What happens when you are told to go back to your normal life but have trouble finding your way there?
This is what the U.S. government asks of its citizens. "Enjoy life," President Bush says. "Go down to Disney World." Because it is normal to want to have fun. Buy stocks, say the Wall Street cheerleaders, boost the market, because it is normal to want to get rich. Feel your feelings, say the grief counselors, because anger is normal and anguish is cleansing and there's nowhere to hide in any case. A party store in Texas gets an order for 10 of its Osama bin Laden pinatas from a California therapist who says she wants them for her patients. Take a gamble, come to Las Vegas, say the ads for the convention bureau, because "it's time to get away." But that doesn't mean we are arriving at normal.
Or that we ever will again, if normal means Sept. 10. In our mourning for the way we were, there is some comfort in admitting that our world back then was not as safe as we thought; and it may not now be quite as dangerous as it seems. It helps to find people whose fears are whirling out of control, because they make you feel sane and brave by comparison. A rich couple in Coral Gables, Fla., buys gas masks and chemical suits for the whole family; bemused neighbors inquire whether they are designer label. At least one Hollywood celebrity asks his security consultant about liquidating assets and burying gold in his backyard. OUTBREAK TRAINING reads the sign on the door of the Iowa Public Health Department. Smallpox? Or chicken pox?
What officials did in public, the public did in miniature. We are all intelligence officers now. Two hundred people showed up for "Middle East 101" at Christ Community Church in Idaho Falls, Idaho. Books on biological warfare, the Taliban and terrorism are selling out; so is the Koran, and maps of Afghanistan. "Is there an Islam for Dummies?" asks a guest at a dinner party in Des Moines, Iowa. We're spending a lot on defense right now, enlisting sentries and maintaining checkpoints that provide the kind of security we need to go about our business. Smell the tap water before you drink it. Carry extra cash. Plan your escape route.
"It's very hard to fight a guerrilla war with conventional forces," President Bush said, which is why the action was elsewhere last week. The armies were indeed at war, but for the moment it was the armies of foreign ministers and finance wizards and spooks and geeks and anyone who could somehow trap and strangle the enemy. Meanwhile, the new generals of Homeland Security tried to button down the country, knowing that any U.S. attack is likely to trigger a retaliatory strike and that this time we need to be ready. We will just have to get used to something we have never seen: the regular sight of soldiers on our streets, in the airports, at the malls. In Los Angeles security guards were searching old ladies' pocketbooks as they arrived at the Tony Bennett concert. There are no more public tours of the Alabama Army depot where they store 2,254 tons of nerve-gas shells. There are no White House tours either.
TIME asked people whether life had returned to normal since the attacks; 60% of Americans said it had. But normal is a homier place than before, full of chocolate and creamy food, maybe some bottled water in the basement. Children's librarians say that parents are asking for old friends such as Goodnight Moon and The Borrowers, looking for a soft path to guide their children toward sleep. You can finally walk into the Radio Shack in Oconomowoc, Wis., without finding people glued to the seven TVs. Patriotism is normal, not sentimental or defiant or retro. At an Iowa orthodontist's office, kids are choosing red-white-and-blue braces. "It's because of all the things that are happening," explains Katie Slocum, 12, flashing a sweet, self-conscious smile of patriotic metal.
Normal is a line that rocks and weaves; you have to chase it. In New York it means leaving home two hours earlier if you have to drive over a bridge, because it takes a while for the guards to crawl over and under and through every 18-wheeler that is trying to get into Manhattan. But it was a comfort in the midtown crush, finally, to hear a driver yell, "Hey, move the car, jerk!" and sense the return of vehicular hostility; that felt like normal too. Miss America visited ground zero, as did Paul Newman and John Travolta and the cast of The Sopranos. The war zone is a shrine, and a circus. The funerals are coming faster now, 16 on Saturday alone; the mayor tried to send an official to each one. Elsewhere, friends get together for dinner and play a game: Let's See How Long We Can Go Without Talking About It. The answer so far: not very long. But it may just take more practice.
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If you are trying to find your way back, it doesn't help to have to pass armed guards with grenades strapped to their chests at Boston's Logan airport, or to hear that there are generals authorized to shoot a passenger jet out of the sky should they conclude that it poses a threat. The metal detectors are so sensitive that an underwire bra will trip them. So will a candy wrapper. Yet a federal marshal was able to slip through with a buck knife in his pocket. Thus many passengers, returning to the skies last week, resorted to their own incantations: It's never been safer to fly. Lightning doesn't strike twice. If I stay home, they win.
Tragedy has frisked us all. We are finding out what we are carrying around that no one knew we had. Maybe normal is not a useful word for now, too slippery and glib. Maybe transcendence for the moment lies with routine, doing the same things as before, even if we do them differently, with a heavier heart or a lighter touch or a glance over our shoulder. The rescue workers keep saying that they are just doing their jobs. And so they invite us to do the same.
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