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For the week of Dec 26, 2001 - Jan 1, 2002

  Opinion Columns

Crossing a great divide

Commentary by ADAM TANOUS

This Dec. 26, the chads have all scattered in the wind. We are a nation suddenly on the other side of a great divide.

At about this time last year there was poison in the air. Political poison. There was rancor over chads: chads hanging, dimpled and pregnant. It is hard to believe now that a piece of paper the size of a house fly could consume the attentions of an entire nation.

This is not to diminish the weight those chads bore. Behind the absurdity of the discussion was a concept as profound as any. It is perhaps no accident that the founders of the nation used as their fundamental premise "life" then "liberty" then the "pursuit of happiness." Granted, democracy means nothing without life, but then life means little without democracy either.

This Dec. 26, the chads have all scattered in the wind. We are a nation suddenly on the other side of a great divide.

For the most part, our history—social, political and economic—has progressed so incrementally as to appear to be a continuum. But this year was different. Like the Civil War, WWII and the assassination of President Kennedy, the events of Sept. 11 created a discontinuity in our history. The events transformed our nation.

It would be easy to say, in looking back at the year, that our concerns prior to Sept. 11 were misguided, even trivial. But that would not be quite right.

Perhaps what we might glean instead is not that we have to do different things with our energies, but that we have to do more things. Just when we thought our lives were as complicated as we could bear, they just became much more so.

Certainly, when we are faced with the reality that jets can be hijacked and slammed into buildings, it is inconceivable not to re-evaluate priorities. Our instinct is to simplify our lives, pare them down to the vital elements. Random tragedy causes us to set our sights less on the other side of the rainbow and more on the moment in the foreground. The great promise of all in the illusive middle distance has always been a shaky proposition. It is shakier now. Life suddenly seems much too precarious for such a dreamy approach to life. And yet, for a nation like ours, dreams are basic sustenance.

Our having to do more pertains to our responsibilities as a nation and as individuals. Yes, we have to hunt down terrorists. We have to spend billions of dollars bombing a bunch of dirt caves. We have to spend hours at airports. We have to irradiate mail. We have to keep tabs on water supplies and vials of microbes.

But in the years to come we also have to do some other things as well:

We have to bring terrorists to justice while at the same time going to great lengths to protect civil liberties. Killing the enemy at war is one thing. But hustling a perceived or proven enemy into a secret tribunal never to be seen or heard from again is another matter altogether. Maintaining due process in such trying circumstances will not be easy. Still, it is necessary to do so if we hope to keep the faith of a nation intact.

We have to address tremendous needs at home, but at the same time engage the rest of the world more than we have of late. To say that President Bush’s tendency toward isolationism is responsible for the events of Sept. 11 would be dead wrong. At the same time, the effort we expend and concern we show for the rest of the world matters profoundly. It would be nice to live in the illusory past where our foreign policy waxed and waned in importance. We don’t have that luxury anymore. There is no denying that the world is smaller now—socially, politically and economically. Pulling out of the Kyoto Accord and the ABM treaty, as well as taking a laissez faire attitude in the Mideast may make our lives easier now, but it will surely complicate our lives later.

We have to come to terms with this nation’s multicultural nature. Somewhere along the way, we stopped believing in the power of the melting pot. This nation started with abundant natural resources. But more than that, it started with a diversity of peoples who brought their talents and experience and wisdom with them. This is why our country has flourished. We are not a Protestant nation, nor a Catholic nation, nor a Jewish nation. We are neither Muslim nor Buddhist. We are what no other country is: all of these. When we accept this as a strength rather than as a liability, we move forward.

It is possible that the rest of the world has learned more about the U.S. this year than perhaps we learned about ourselves. What the world has always underestimated about this nation is the power of our eternal optimism. This optimism is, in a way, a self-fulfilling prophesy. Because anything can happen here, we attract the dreamers of the world. And because the dreamers come, anything can happen here.

The one thing that can’t happen, however, is this big divide we have crossed can’t be recrossed. Despite the initial resentment we might feel about the new protocols of life, we might as well fall back on our optimism and celebrate this side of the great divide.

We now have a new appreciation for life, for our liberties, for what happiness means. Some might say we’ve become a more suspicious nation. But in being suspicious, we are, at least, seeing the people around us again. Our sense of community, ironically, has been strengthened.

What’s more, we’ve come to realize that the strength of the nation is not found in Washington or with our fancy military or bullish stock market. It is strength forged of many small parts—250 million of them, like so many fibers in a weave. It is strength not readily apparent. But it is there when we need it.

This year saw this nation take a blow about as big as a nation can take. And when the wound was laid open what was revealed were people with compassion, strength, courage, conviction—all the stuff of legends. But this was real.


The Idaho Mountain Express is distributed free to residents and guests throughout the Sun Valley, Idaho resort area community. Subscribers to the Idaho Mountain Express will read these stories and others in this week's issue.