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After September 11: The Bumpy Road to a New Normalcy

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The events of September 11 call for an assessment of changes and for a confrontation rooted in reality — the reality of technology as the great facilitator and enabler; globalization as an overpowering centripetal force; decentralization as a driving force in business, geopolitics, and terrorism; and empowerment of the powerless as active players in the balance of power. These are the realities of the new normalcy.

Nothing gives one person so much advantage
over another as to remain cool and unruffled
under all circumstances.
—Thomas Jefferson

In both the best and worst of times, major changes can develop relatively unnoticed and unannounced. Then, suddenly, a shocking turn of events calls attention to changes that are well underway—the Boston Tea Party, Fort Sumter, a stock market crash, Pearl Harbor, assassinations, September 11, 2001. The world then seems to change suddenly when actually, changes were already taking hold. Despite the attention that dramatic events receive, they don't make changes. They call the country to attention. The more we have ignored signs and portents, the less prepared we are. First comes shock, then a time of uncertainty. The nation seems to stand still, then it becomes aware of what's been happening and reacts—strongly.

On December 7, 1941, Americans heard shocking news, and those who were listening to the radio never forgot that day. The Japanese bombed American Navy and Army facilities at Pearl Harbor in Hawaii, at the time a U.S. territory. Radios across the nation spread the news as Americans tuned in at home, at work, at their neighbor's, in country stores, at the local barber shop. The next day, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt told the U.S. Congress that December 7 would be "a day that would live in infamy" and asked for a formal declaration of war against Japan.

Very soon, Americans realized that things had changed, as in previous wars. For many, personal memories were still there. The U.S. had entered World War I only 24 years earlier and the Spanish-American War 43 years before. Even some Civil War veterans were still alive. In a matter of months after Pearl Harbor, a new normalcy had taken shape. Within six months, there was rationing of raw materials, later of food and medical supplies. Young men and women by the millions were going off to war. The nation focused quickly on the task at hand: to defeat the Axis and restore peace. It was clear-cut, it was personal, it was all-out.

On September 11, 2001, many Americans saw the traumatic events of that morning live on television and had trouble absorbing what they watched, as a second plane crashed into the twin towers of the World Trade Center. A jarring call to arms punctuated the realization that something earthshaking had taken place. Americans confronted problems and threats that were real, but unthinkable before 9-11. As America's heartland felt the shock radiating out from New York, the reaction in Wisconsin was typical. Citizens steeled themselves for an uncertain future. In the state capital, Madison, barriers were quickly put up to block vehicles from approaching government buildings. Soon, postal workers were implementing security procedures to protect themselves from anthrax. Even an ordinary 34-cent letter could look menacing. The governor appointed an antiterrorism task force. Newspapers and TV stations reported the battering of the economy, the difficulty of hunting down the terrorists, and the threat of bioterrorism. America the secure felt vulnerable, from barbershop to local tavern, from Sunday worshipers to Saturday revelers.

On October 25, 2001, Vice President Dick Cheney announced that America had better get used to a "new normalcy," one marked by greater security checks within the nation, in a new kind of war in which the number of casualties within the U.S. could exceed those incurred on the battlefield. That same day, Congress finalized passage of legislation giving government officials vast new powers to monitor telephone and Internet dialogues and to arrest and hold suspected terrorists. One adjustment quickly followed another. Long lines at airport security points replaced quick boarding by frequent flyers arriving at the last minute. Border crossings in North America began to look like entrances to military bases. Working on the top floors of tall buildings suddenly seemed dangerous, rather than prestigious. Lower became better.

What made the new 9-11 normalcy different and unsettling was the lack of precision about enemies without uniforms out to get us. Is it the neighbor whose children play soccer with our children? The research scientist in the next aisle? The foreigner signing up for flight school? What are the names and serial numbers of the enemy we want to engage and defeat? Where are they, so we can take them on with our cutting-edge military technology? What is their tangled web of support? How reliable are our allies? As U.S. government officials kept repeating to the press and public about a situation so fuzzy, so frustrating, "We are going to have to feel our away along; this is a new circumstance."

Nonetheless, the lessons from history remain the same. While sudden events shock us, they do not occur in a vacuum. Pearl Harbor is an example. Beginning in the early 1930s, American officials and citizens who took the time to notice realized that the Japanese did not hesitate to use military force to expand their influence in the Pacific. Just by reading a mainstream newspaper, Americans would have known that, throughout the 1930s, the U.S. and Japan had significant differences over the supply of oil, which the Americans had and the Japanese needed. It did not take inside information and exhaustive analysis to foresee a confrontation with Japan, as various government officials began to realize by early 1941.

In the 1970s and 1980s, portents in the Middle East were there to recognize as various Arab states supported terrorism and sponsored acts of terrorism against the U.S. military, against embassies, and against individual American citizens held as hostages. As so often happens in history, individual events point to dangers on the horizon. Behind the events, there are underlying changes—trends in the making that provide the context for a new normalcy.

