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America changed and still the same

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Barack Obama and George W. BushWalking down the streets of any city of the United States today, most everything seems just as it was ten years ago. The same honking horns, hustling crowds, mundane and sometimes myopic worries and preoccupations propelling us.

I note this with gratitude — our fears have not overcome us. Indeed, for a moment during those weeks following September 11, there was a glimmer of something new, a social civility and mutual concern that showed us what we are capable of as a people. We looked at one another and the world differently, treaded more gently and kindly.

Ten years later we find ourselves trying to make up for intervening bad choices, from the invasion of Iraq and the installation of inhumane antiterrorism tactics to the continued weak regulation of our financial sector. And the streets and subways of New York again require the broad shoulders and strong will of a footballer to force one's way through the unseeing crowds.

It's like the aftermath of any personal tragedy, really. In the early days, we gain the frightening awareness of how truly fragile (and blessed) is everything we hold certain. But often enough we soon slip back into sleep. For most of us true conversion entails countless relapses.

Barack Obama's speech at the 2004 Democratic National Convention and his subsequent ascent to the presidency seemed a hopeful sign of a permanent shift in the national temperament. Obama's refusal to fall back on old tropes of Republican vs Democrat or USA triumphant, his unwillingness to use dog whistles or chest thumping to make policy were refreshing in the fullest sense of the word.

Today some historians are noting that the bills passed in Obama's first two years as president constitute the boldest and most far reaching set of legislation in a generation. His presence on the international stage has likewise offered a more adult form of leadership and respect.

At the same time, in the three years since the financial crisis began Obama has proven largely unable to stop the corporate and financial sectors from having their way. The Obama administration has likewise been slow (or unwilling) to pull back from many of the draconian Bush-era policies towards captives who may or may not be terrorists.

And Obama has shown a strange tendency, most recently in the debate over raising our national debt ceiling, to enter the fray too late. He relies on his own ability to salvage situations both too often and, paradoxically, not enough.

Admittedly, none of this seems directly connected to September 11. But with the perspective of ten years September 11 itself is just one of many dominoes, from the global financial crisis and the now-deepening international debt crisis to the natural disasters in places like Indonesia, New Orleans, New Zealand, Japan, Queensland and the Midwest of the US, that have left our world a far more uncertain place than we would like or have imagined.

More and more, we become aware that the instability that erupted into our lives on September 11 might not be a passing phase, might be the new norm to which we must all adjust.

Obama has talked often of the audacious hope that things can change for the better. But alongside hope we need steely-eyed humility to see things again as they truly are. Perhaps our ever-more-super-heated and surreal political climate is an indication of our desperation to avoid that truth.

September 11 has given Americans a greater sense of the world that exists and struggles and rails beyond our shores. It's also given us an appreciation of Islam, both positive and negative, accurate and prejudiced, that we as a country never had before.

But the deeper, lasting conversion remains elusive. It always does. 

Jim McDermott is a former associate editor at America Magazine. He is currently studying screenwriting at the University of California in Los Angeles.

Topic tags: Jim McDermott, September 11, Islam, Barack Obama, George W. Bush



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A sensitive, self-aware and humane reading. Thanks Jim

Michael Kelly | 09 September 2011  

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