Real Masters of the Universe

By Bruce Nussbaum

A subtle shift in the American zeitgeist took place on Sept. 11. It's hard to define, and it may not last. But on the day of the World Trade Center cataclysm, the country changed. Big, beefy working-class guys became heroes once again, replacing the telegenic financial analysts and techno-billionaires who once had held the nation in thrall. Uniforms and public service became "in." Real sacrifice and real courage were on graphic display.

Maybe it was the class reversals that were so revealing. Men and women making 40 grand a year working for the city responding--risking their own lives--to save investment bankers and traders making 10 times that amount. And dying by the hundreds for the effort. The image of self-sacrifice by civil servants in uniform was simply breathtaking.

For Americans conditioned in the '90s to think of oneself first, to be rich above all else, to accumulate all the good material things, to take safety and security for granted, this was a new reality. So was the contrast of genuine bravery to the faux values of reality TV shows such as Survivor.

SEA OF FLAGS. Noteworthy, too, was America's quick return to family, community, church, and patriotism in the aftermath of the tragedy. People became polite and generous to one another without prodding. On that day and the days that followed, they told their wives and husbands and children and parents and significant others they loved them. And the flags, the sea of flags that appeared out of nowhere and spread everywhere, worn by business-suited managers and eyebrow-pierced, tattooed teenagers. As if by magic, city taxicabs, building canopies, and nearly every truck in sight were flying flags.

The offerings of food, money, and blood were overwhelming. The generosity was unsurpassed in our memories. But the manner in which perfect strangers went out of their way to help one another in all kinds of situations was most amazing. To the surprise of its residents, New York became a small-town community. The day-to-day antagonisms among the citizenry melted away.

The rush to church, synagogue, and, yes, mosque was equally unusual. People returned to their religious ceremonies and congregations in huge numbers for support and guidance. The overflow at the doors demonstrated that many who had not visited in years showed up to participate in the familiar and comforting liturgies of their childhoods. They joined with their neighbors in mourning.

LESSONS TAUGHT. It was, for a moment, an old America peeking out from behind the new, me-now America. We saw a glimpse of a country of shared values, not competing interest groups; of common cause, not hateful opposition. There were a few exceptions: Jerry Falwell declaring we brought the death and destruction down on ourselves because of homosexuality, abortion, and the American Civil Liberties Union. A silly, stupid comment to be dismissed in light of the comity of the day--but an extremist remark nonetheless made in the name of God. How sad.

Tragedy has the power to transform us. But rarely is the transformation permanent. People and societies revert back to the norm. But what is the "norm" for America? Where are this nation's true values? Have we stripped too much away in recent years in order to make us lean and mean for the race to riches? It is hard to look at the images of the World Trade Center rescue again and again. At least once, however, we should look at what the rescuers are teaching us, about what matters--and who.

Nussbaum is Editorial Page Editor.

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