In confronting what is happening, there is another lesson from history to remember. In every critical situation, some people suffer from new conditions while others benefit. Those who benefit do so both by accident and by design. Those who keep their bearings realize that we can leverage our resources to protect ourselves, to optimize our efforts, to lift our spirits, to deal with uncertainty. In our response, an optimistic approach is in sync with the American experience. During the darkest days of the Civil War following Fort Sumter, President Abraham Lincoln kept making speeches that said essentially, "This, too, shall pass." His celebrated second Inaugural Address and his speech at Gettysburg were grounded in the proposition that the dark events of the time would be overcome and that the nation would not only survive, but it would thrive.

The message was addressed to a country that would have to recover from a Civil War in which nearly 18 percent of all soldiers died in battle, half of them buried in unmarked graves. Towns and rural communities had lost dozens—even scores—of its native sons in military units which were often populated by soldiers from a single community. A disaster in one corner of a Civil War battlefield could plunge an entire community into grief for a generation. The entire South was ravaged, homes burned to the ground, businesses destroyed. It took decades to rebuild the South's economy.

As difficult as things were, ordinary citizens and public officials overcame them over time through continuous, forward-looking efforts. The circumstances after 9-11 have become our reality and our challenge, the result of trends that have become entrenched, though not fully recognized. The way forward is essentially a combination of caution, common sense, firm resolve, and the pursuit of new opportunities. This calls for an assessment of changes well underway before 9-11 and for a confrontation rooted in reality— the reality of technology as the great facilitator and enabler; globalization as an overpowering centripetal force; decentralization as a driving force in business, geopolitics, and terrorism; and empowerment of the powerless as active players in the balance of power. These are the realities of the new normalcy.

Technology: The Great Facilitator

Among modern nations today, the United States stands out in leading the way with advanced technologies as never before in its history. In fact, if someone wanted to find a silver bullet in our society, it would be the total collection of technologies already available and in use, as well as the knowledge Americans have and are using to develop even more effective tools. Various groups of Americans continue to worry about the effects of one technology or another in harming the environment or in eliminating jobs. However, the fact remains that this nation's economy has prospered since the 1840s, thanks in important ways to a vast collection of technologies that it either invented (such as the telephone and the PC) or exploited at least as well as any other society.

As far back as the Civil War, the death toll fostered the American penchant for innovations after almost every family in the nation experienced a loss of relatives or friends. A determination to develop technologies that would minimize loss of life became an essential design point in U.S. military strategies for the next 14 decades. Unlike the British army in World War I and the Russian army in both World War I and II, which relied extensively on the deployment of massive numbers of soldiers to win battles, America relied more on technology to do the job. The American military and its political leaders always sought to minimize deaths. President Harry S. Truman argued that the reason he authorized use of atomic bombs in Japan was to save the lives of a million Allied soldiers. President George Bush and his generals designed the Gulf War campaign to minimize American casualties; indeed, less than 400 Americans died in that conflict. The campaign in Afghanistan was clearly designed to maximize enemy casualties while minimizing American losses. One reason why the American military specialized in, and did so well with, air warfare throughout the twentieth century was its collection of technologies. In addition to limiting American casualties, it proved an effective way to wage war.

The nation's inventory of technologies that can improve productivity, decentralize work, and enrich quality of life delivers enormous benefits. The national highway system makes it possible to distribute goods quickly across the nation. Almost every building and home has a telephone. Almost every home has a TV and a radio. The Internet is more widely used in this nation than anywhere else in the world, delivering information and services widely. An extensive list of technologies improves economic competitiveness, and personal security, and meets other needs of the nation. In confronting the new normalcy and terrorism, we need to increase our use of technology and to find more novel applications. Just as technology can provide weapons to attack us, it can provide defenses.

Anthrax in the fall of 2001 is an example. There was enormous concern about the safety of handling mail because anthrax was found in correspondence mailed to various people around the country. Postal workers died, politicians were tested to make sure they were not infected, and thousands of incidents occurred where citizens felt their mail was contaminated, causing police, fire, and other public officials to divert their attention from their normal duties. As public officials explored ways and means to decontaminate mail, at least a partial answer was at hand: Reduce the volume of physical mail by accelerating the use of e-mail.

In the financial marketplace, banks have tried for nearly a decade to persuade customers to bank online. Companies have offered to bill customers electronically. (Among themselves, businesses had already moved en masse to e-billing in the late 1990s.) With the growing availability of the Internet, one wonders how long it will be practical to publish and mail catalogs to our homes. First-class mail has been declining for over a decade, replaced by e-mail. One can reasonably expect that 9-11 and anthrax problems will speed up the shift of communications from paper to the Internet. Computer vendors and software manufacturers know how to do that and are already pushing their case. It is cheap, fast, and safer than moving tons of paper. While paper-based mail will probably not go away in our lifetime, we can expect a vast increase in the electronic movement of mail. The trend was already evident in the aftermath of 9-11, as bill paying via the Internet accelerated.

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