More patriotic? More spiritual? Americans differ on how Sept. 11 changed them

Posted: Wednesday, March 06, 2002

NEW YORK -- ''United we stand'' has been a fitting motto for the nation since Sept. 11, as Americans have pulled together in prayer and patriotism. But if unity in crisis is a national trait, so are doubting and debating.

Six months after the attacks, griping at airports is back in fashion and flag sales finally are slowing. Many people are increasingly willing to question new security measures, and argue whether love of country is being overpromoted by politicians and pitchmen.

Clearly, the attacks altered the attitudes and assumptions of most Americans, yet there is no real consensus about the nature and permanence of the changes. Measuring patriotism, or community spirit, or vulnerability, is difficult.

Some religious leaders believe the national trauma fueled a deeper sense of spirituality, even though church attendance -- which surged after Sept. 11 -- is back to pre-attack levels.

''We've moved from safety to fear, from immortality to knowing very much that we're going to die,'' said Stephen Bouman, bishop of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America for the New York City area.

Bouman, who worked long hours providing comfort in the aftermath of the attacks, has been particularly struck by the reaction of his son's contemporaries in their 20s and early 30s.

''When I talk to them, they're telling their stories, they're asking questions,'' Bouman said. ''They may not come to my church, but they sure want to talk to someone who represents a spiritual approach. It's a whole generation that has moved from entitlement to vulnerability.''

Dismay over the attacks prompted 150 parishioners at St. Mary's Catholic Church in Westville, Ill., to sign up for a perpetual prayer circle -- volunteering for at least one hour a week to ensure that someone is praying in the church round the clock.

''It was something we need in light of everything that happened,'' said Elmer Nicklas, 62, who prays at 1 a.m. on Wednesdays. ''There's nothing wrong with everyone giving another hour to our Lord.''

In Brandon, S.D., workers at Luverne Fire Apparatus found a hands-on outlet for their emotions -- devoting an estimated 2,000 hours on nights and weekends to build a $300,000 fire truck for New York City.

''When the attacks happened, it made you feel empty, helpless,'' said engineer Chris Geringer, who designed the truck. ''Now we feel like we were able to help.''

In the first few weeks after the attacks, air travelers considered themselves -- and their crews -- courageous for flying. But now they are ready to grumble again, about skimpy meals, check-in delays or intrusive searches.

''I'm used to being scanned with a wand, but this whole new thing of frisking is crossing the line,'' said Anita Seykora, a Sioux Falls, S.D., business executive.

Other bits of the daily routine have changed, too, if only in the way Americans feel about them.

Sandy Dunbar, a harbor pilot in Maine's Casco Bay, said he and his colleagues have become more vigilant when they board foreign tankers. ''Something eight months ago that wouldn't have bothered us, now we take another look at it,'' he said.

In Missouri, however, some legislators are skeptical of a $2.4 million plan to install security-badge scanners, turnstiles and mailroom X-ray machines at the statehouse complex.

''With all this work and all this money, what are we really doing?'' asked Rep. Tim Green, D-St. Louis. ''If somebody really wants to do something ... we can't stop them.''

Nationwide polls indicate that roughly one-third of Americans remain fearful that they or their families could be victims of terrorism, but more than 80 percent also say they are now ''back to normal.'' Frank Newport, editor-in-chief of the Gallup Poll, said surveys of personal happiness now show responses comparable to before Sept. 11.

''The biggest and most remarkable change has been in attitude toward the government,'' Newport said, citing recent polls that gave President Bush and Congress record-high approval ratings.

At Flags Unlimited in Tampa, Fla., executive John Lynch said flag sales have leveled off after an unprecedented surge in September, but are still about 50 percent higher than the same period 12 months ago.

''Patriotism was swollen to a peak we've never seen before,'' Lynch said. ''It will come down, but never to the low point it was before Sept. 11.''

Karlyn Bowman, a public opinion expert with the American Enterprise Institute, believes the attacks brought to the surface a bedrock of patriotism that was always there.

''It comes out more overtly now, more flags and bumper stickers,'' she said. ''But even if those come down, I don't think the deep love of this country is lost.''

In several states, lawmakers galvanized by the terror attacks are seeking to require ''In God We Trust'' mottoes to be displayed in every public school. One such bill cleared the Virginia Senate with opposition from only one lawmaker, Democrat Richard Saslaw, who remarked, ''If this is how we have to get patriotism in this country, we are in a bad way.''

Republican John Andrews was frustrated when Democrats in the Colorado Senate -- wary of mandating patriotism -- killed his proposal to require public school students to recite the pledge of allegiance.

''If our public schools aren't about teaching the love of country, what are they about at all?'' he asked.

Cecilia O'Leary, a history professor at California State-Monterey Bay and author of ''To Die For: The Paradox of American Patriotism,'' worries that the heartfelt patriotism that surfaced after the attacks is in danger of being manipulated.

''There has been such a decline in participatory culture, where people themselves get to define what it means to be an American,'' said O'Leary. ''So much of it is defined now through television, through commerce, through official statements from the White House.

''We're at a very pivotal moment ... We need to see that it's patriotic to be a critical thinker.''

For virtually all Americans, the date of the attacks will henceforth have somber overtones. That posed a dilemma for Rodney and Pamm Plamondon of Galt, Calif., who were married on Sept. 11, 1993.

They renewed their marriage vows Feb. 2 -- at a military base before Rodney's National Guard unit was deployed to Kuwait -- to give themselves a new anniversary date. They plan to dedicate each future Sept. 11 to the memory of the victims.

''Sept. 11 is, I guess you could say, tarnished,'' Pamm Plamondon said. ''I hate to say it, but I wanted another day I could say was just my and Rodney's day.''

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