Share this article

print logo


On the Sunday after the terrorist attacks, we went to watch our 14-year-old son's soccer game. The local soccer league, unlike Major League Baseball and the National Football League, decided that playing would better demonstrate national resolve than canceling.

Before the game, the boys stood in a circle and observed a brief silence for the victims. On the sidelines, parents did the same. Then our sons went out and got clobbered 5-1 by the other people's sons. For a moment, I forgot our national tragedy and sulked in the familiar disappointment of a game gone bad.

We are now slowly returning to "normalcy," though we don't know what that means -- and can't know. Americans will find readjustment full of contradictions and, to some extent, guilt. We surely need to re-embrace old pursuits, pleasures and preoccupations. Not to do so would constitute a silent surrender to terrorism. But the very act of retrieving our former lives will inevitably distract us, stir old quarrels and complaints, weaken our rekindled patriotism and displace thoughts of the victims.

But even in World War II, it was hard to sustain the initial emotional intensity. "Folk mythology memorializes this as the greatest consensual moment in American history," says Stanford historian David Kennedy. "But people in the government and the military worried that Americans (might lose) their war fervor."

Americans yearn for order. Campaigning for the White House in 1920, Warren G. Harding said: "America's present need is not heroics but healing; not nostrums but normalcy." The backdrop was disorder, including a poisonous debate over joining the League of Nations and terrorist bombs, widely attributed to Bolsheviks and radicals.

What does "normalcy" now mean? We are told that we are at war but that this is a different kind of war -- one requiring enormous patience because it will be waged on many invisible fronts against "shadowy" enemies.

The truth is that war is a fundamentally misleading description. A war implies a conclusion. By contrast, a terrorist threat is a permanent condition. The Israelis have been fighting it for decades. We can hope to find and destroy those who planned these attacks; we can hope that the worldwide revulsion against them will make terrorism harder and rarer. But we cannot expect to eliminate the danger of terrorism for all time.

There will always be new generations of recruits and new grievances. In the Middle East, Israel is not the only flash point for radical Islamic fundamentalists; they also object to the modern, materialistic state as epitomized, of course, by America. "Homeland defense" has entered our vocabulary, but we face dilemmas in making it effective.

If we adopt every conceivable protection against every conceivable threat, we will turn ourselves into a police state and shut down the economy. The protections required to end the possibility of hijackings would be so costly and time-consuming that they would virtually eliminate air travel. Reasonable security measures (fortified cockpits, improved boarding inspections) can only reduce the threat. But if you were a terrorist, would hijacking now be your preferred attack point, when advanced societies have so many vulnerabilities: water systems, nuclear plants, sports arenas, subways, universities, to name a few?

These attacks were so hideous and involved such apparent patience and sophistication that almost nothing -- including weapons of mass destruction -- can now be ruled out. If we don't reclaim our former routines, our fears will become self-fulfilling and self-defeating. But we can never reclaim our former certainty. Our calculus of risk and danger cannot easily cope with the fanatical mind, whose logic is altogether different from ours. The nature of terrorism is that there may be long intervals between incidents, creating a false sense of security.

The new normalcy ought to lie somewhere between hysteria and resignation -- a place more easily described than found. In times like these, we journalists deliver our Olympian judgments. But of course, we are parents, siblings, spouses and citizens before we are reporters, and we are as confused and angry as everyone else. When I wonder about the future, I worry about the world that lies ahead for our children. It's not about soccer anymore.

Washington Post Writers Group

There are no comments - be the first to comment