered as nation? No — and yes. In many parts of the country, the deadly attacks of 9/11 did little to alter the bedrock of status quo. You don't need to look far to see how much things haven't changed: America's slums are still infested with roaches and drug dealers, our public schools are still suffering from inattention, and too many of our citizens are still abandoned to the streets, sub-par nursing facilities or mental institutions. In Los Angeles, television executives are doing their best to capitalize on the country's sudden, collective clamor for nostalgia, pumping out maudlin new series (like NBC's "American Dreams"). And in New York, the mercenary battles rage on over the distribution of cash raised during 9/11 benefits.

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And yet . . . peer beyond the predictable resilience of our less attractive national attributes (apathy, selfishness and greed), and you will spot some fairly significant cultural shifts since 9/11 — changes that make you realize how different this America is from the country we lived in just 10 months ago:

  • We are slightly more tolerant as a nation. The terrorists, individuals who deserve every ounce of anger we can summon, fit a very specific description: they embrace one religion, and generally hail from one part of the world. It's not hard to spot them, or at least someone who looks a lot like them. In spite of this easy categorization, we have, on the whole, resisted the urge to blindly attack Arab Americans. Yes, the government has come uncomfortably close to trampling the rights of citizens in its conduct of the war on terror. But unlike 1941, we're not simply rounding up people and sending them to camps. And while not interring innocents is not exactly call for ecstatic triumph, it is a sign, at least, that we have in fact advanced along the moral continuum since World War II.

  • We see each other more clearly, and appreciate what we have: In the days following Sept. 11, New Yorkers were almost scarily polite. That's not entirely the case anymore; people scream at each other in the streets more now, but still, something has changed — a new gentility does seem to have taken hold. Conspicuous consumption is so 2000, and not just because the dot-com bust means nobody has the resources to consume conspicuously anymore. Nationwide, as a mini-baby boomlet of children conceived last fall hits full stride, we're reminded that we are still hopeful for the future.

  • We've grown tougher, and together: If you were a terrorist, would you choose this moment to attack? Probably not — while the streets will be filled by swarms of Americans celebrating a holiday the terrorists hate, any evil-doer with half a brain would be deterred by the past week's massive mobilization of police and military personnel. New York, Washington and other potential hotspots will be jammed to bursting with law enforcement; on the Mall in D.C. alone there will be 2,000 security workers.

  • We've grown up: As a nation whose civilian population largely escaped the horrors of the 20th century, it's been said that Americans can't possibly understand what it's like to live under the fear of imminent death known to so many of our allies. Now, some of that has come home. We have seen destruction and death, and we have survived, sadder and more watchful than before.

    And this is the most remarkable change of all; like adolescents slipping into adulthood, we have stopped demanding immediate answers and begun to accept there are some things we cannot know. Wednesday, an FBI agent told an interviewer he was worried that Americans are suffering from "alert fatigue;" and while that may be true, at least we can say we're still prepared for whatever comes. We're not sleeping much these days, but we're ready.