Here are a few things we've learned since Sept. 11: We are not alone. We exist as one nation among many, one culture among many, in what is still a rather disorderly and violent world. Many of the planet's inhabitants -- a lot less well-off than we are -- harbor great hatred for us because of our riches and our power. Much of that hatred is misguided and misinformed, cultivated by unenlightened ruling elites who would strive to unite their people against a common enemy to deflect anger against their own poor stewardship. But some of that anger -- whether or not many Americans wish to accept it -- is based on the real harm inflicted on others by us, because of our own sometimes misguided foreign policies over the last several decades.
We are not safe. There is no way to absolutely defend ourselves against terrorist attacks, especially when the perpetrators are willing to die in their attempts. Our borders will always be somewhat porous; our financial and communication systems are global and interdependent; the world is awash in weaponry, conventional and otherwise, and there is a never-ending supply of soldiers for a war that seeks to destroy the infidels while upholding the one true faith.
Also, things rarely work the way they're supposed to. Our intelligence agencies are not fail-safe; neither are our security and law-enforcement networks. They are staffed by fallible human beings, prone to the same errors in judgment, rationale and procedures we all witness in our workplaces and private lives.
We are still capable of heroic acts of bravery and soul-stirring displays of compassion. After decades of self-involvment and hedonism, the dormant altruism of the American people came out of hiding and provided the world with an inspirational vision of what humans can do for one another when crisis erupts. We replaced our false models of idolatry -- overpaid sports figures and neurotic pop-culture stars -- with real paradigms of selfless service -- firemen, cops, EMTs, construction workers -- finally proving (in John Lennon's words) that a "working-class hero is something to be."
Times do make the man. Before the madmen attacked New York, Mayor Rudy Giuliani was a fading politico with an array of image and health problems. Yet, he turned tragedy into victory for his administration and his city, as he took the reins of leadership in firm, positive and humane hands. Likewise, George Bush, after a shaky start and an administration that seemed stuck in first gear, grew in stature for his measured determination in crafting a multiple-pronged response to the outrage.
First we sleep; then, when we wake, we overreact. Americans tend to make what pilots call the "error-correction error." Instead of slowly and incrementally correcting course when we realize we've drifted from our flight plan, we respond in quick, frenzied movements that, in no time at all, zig us back well beyond our intended path. Soon, we have to compensate again, zagging back the other way, once again overcorrecting. For years our security protocols, especially at airports, were dismayingly inferior. Now, we seem to be overreacting at every level of society. Yes, the threats are real, but sometimes a package on the street is just a book bag, forgotten by some kid on his way home from school.
Political philosophies are apt to change. Only diehard ideologues tend to stick with the partner they came to the dance with, when events so substantially alter the makeup of the band. After Sept. 11, many things changed. Isolationists in the Bush administration found themselves spanning the globe in an effort to coax confederates into their corner. Conservatives, who formerly eschewed the concept of "nation-building," began to talk openly about how they and the United Nations must work together to create a post-Taliban government in Afghanistan. Likewise, some peaceniks on the Left have doffed their pacifism -- like worn-out party clothes -- in the wake of such a naked and heinous act of aggression.
Finally, we still harbor a dangerous streak of McCarthyism in our land. There still exists the tendency for some Americans -- who, heretofore, may have been silent citizens, at best -- to leap to the barricades with flags flying, loudly disparaging those who might disagree with where the bandwagon is headed. That is unfortunate. Those who demand blind allegiance to government policy, or who would wish to silence dissent, or who believe that only they are the true patriots, are no better than the tyrants we say we are against. Silencing critics and dissonant voices is as un-American as it gets. Let's not become what we despise. There's always more to learn.