The Way Things Were

The Way Things Were

The man in front of me at the United Airlines ticket counter is tall and blond. With his dark blazer, gray slacks and power-red tie, his entire
being screams “alpha male,” as does his body language. He fidgets, moving his weight from one foot to the other. He runs his hand through his hair. He turns to the left and to the right and makes nervous chatter. At some point, he turns to his rear and offers one of those impatient smiles. “This line is a mess, isn’t it,” he offers. “I can’t wait until we get back to normal. Weren’t things wonderful the way they were. Now I can hardly remember normal travel.” 
I am sure that I mumbled some response to the man’s friendly overture, but it wasn’t much of a response. When he spoke of things “the way they were,” a chill ran up my spine. It was almost as if he were accepting Sept. 10, 2001, as our ideal, economically, socially, culturally and politically. It was as if he would do anything to get back to “the way things were” before the awful attack of Sept. 11, the horrid terrorism that cost our nation more than 6,000 lives.
If my traveling colleague were to click his heels three times, what kind of world would he go back to? Would he go back to one where distributional differences were either accepted or rationalized as a “market” outcome? Back to a world where Black unemployment was double the White unemployment rate, with no federal focus on closing the gap? Back in the day, before 9-11, there was a struggle for economic justice, a struggle to close racial economic gaps, but that, perhaps, is a struggle my colleague could not see or understand. Would he like to go back to his previous state of unconsciousness?
Would he go back to a world where education was a political football, to be kicked around a playing field that will be level? Or, would he go back to a world where ignorance was the rule of the day, where Christians prided themselves on knowing so little about Muslims that one of our elected officials could talk about someone “with a diaper on his head.” Once we were just who we were, the biggest, baddest, boldest and most invincible. Now, we are sorting through rubble to find the remains of our fellow citizens. I understand the sentiment to go back to being the biggest and baddest. But were we ever the most realistic?
On Sept. 10, 2001, we were an arrogant society plagued with problems. We had no national unity, with about half of the nation openly critical of a president who lost the popular vote and probably won the electoral vote because of his brother’s shenanigans in Florida. The president slipped on his lip when he said he wanted Osama bin Laden “dead or alive,” but this is the same rhetoric that his domestic policy has been riddled with. He has created divisions when there ought to be consensus on issues like education. And, before Sept. 10, he had thumbed his nose at the very international community he now seeks to join in coalition to fight world terrorism.
Before Sept. 10, we were sliding into recession with no possibility of federal bailout. Until Sept. 11, George W. Bush felt that stimulus packages were for the Democrats, and that he’d rather stimulate the economy by cutting taxes, thank you. A national emergency has generated faith (or hope) in his ability to lead, and freed him from the shackles of his party’s right wing. Now, the $75 billion stimulus package he offers may well both jump-start the terrorist-scarred economy and also save him from his father’s fate — an economic slowdown on his watch.
If the stimulus package takes us back to the “way we were,” then shame on us. A stimulus package, if it is just and fair, will focus especially at those at the bottom, those who have missed a decade of economic expansion.
When we consider “the way we were” we also must consider that which we were ignorant of. Why don’t we understand more about the Middle East and the tensions that will not disappear there?
Do African Americans know that the British almost made part of Uganda a colony for Jewish people? Imagine how that one would have played out! Do we really know, really understand why so many people hate Americans? If we have talked to our elders, do we understand why so many of them, shedding tears, say they wonder why it took so long for someone to bring America to its knees?
I am not nostalgic for the way we were, for the gaps, the divisions, the unfairness, the racial and gender-based differences in employment experiences that most felt. I don’t want to click my heels three times and go back to a more “normal,” “calmer” and better time. Instead, I want us to move forward. Things weren’t so good on Sept. 10, and we gain when we recognize that. When I think of the United States on 9-11, I think of the adage, “Ignorance is bliss.” There is another — “knowledge is power.” Finally, things may have been all right for some Americans, but others experienced terrorism, even before 9-11. 



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