Giving Thanks for a Changed America

November 22, 2001 

Sometimes, it takes a brush with death to sharpen our appreciation for life, and people who’ve experienced such a life-changing event often find themselves grateful for the experience.

So it is with America on this Thanksgiving Day 2001. As horrible as Sept. 11 was, it changed our nation—and in many ways, for the better.

  • A year ago, Thanksgiving saw the nation bickering over pregnant chads, absentee ballots, and whether either George W. Bush or Al Gore would be able to lead without any mandate whatsoever. Today, the nation is united—temporarily, at least—behind President Bush. As for a mandate, 9 out of 10 Americans support the administration’s war on terrorism.

  • There has been a national spiritual reawakening. According to the American Bible Society, Bible sales since Sept. 11 have risen 42 percent over the same period last year. Koran sales have gone up five times. And while most churches report a drop in attendance after an initial post-attack surge, attendance remains 5 to 10 percent above a year ago. A Time magazine/CNN poll found that 21 percent of Americans said they have gone to church more often since Sept. 11.

    Americans are also more interested in religions other than their own than they were before Sept. 11. A conservative Jewish synagogue in California attracted 1,400 people for a presentation on Buddhism. Here in Madison, an open house at the Islamic Center a year ago drew six or seven people, but this year, more than 600 came. We seem to be more willing to put aside sectarian differences and come together.

  • Police and firefighters throughout the nation say they’ve been treated with renewed respect since Sept. 11. Even among children, surveys show that kids who previously identified pop stars and professional wrestlers as their heroes now idolize police, firefighters and rescue workers (a trend that has not escaped the toy marketers).

  • In record numbers, Americans are seeking ways to help—both at home and abroad. Time reports that in San Francisco, Peace Corps applications are up 72 percent. Americorps, which helps troubled communities, has had a 30 percent rise in inquiries from interested volunteers. In communities large and small, the number of people volunteering at soup kitchens, Habitat for Humanity, the Red Cross and similar relief agencies has surged.

    Americans are also enlisting in the fight against terrorism and shedding the last vestiges of a Vietnam-era “peace at any price” attitude. At Harvard, alumni are trying to restore ROTC programs. Recruiters for the Central Intelligence Agency report they are once again welcome on college campuses. The National Security Agency received 19,000 resumes in two months following Sept. 11, four times its monthly average.

  • There has been a welcome resurgence in patriotism. Does anyone imagine that the Madison School Board’s attempt to ban recitation of the Pledge of Allegiance would have touched off such a storm of protest before Sept. 11?

    Go to any sports event, and when the announcer says “Please rise…” everyone does, and they say the pledge or sing “The Star-Spangled Banner” louder, more fervently than before. For some Americans, this tidal wave of patriotism feels strange—yet welcome. “I grew up in the Vietnam era, and I never thought this country would be this patriotic again,” said one 50-something, “but I like it.” For Americans who never lost their love of country, the wave is reaffirming. Sept. 11 renewed Americans’ pride in our country, and the freedoms that make it great—including (even especially) the freedom to dissent.

  • Despite our national desire for revenge against Osama bin Laden, the al-Qaida terrorist network, and whoever is behind the anthrax attacks, we are in many ways a kinder, gentler nation than we were before Sept. 11.

We have a real enemy now. The jerk who cuts us off in traffic or butts ahead of us in line, the myriad other annoyances of modern life—telemarketers, cell phones, nude sunbathers, whatever pushed your buttons before Sept. 11—just aren’t worth breaking a sweat over anymore.

We smile more, we apologize more. Petty grudges are forgiven, family rifts are healed. Time says even divorce lawyers report a downturn since Sept. 11; in the Time/CNN poll, 62 percent said they felt a greater need to be with family since the attacks.

Will these changes last? William Strauss and Neil Howe, authors of several books on generations in American life, say “The lesson of history is: yes.”

Strauss and Howe say American history is marked by rhythms, which they call “turnings,” with four turnings every 80 to 100 years.

The First Turning they call a “High,” such as the nation experienced between the end of World War II and the early 1960s. The Second Turning is an “Awakening,” such as the “consciousness revolution” from the assassination of President Kennedy through the 1970s. The Third Turning is an “Unraveling,” characterized by self-indulgence; the 1980s and ‘90s bore a close resemblance to the “Roaring ‘20s.”

This may be a Fourth Turning, triggered by crisis. The nation experienced similar Fourth Turnings in 1770 (the Revolution), 1855 (the Civil War), and 1930 (the Great Depression), characterized by a renewed sense of community and commitment.

When you say your prayers of thanksgiving today, ask blessings for the thousands of American families who are bearing the brunt of Sept. 11. Ask blessings, too, for innocent Afghans who suffer because of this wholly necessary war.

But be grateful for the blessings the terrorists unwittingly bestowed upon this nation. They made us come together to make a stronger, better country. May our strength continue to grow in the months and years ahead.