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Urban Rhythms

The World Turned Upside Down

By Wiley Hall III | Posted 10/10/2001

This is all about the day the universe changed.

Every now and then an event occurs that turns reality--or at least our perception of it--on its head. In my brief tenure in this, our real world, the assassination of John F. Kennedy Jr. qualifies as a reality-altering event. The murder of Martin Luther King Jr. and the riots that followed was another. Older folk have similar feelings about the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor and the day the U.S. Supreme Court desegregated the nation's schools.

Now we have Sept. 11, the day terrorists attacked the United States and killed nearly 6,000 people.

I didn't want that terrible day to change things so completely. I have struggled against it, denied it, tried to pretend that normalcy is just around the corner. But the universe has changed. Nothing is the same. Our perception of reality has been flipped on its head.

We got a graphic example of how thoroughly our lives have been altered in the week just past. Suddenly, out of the blue on Oct. 3, a man slashed the throat of a Greyhound bus driver on the road 60 miles southeast of Nashville, causing the bus to tip over, killing the attacker and five other passengers and injuring 35 others. Then an airplane exploded in midair over the Black Sea. And then we found out two South Florida men have been exposed to the extremely rare and extremely deadly anthrax virus.

Immediately, in each case, the mind leapt to the possibility of another terrorist attack. Heaven knows random acts of violence and outbreaks of disease are common enough in this country. Planes explode, people die, all over the world. But Sept. 11 laid another level of insecurity on our perception of the way things are. Reality has flip-flopped. The president has declared war on an unseen enemy. No wonder we're suddenly jumping at shadows.

You may argue that we never really had a right to feel safe in this crazy, mixed-up world of ours. And you'd be right. But suddenly we feel as if we're sitting in the center of a bull's-eye. The president and his war council can shout their brazen defiance at the bad guys and then scurry for shelter behind the best barricades the country can provide. But now we know beyond any shadow of a doubt that the terrorists are not averse to picking on easier targets and hello! there we are--you, me, and all our loved ones--plump as turkeys and ready to be plucked.

But insecurity is just one dimension of this new world order. Hours after the attack on Sept. 11, some of our nation's leaders trotted out their laundry list of proposals for expanded police powers, increased surveillance, and a renewal of racial profiling. In this time of crisis, this national emergency, this inception of a terrible new war against terrible new enemies, we have been urged to be patient, to prepare ourselves to sacrifice, to accept that certain freedoms may be luxuries we can no longer afford. On Oct. 8, President Bush installed Tom Ridge as director of the new Office of Homeland Security and empowered him with a broad but nebulous mandate to mobilize the nation's domestic defenses against our shadow enemy.

Frankly, this scares me almost as much as the terrorists. We have seen in our very recent past how paranoid leaders can draw up an enemies list, and how that list can grow exponentially. We here in the homeland have ceded power in our moment of fear so that law enforcement can sally forth to fight our shadow enemies. We might have a devil of a time getting that power back once this war is over.

Yes, this is all about the day the universe changed.

My elders have lived through such reality-altering events before. I find this reassuring. They may be wrinkled and bent over today, but those tough old buzzards managed to survive the stock-market crash that ushered in the Great Depression. They lived through the sneak attack that plunged the United States into World War II.

As a matter of fact, my generation is pretty resilient as well. We were encouraged to see in Kennedy the symbol of America's youth and vitality, only to have that icon shot down under mysterious circumstances. Our country seemed so bitterly, violently divided in the years following King's assassination that insurrection and riot were everyday events.

It is always a hard thing to believe--at those moments when the world suddenly lurches into another reality--but if history teaches us anything, it is this: The universe has changed many times in the past. And we always manage to survive it.

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