Today marks three months since everything changed.
The events of Sept. 11, primarily, along with travel, war, mail and anthrax, secondarily, have caused many of us to take stock.
What is important?
In sorting priorities, we cannot help but consider topical issues: The president's leadership, civil liberties, the military campaign, the risk of travel, handling the mail, saving for retirement, the longing for and comfort of family.
Some things that seem crucially important are merely transient. The current president's father was riding a crest of popularity during the Gulf War, but didn't win a second term. Richard Nixon won a historic landslide in 1972, but resigned in disgrace.
The meaning? America survives, grows stronger, perhaps even wiser, regardless of who is the White House.
Our wisdom can be selective. When the economy was going gangbusters throughout most of the '90s, we knew it couldn't last but behaved as if it would. Many of us squandered the opportunity to save, choosing instead to spend. With times now tougher and the economy needing a consumer spending boost, we've gotten religion and begun squirreling away discretionary income for our kids' college or for our golden years.
When we sort through our feelings today, things that seemed important on Sept. 10 may matter less now. ''Baseball is life,'' the T-shirts say. Not really. The 2000 vote count in Florida? Time to let go and move on, although there is a continuing need for election reform.
As we become introspective, everything gets personal. I can't possibly be the only citizen who has stopped to ask, ''What do I believe in?''
Maybe everything was crystal clear for you before Sept. 11 and remains so today. I've needed these three months.
With U.S. citizens in and out of uniform targeted at home and abroad, and with dissonant voices insisting that America is reaping in terror attacks what it has sown in foreign policy, I have had to address citizenship and patriotism.
I love this country. When I say that, I mean I love the resilience of this democracy. I confess to having experienced Vietnam War-era ambivalence. For me, everything became clear when I spent two years living in a totalitarian state (the former Soviet Union) and 15 months living in a socialist democracy, (the United Kingdom). At that point, I knew that constitutional democracy was better than any other system of governance.
Because our system depends on people and because people are flawed, we sometimes experience disappointments and abuses -- Richard Nixon and Bill Clinton, come to mind. But the foundation is fundamentally sound.
My love for this country involves the necessity of questioning my government (not the principles of democracy). Watergate provides a good example why.
I believe patriotism, like religion, is deeply personal. I believe it is harder to be a knowledgeable, participating, voting citizen than it is to wave the flag or recite the Pledge of Allegiance. Therefore, I value civic responsibility more than symbols. That said, I respect the flag as the leading symbol of everything this country stands -- and fly it from my front porch.
I value individual rights, especially free speech and free press, more than this nation's recent administrations have valued free speech and free press, but probably not as much as our Founding Fathers did. After all, they had experienced the absence of those freedoms.
Finally, I still do not believe Sept. 11 resulted from U.S. arrogance or indifference. The word is out on the streets around the planet. Tens of millions of people in dozens of countries want to live here. Everyone here is free to leave, but most of us stay.
These have been three difficult months. More difficult months and years lie ahead. Tough times invite us to examine our values. Once identified, we can try to live them every day.
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