Our politics became increasingly rancorous and partisan, fueled by politicians who couldn't let go of the last election or stop plotting for the next. Our economy, after 18 years of unprecedented prosperity, teetered on the edge of recession. Only days ago, our society seemed obsessed with the trivial (a big lottery payoff) and the absurd (whom Gary Condit was sleeping with).
But the terrorist assault on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon has completely altered the political and social landscape. And all signs indicate that it has brought about a united nation capable of great courage, wisdom and prudence.
Signs of courage in a new America abound: The hundreds of New York City firefighters and police officers who plunged into the burning twin towers to rescue people, giving no thought to their own safety. The passengers on United Airlines Flight 93 who decided to "do something" to stop the terrorists who had hijacked their plane.
The wisdom is present too. You can see it in Secretary of State Colin Powell, who persuaded NATO to do what it had never done before in its 52-year history -- declare that a terrorist attack on one NATO member is an attack on all. Vice President Richard Cheney displayed war-tested wisdom as he managed the underground command center at the White House. Democratic leaders Joseph Lieberman, Richard Gephardt and Hillary Clinton showed wisdom as they pledged support for a president whose legitimacy they had questioned.
And to see the prudence of a new America at work, consider how President Bush has behaved. He didn't rattle a saber when he spoke about what we will do to international terrorists and those who harbor them. He explained, quietly and firmly, that this scourge will be ended. Attorney General John Ashcroft has shown judicial prudence by supervising the largest manhunt in history and drawing the net ever tighter around the terrorists still at large -- all the while guarding the civil liberties we cherish in this country.
Other signs of a New America: The overnight surge in military enlistments by teens and young adults once dismissed as spoiled and self-absorbed. The thousands lining up to give blood. The tens of millions of dollars of donations flowing to the Salvation Army and other faith-based organizations who, just weeks ago, were questioned whether their beliefs would prevent them from giving aid in an effective and non-biased fashion. The doubled and tripled attendance at churches, synagogues and mosques. The runaway sale of American flags -- one store in Chicago sold 25,000 flags in one day, more than it had in all of the past year.
Those are the larger examples, but the small ones are powerful too: The simple eloquence of the man explaining why he risked his life to help someone buried beneath the rubble. A fire chief choking back tears as he remembered his friend, a priest, who suddenly disappeared in a cloud of dust as he looked for people to comfort. The quiet acceptance by gridlocked motorists of a woman in a business suit directing traffic.
Even the news media seem to have changed. They are now reporting the news -- not opinion disguised as analysis or promotions for television shows or movies disguised as features. The anchors kept their voices low and measured. For the most part, they reported the facts and avoided speculation. It's hard to believe this was the same group who gave us all Monica, all the time.
There will be serious tests of the national will in the coming weeks, months and years. But what will keep us going is what the Founders institutionalized and Alexis de Tocqueville observed -- America's unique mix of liberty and faith.
Now, as in crises past, faith and freedom will produce a stronger America. It's no longer a "red" and "blue" nation. It's red, white and blue. May it be so forever.
Lee Edwards, a senior fellow at The Heritage Foundation, is the author of several books, including "The Conservative Revolution: The Movement that Remade America."
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