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A RENEWED SENSE OF COMMUNITY

Was it only weeks ago that the Army was recruiting young Americans to become an "Army of One"? Was it so recently that they were enticing 20-year-olds to come march . . . to the beat of a different drummer?

I don't mock these recruiters for putting out this ad on "Friends" and "Buffy the Vampire Slayer." "Army of One" was the hip slogan for the era. It was the not-so-clarion call to arms asking a nation of individualists to think about what their country could do for them.

We knew long before the terrorist attacks that the old tension between two sets of American values -- the values of individualism and the values of community -- had gotten out of whack.

For more than a decade, I've heard a refrain of regret about the breakdown of community. The World War II generation and the Sixties generation each in its own way rued the loss of connections. Some 80 percent of Americans told pollsters two years ago that there should be more emphasis on community. Yet we went on, in Robert Putnam's resonant phrase, "bowling alone."

Then on Sept. 11, 2001, we were simultaneously, collectively, thunderously, united. Firemen and financiers shared the same calamity. Cranky and contentious New Yorkers who can grouse about lukewarm coffee took care of each other and of strangers. Midwesterners who long regarded the city as if it were a foreign capital know we are all New Yorkers now. Washington-bashers have discovered that the hole in the Pentagon was a hole in the heartland.

"Maybe we bowl alone," reflects Alan Wolfe, the author of "One Nation, After All," "but when we survive, we survive together."

In his speech to the nation Thursday night, President Bush said "the entire world has seen for itself the state of our union, and it is strong." Across the country it seems every Jiffy Lube carries the same special on the billboard: God Bless America. People draw together in religious and public squares. They overwhelm blood donor lines and sign checks and share the same question: "What can I do?"

For the moment we have checked our single self at the door and become one community with a profound recognition of commonality. But how do we hold on to the realization that we are in this -- this country -- together?

Putnam, who wrote "Bowling Alone," recognizes the signs. "After any major tragedy, flood or fire or earthquake, there is a similar upsurge of community." But we don't know, he adds, "whether next February, we'll look back on this as Princess Di's death or as Pearl Harbor." We don't know whether the sense of commonality will surge and disappear, or whether this moment marks a sea change.

For years, we've heard the government described as a wastrel and as a thief. Many politicians have run against the government they would run. Now we see the government in the troops and the firefighters and the Social Security checks going out to widows and children. Will we remember?

Will we remember that the airline employees losing their jobs today are collateral damage? Will the stunning divide between CEO and worker also seem unpatriotic when they are equal targets? Can we see the children of other towns, races, classes the way enemies see them -- as equally American?

A renewed sense of community can be a sustaining force or it can dissipate.

"For Pearl Harbor, it wasn't the images that transformed the patterns of society and culture," says Putnam. "It was practices, not images." It was, he says, the practices of people in their daily lives -- the Victory gardens and war bond drives and neighborhood folks checking in on one another as well as military service -- that changed the civic lives of a generation. Now we have to find ways to practice what we preach.

In his powerful speech, the president said, "Americans are asking, 'What is expected of us?' " Calm, patience, confidence, he said, and "I ask you to live your lives and hug your children." It will take more than that for those on the home front.

I find no silver lining in this cloud that hangs over us. But for the moment no one has suggested that New York pick itself up by its own bootstraps. For the moment Americans are reconnected through shared vulnerability and loss and citizenship.

For the first time in a long while, we are an army of many more than one.

Boston Globe Newspaper Co.

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