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September 11 Didn't Change Enough

By Thane Peterson For the last year, I've had a license-plate frame on my truck displaying the message: "Sept. 11, 2001: Our Loss Will Not Be Forgotten." I bought it because I wanted something that would jar me out of my routine every day and remind me of September. 11. Whenever I look out at the driveway in the morning, or walk across a supermarket parking lot lugging groceries, or fill up at a gas station, I see that license plate and think about the terrorist attacks. Often it happens several times a day.

Unless you lost a loved one or were personally involved somehow, most people need to be prodded to remember. I went to Ground Zero shortly after September 11 and smelled the stink of the smoldering ruins. But memory fades. And despite the government's yellow, orange, and red alerts, you can't stay permanently on guard in the absence of the immediate danger.

Intellectually, Americans know that another bloody terrorist attack is likely to occur, perhaps in London, Paris, or Toronto, if not in New York, Washington, D.C., or Los Angeles. But habit has gradually overwhelmed knowledge. American soldiers may be fighting and dying almost daily in Iraq and Afghanistan, yet most of Americans have fallen back into our old routines.

COMPLACENCY IS BACK. Commentators the world over say September 11 "changed everything." Obviously, it's true for the families of the almost 3,000 people who were murdered that day, as well as for the soldiers who are fighting overseas and their families. And certainly, the thousands of people of Middle-Eastern origin who have been questioned, jailed, or deported have experienced a significant loss of civil liberties.

However, what really changed for average, everyday citizens? Writer Salman Rushdie has said people have lost the aura of safety and ease they had before the attacks. Polls of New Yorkers support that view. But, personally, I don't see much evidence of people being ill at ease.

What I see is complacency setting in -- in a major way. For instance, conventional wisdom held that after September 11 the brutal reality of terror would jar America out of its vapidness. No more reality TV. No more lurid fascination with movie violence or the murder of Chandra Levy.

Fat chance. If movies like Terminator 3 were too violent and tasteless to be shown in the months after September 11, 2001, please explain to me why they suddenly are acceptable now. T3 not only overwhelmed less objectionable fare at the box office this July, it helped propel its star, Arnold Schwarzenegger, to a shot at the California governorship. With all due respect to Ah-nuhld, why do so many people see an action star as preferable to real-life politicians, who have devoted their lives to pubic service -- and have actual platforms?

SHORTCHANGED VETS. This tendency toward mass fantasizing is probably natural in a media-drenched society like America's, but it's also dangerous when real lives hang in the balance. The national outpouring of sympathy and money for the families of those killed on September 11 was heart-warming at the time, but look how badly we as a society have stumbled since then.

Funds that New York legislators envisaged going to shopkeepers and restaurant owners in lower Manhattan ended up in the hands of lawyers and investment advisers. Reports in the New York press claim half those potentially eligible for federal aid haven't even bother to sign up because people complain the paperwork is so daunting. Personal-injury lawyers have swarmed in with plans to sue for huge payouts.

We could learn a lot from Israel, where terrorism is a very real and ever-present threat. There, the government makes a sober assessment of what victims of terrorism need to get on with their lives and gives it to them, without a lot of fuss and long delays. If a teen loses a parent and needs money to continue his or her education, the aid is available. There are no huge payouts and no tawdry calculations as to whether a bond trader's life is worth more than that of a restaurant worker.

The U.S. record -- at least in recent decades -- is equally bad when it comes to supporting military veterans. Americans know we have a huge moral obligation to soldiers who fight for our country. But my guess is that the financial obligation that goes along with it will never be paid in full.

STRAPPED FOR CASH. To its credit, the Bush Administration has proposed boosting spending on programs for veterans by about 30%, to $63.6 billion annually, according to the Veterans Administration. The trouble is such spending will be hard to sustain with the government projected to run annual deficits of $500 billion for years to come. Besides, even the huge sum Bush has allocated is a pittance.

During the boom years of the late 1990s, Congress dramatically expanded eligibility for veterans benefits. Largely because of the Veterans Administration's generous prescription-drug benefits, demand for V.A. services soared. By July of last year, nearly 311,000 vets had been waiting six months or longer for a first appointment with the V.A. The agency says it's rapidly whittling down the backlog, but its spending on vets with no battle-related injuries or trauma has soared from 3% of its budget in 1996 to 33% now, according to Linda Boone, executive director of the Coalition for Homeless Veterans in Washington, D.C.

Veterans account for 23% of the nation's homeless, according to Boone. By the V.A.'s count, some 500,000, or about 2% of the 25 million U.S. military veterans, are homeless during all or part of any given year. Nearly half of the homeless vets served during the Vietnam War era, and many suffer the lingering effects of post-traumatic stress disorder. Yet V.A. homeless services reach only about 40,000 of them, with 170,000 also getting help from community-based programs that get government funding. Now, despite the Administration's overall increase in funding, grants programs for the community-based homeless outreach programs are being reduced, Boone says. Hard-strapped state and local governments also may cut back.

FRENCH WISDOM. It typically takes about a dozen years after discharge for a veteran to become homeless, so a big surge in homelessness among the 700,000 veterans of the first Gulf War could be coming. Meanwhile, the first homeless vets of the current war in Iraq have already shown up on the streets of Boston and San Diego. "If the economy doesn't pick up before they get back, will there be jobs for the people serving in Iraq?" Boone asks. "I doubt it."

So, yes, September 11 did change everything -- in a way. But our contentious allies in France have a saying about that: Plus ca change, plus c'est la meme chose. The more things change, the more they stay the same. Peterson is a contributing editor at BusinessWeek Online. Follow his weekly Moveable Feast column, only on BusinessWeek Online

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