The power of grace under pressure

Thinking Out Loud

Posted: Sunday, March 02, 2003

Fewer than 18 months have passed since foreign terrorists hijacked four jetliners and wreaked murderous havoc from New York City to the Pentagon to southwestern Pennsylvania. In response, countless Americans pledged never again to take their blessings for granted. Awakened and inspired individuals rededicated themselves to being better citizens, friends and loved ones.

Thinking Out Loud

Steve Reed is managing editor of the Empire. He can be reached at

We were going to be more patient, kinder, more generous, charitable, loving and forgiving. Braver, too. We were going to treat one another with respect. Nastiness went out of vogue almost immediately. Civility became the market's only growth stock. Anger, impatience, insults, sarcasm and selfishness seemed unpatriotic.

"Hey, why are you snarling at the grocery store checkout clerk /airport security agent /delivery person /fellow driver /pedestrian /restaurant waitperson /newspaper letter writer /environmentalist /logger /elected official? We're all in this together! Life is short. Chill. Remember the victims of 9/11 - would they want us dissing one another?"

Variations of "What Would Jesus Do?" played across our consciences with Todd Beamer and other hero-passengers from United Flight 93 prominent in the J-role.

That was September 2001.

As winter fades toward the spring of 2003, there are signs the devil is back in the details of our lives.

Last fall's political campaigns marked the official return of business and human nature as usual. Political partisanship reigned. We might have steadied ourselves and reconnected with the high road, but other unwelcome developments converged to form obstacles along the way.

From coast to coast, state capital to state capital, and living room to living room, a too-fragile economy fuels our fears. Suddenly, job security, medical treatment, college and retirement savings, home repairs - our livelihoods and our plans - are jeopardized. And more of us turn against one another because, hey, it's a dog-eat-dog world out there.

Reeling from the vibrant memories of 9/11, feeling unsafe within our national borders for possibly the first time in our history, we want things to settle down. The federal government, however, repeatedly cries wolf, citing reliable information about unspecified threats against airports, national landmarks, water supplies and so forth. We are encouraged to buy duct tape and plastic sheeting. We are running scared, wary of people we don't know and who dress differently or worship differently or who speak languages we don't understand. None of this makes us more tolerant.

Amid concerns for our safety and our finances, the nation prepares for a war the president promotes as necessary - even now, in these circumstances. Millions support the president and direct their simmering resentment at those who don't understand the need for this war. Millions of others march for peace and direct their simmering resentment at the president and anyone who doesn't recognize the costs of war. Neighbors turn against neighbors - in our own back yard, at the United Nations and among NATO.

And here we are, breaking the resolutions we made in September 2001. Increasingly, we are impatient, critical and looking out for No. 1. It's every man for himself, right? Every woman, too.

Have things changed that much in less than 18 months? Are the stakes so high, our fears so great and our differences so stark that there's no room for respectful discourse? If we snatch the last roll of duct tape as the slower-moving shopper reaches for it, if we flip off another driver who crosses our path, if we push to the front of every line and if seek to prevail in every unnecessary argument, do we win?

Is that the harvest of these uncertain times?

Is that the legacy of 9/11?

Steve Reed is managing editor of the Empire.

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