Archive for Saturday, October 27, 2001

Action required to solidify unity

October 27, 2001


— When the twin towers collapsed, many of us saw a renewed community rising out of the debris. After all, firefighters and financiers, waiters and stock wizards, had died together. Horrified Americans from Ground Zero to the farthest border all felt that we were in this this war, this country together.

"Togetherness" wasn't just a sense of shared vulnerability but of shared values and destiny. It seemed to propel us out of the most intense period of individualism in our history.

I wondered then how long it would last. How could we make it last? Bob Putnam, who wrote "Bowling Alone," cautioned that we need more than shared images on a television screen to keep us connected. We need to "practice" community as the World War II generation did, in their daily lives.

In short, we needed to practice what we preached. And we needed leaders to preach what we should practice.

That was a long, long six weeks ago. Already the first intense wave of civic engagement seems to have receded. The blood donor lines are going back (down) to normal, replaced perhaps by Cipro lines. Attendance at community meetings has subsided. Philanthropy for Sept. 11 seems to have come at the expense of other causes.

Meanwhile, the government has asked of adults only that we shop for our country and get back on the horse or, rather, the plane of the economy. It asked of children only that they pledge allegiance to the flag or pledge a dollar for Afghanistan.

Observing this, one reader who described himself as "a simple ex-soldier" asked a question that recycles through the hundreds of e-mails that have come over my electronic transom:

"During this time of crisis and turmoil, when will the leadership of our nation begin to call upon Americans to make sacrifices that will help support the war effort?" He adds, "I find it incredible that we are waging a war which will more than likely last for years to come, and Americans are being told to live their lives 'normally.'"

Last week in New York, living normally, I thought of this. As I walked around the barriers that surround the World Trade Center site, I saw two makeshift tables with military recruiters. But there was nothing, except carts full of Philly cheese steaks, to entice civilians to service.

It's not that Americans are devoid of ideas on how to enlist people in joint enterprises that require more than donning a red, white and blue ribbon.

John McCain and Evan Bayh are boosting an enlarged AmeriCorps and Peace Corps that would enlist a million young people every four years. There's a renewed conversation about national service that seems to tap into the awakening of a new generation to their place in an anxious world.

There are others trying to connect Sept. 11 to some long-term local engagement.

There is talk of creating "September 11 Volunteers" as a way to encourage and celebrate community volunteers every year. There is a bill halfway through Congress to sell war bonds, an idea disparaged by economists but not by those who believe in social capital.

Meanwhile, Lamar Alexander, Tennessee's former governor, has been promoting "Pledge Plus Three," a plan for schools to follow the pledge of allegiance with a teacher or student talking for 3 minutes about what it means to be American.

The list goes on. But quietly.

Indeed, for every idea to keep us connected there is a centrifugal force. Most disastrously, a tone-deaf House of Representatives passed an economic stimulus package that would give money mostly to the people and corporations that need it least. Just as we are thinking about connections between the minimum and maximum wage workers together at Windows on the World, they offer about $3 billion to IBM and GM and GE asking nothing in return.

It's not easy to promote community in a diverse and fractious country like our own. It may be hard to ask a president focused on safety to turn his eyes on home-front solidarity.

But this is a moment when patriotism can be connected to community-building, when we again remember that there are strings tied to the privilege of being an American and bonds that attach us to our neighbors. The moment can pass too quickly.

On my route to and from work, I see bumper stickers and store signs that announce: United We Stand. But In the long struggle ahead, unity will require more commitment and more action and more leadership than simply standing still.

Ellen Goodman is a columnist for The Boston Globe.

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