MAXWELL: Our old sense of Americanness is lost
9/10/2006 – Printed in the PERSPECTIVE section of The St Petersburg Times Newspaper

According to New York Times/CBS News polls, two-thirdsof New Yorkers said they remain “very concerned” that another World Trade Center-type terrorist attack will occur and that they think about their personal safety almost daily. Outside New York, the fear is lower. Residents seem to be coming to terms with what is being referred to as the “new normal” of the post-Sept. 11 age.
I see something more ominous beneath the fears of physical attacks, of planes being flown into buildings or planes being blown up in midair, of crowded commuter trains and buses being bombed.
For me, the “new normal” is a new Americanness, an alien force that I totally reject. Before Sept. 11, we believed, or at least most of us fancied ourselves believing, in the precepts of individual freedom enshrined in the U.S. Constitution and the sentiments of protest in the Declaration of Independence.
As a teacher, a journalist and a civil rights activist, I freely voiced my opinion for civil rights and demonstrated against the Vietnam War without fear of being labeled un-American.
During my lectures as a professor, in my columns and during my talks with people in foreign nations during my travels, I lauded, among other principles, our free press, the right of ordinary citizens to openly criticize our president and our right of privacy.
I thought of myself as a benign promoter of American exceptionalism. I believed, like millions of other Americans, that because of our democratic practices and ideals, the United States was inherently different from other nations. I believed that we played a special role in the world. I never said so publicly, but I was convinced that although America had warts and blind spots, we nonetheless traveled the moral road more often than most other developed nations in the West.
In short, as a U.S. citizen, I felt special because of our Americanness. We did not, for example, violate the Geneva Conventions. Now, and I do not need to recite the entire litany, we have abandoned much of the moral high ground, and many people in the rest of the world have lost respect for us.
Back on the home front, the federal government has assumed the right to snoop on us without warrants. Criticizing the president and his wrongheaded policies will get you denounced as a traitor. Giving a lecture that suggests that we might have imperialist tendencies will unleash conservative wrath against the hapless professor.
Osama bin Laden does not need to attack us again. In a way, his mission has been accomplished if part of the intention was to change our way of life, our esprit.
Thanks, in large measure, to President George W. Bush and his constant allusions to Hitler and Lenin and the old wars, we are fast becoming what the terrorists want us to become: a people ruled by fear, a race without optimism.
Much is being made of the unity and bipartisanship immediately following the Sept. 11 attacks and our descent into the virulent partisanship that has given us a do-nothing Congress and pitted ordinary citizens against one another across the land. We all feel the loss of something truly special.
Osama bin Laden could not have devised a better plan than to attack when he did, when the incurious Bush and his neoconservative mentors were waiting for an excuse to attack Iraq. The unintended consequence, of course, was that after dethroning Saddam Hussein, Bush and his people would wreck our own democratic values and institutions.
Were the terrorist leaders that smart? I think so. Even now, just in time for the fifth anniversary of 9/11, al-Qaida released a video on the Internet showing a smiling Osama bin Laden with top planners of the Sept. 11 attacks. In the video, bin Laden is asking his followers to pray for the hijackers.
Apparently, the release of the video was timed to get an overreaction from Bush. Because of fear – the one the terrorists caused and the one that Bush crassly promotes in his speeches – we are losing our old sense of Americanness.