The initial reaction of many Americans to the terrorist attack of September 11 was disbelief. The images of destruction seemed surreal, like an action movie utilizing state-of-the-art special effects.
In fact, the events of that terrible day represented a heavy dose of reality that has shaken American politics—and, indeed, American life—to the core. Three elements of reality stand out clearly amid the smoke and ruins.
First, evil does exist in the world. Despite the desperate attempts of Stanley Fish and others to deny it, radical relativism can offer no insight into our current crisis. Postmodernism has run smack dab into original sin, and original sin has won. The therapeutic view of life—that there are no bad people, only poor choices—has been exposed as hollow and unsatisfactory, too, as has multiculturalism, or the view that there are no moral grounds to prefer one culture over another (and certainly no grounds to prefer our own).
Second, mortality cannot be evaded. During the Cold War, the stench of mortality hung in the air. In the 1990s, Americans came to enjoy a more carefree existence. No one doubted that death would come to us all, but few felt it necessary to live every day as if it might be their last. Death has now returned in all its rigor, not as a benign end to a comfortable life but as most of the human race has always known it, as a force of violence and caprice. Americans have taken to wondering if we will ever get back to "normal." Unfortunately, insecurity, war, and fear of violent death are normal. It is the unprecedented complacency of recent years that was abnormal. In any event, the smiley face is out; Hieronymous Bosch is back.
Third, the safety of our country cannot be taken for granted. Unmentioned behind declamations that we had "lost our innocence" lay the face that for much of the American history our safety had not been assured. The British occupied nearly every major colonial city during the Revolution, then in the War of 1812 attacked Baltimore, New Orleans, and Washington, D.C., burning the White House and driving the President and First Lady from the capital. From 1861-65, neither North nor South was safe from military invasion by the other. At Pearl Harbor, a devastating sneak attack propelled the U.S. into World War II. During the Cold War, Alger Hiss and the Rosenbergs demonstrated that America was not immune to subversion from within, even as Soviet missiles showed our vulnerability to nuclear obliteration. In this sense as well, the 1990s were not normal; they were a blessed interlude from what is normal. On September 11, we were reminded that our national security must be earned anew by every generation.
The consequences of these three realizations are far-reaching. Not least, this unwelcome return of reality has forced Americans to reevaluate what is truly important in life. Religion, patriotism, and family have each been embraced more ardently than before. While these changes are not overtly theological or partisan, if they endure, they bode well for the future of conservatism; or, at any rate, they bode ill for opponents of conservatism. Few forces in America provide a more serious obstacle to the radical Left than the triumvirate of faith, family, and flag. This is, of course, precisely why the Left has traditionally devoted such energy to undermining them.
Other political consequences have been felt as well. Take, for example, the following issues:
Gun control. After September 11, it is hard to argue that society is safer as long as law-abiding citizens are disarmed. On the contrary, the airliners were vulnerable precisely because the terrorists, though vastly outnumbered, were the only armed people on the plane. The subsequent demand by the Airline Pilots Association to be allowed to carry firearms is recognition of that fact. Indeed, we are now facing a multi-front war, one front of which consists of irregular military forces infiltrated into America for the purpose of carrying out sabotage and creating mayhem at points of social vulnerability, precisely where there is not a military or police presence. This situation makes an armed citizenry essential for national self-defense, giving new currency to Madison's remark in The Federalist commending "the advantage of being armed, which the Americans possess over the people of almost every nation." By contrast, gun control advocates who ridicule the notion that private gun ownership might be useful in resisting foreign enemies are not the ones who sound ridiculous. The gun-control debate will never be the same, in the air or on the ground.
Immigration. Talk of blanket immunity for illegal aliens in the United States is dead. Instead, Congress will likely tighten immigration controls, making it harder for foreign nationals to get into the U.S. and easier to deport them once they're here. Pressure will be intense on the Immigration and Naturalization Service to screen visa applications more carefully and to follow up on students and others whose visas have expired. Likewise, amid concerns that American Muslims have been relatively muted in their condemnations of terror and their support for the war, Americans seem suddenly more interested in how to assimilate immigrants into American political culture and ensure their loyalty.
"Affirmative Action." The Bush Administration, which last summer announced it would argue for continuation of racial set-asides in government construction contracts, has now dropped Justice Department support for a lawsuit alleging that a big-city fire department was biased against women because its entry test required a standard of physical strength most female applicants couldn't meet. This decision elicited barely a peep of protest, even from hard-core feminists. Every other American who works or lives above the second floor instantly understood the stakes. Public safety has always been a matter of life or death. It has always been more important that satisfying ideological predictions of the National Organization of Women. But because NOW paid more attention than the average American, who simply assumed that safety came first, NOW often won. No longer.
"Racial Profiling." Amazingly, a recent poll found that 71 percent of black Americans now support racial profiling in law enforcement—for Middle Easterners. It was only last year that profiling was the punching bag of candidates everywhere. Democrat Bill Bradley condemned Al Gore for not demanding that Bill Clinton end profiling with an executive order; Gore condemned Bradley for being from New Jersey, where profiling began. George W. Bush promised to look into the issue and correct injustice. Now, a significant number of American opinion leaders is openly arguing that if a particular type criminal activity is carried out disproportionately by a particular type of person, extra scrutiny of persons who fit the description might reflect prudence rather than prejudice. This debate, too, has changed fundamentally.
In each case, before September 11, wishful thinking and utopian ideology dominated the discussion. Since September 11, ideological obsessions have taken a back seat to the dictates of reality. In many respects, leftism is the natural home of dilettantism, the empty posturing that disdains rigorous consideration of practical consequences. It has suddenly become much more difficult to be a dilettante.
While the Left has suffered damage, there ways in which some arguments on the Right have also lost their force.
Perhaps the best example is term limits, which many (though by no means all) conservatives embraced in the 1990s. The unspoken, and perhaps unconscious, assumption behind term limits was that no future crisis would be serious enough to require continuity of government. The travails of New York City, forced by term limits to surrender the services of Mayor Rudolph Giuliani at its moment of maximum need, must cast serious doubt on that assumption. Indeed, the biggest constitutional question facing Congress today is not how to make members leave, but what to do if so many members are killed in a terrorist attack that Congress cannot function. Alexander Hamilton anticipated potential for danger in term limits when in The Federalist he condemned the "ill effect" of "banishing men from stations in which, in certain emergencies of the State, their presence might be of the greatest moment to the public interest or safety." We can now see what he meant.
None of this is to say that things cannot dramatically change again. A string of military or diplomatic reverses might undo the revival of patriotism, sowing malaise, dissent, and division in its place. Americans' return to religion might be short-lived, and might give way to greater hostility as the media and pop-cultural elite equates conservative Christians with the Taliban. For the time being, though, the prospect of a hanging has powerfully concentrated our minds. Death is back among us. Seriousness has followed in its train.