How much have we changed?

Where was I on the morning of Sept.11, 2001? Twenty-seven years from now I will still remember being fed tidbits of information as I sat through a slide presentation in art class.

In contrast to the vivid memories associated with that Tuesday, the days following the horrific events of Sept. 11 can be best described as fuzzy and surreal. As students, faculty and staff alike desperately sought to contact friends, family and alumni they knew in the greater New York and D.C. areas, the general importance and inflexibility commonly associated with everyday college life such as paper deadlines and advisor meetings all but disappeared. Televisions across campus were tuned to CNN. I doubt so many college-aged students have ever listened to NPR while getting dressed in the mornings.

Though many put their books away, I would hesitate to say that their work ceased.  Instead of working for a grade, people went to work for a cause. With the aid of faculty and staff, students began organizing a plethora of service projects, from the blood drive, to the candlelight vigil, to various fundraisers and numerous letter writing campaigns, people campus-wide were motivated to respond. The classic excuse, “That’s not my issue,” no longer held water.

In the wake of the Sept. 11 attacks, the dreaded cloud of Williams’ apathy lifted. However, as the days turn into weeks the initial fervor and sense of action has already begun to die down.

I have little doubt that any professor of psychology – and for that matter, most psychology majors – could compose a gloriously academic paper explaining the emotional cycle one experiences following a traumatic event. I am sure that such a person could expound upon the common coping mechanisms that can lead one to initially over-inundate themselves with information regarding the event, to temporarily restructure their lives as a result of the trauma, and the subsequent backlash. To see that it is this intense desire for things to return to “normal” that currently predominates does not require such directed knowledge. People do not want to internalize what has happened. It is safer to measure changes in terms of increased time wasted at the airport and increased patriotism than to think of the constantly escalating cases of anthrax or the number of air raids and undercover operatives being launched in Afghanistan. By and large, Americans have chosen to ignore the fact that the attacks of Sept. 11 were the start of a new era and that one of the many results is, in fact, the redefinition of normal.

On Sept. 10, public school children pledged their allegiance and sports fans sang our national anthem. On Sept. 12, the Stars and Stripes lined our streets and hung from our car antennae. A few short months ago people flocked to the movie theaters to see Pearl Harbor. Many recognized the subtle undercurrents of pro-America propaganda; however, in a society where the term war was considered historical in nature, most viewers’ attentions were focused not upon the political directive, but upon the love story and the staged action scenes. As President Bush shepherds the country into the immediate future, it is preposterous to imagine the billboards 50 years down the road and the much-anticipated opening of Twin Towers. Perspective is a hard thing to achieve.

For seniors in particular, the question of priorities has and always will be loaded. Even in the absence of a national crisis, the idea of leaving the Purple Bubble and entering the real world is daunting. Personal preferences aside, the job market itself has changed from what it was. No longer can a prospective graduate take for granted that he or shewill secure the amorphous and yet highly coveted position of consultant. The idea of spending that year off before graduate school traveling throughout exotic lands has become marginally less appealing as well. While in previous years, time away from the safety of a college town and the academic life, a chance to experience the world as a full-fledged adult, was precisely what most desired, this does not appear to be the case any longer. More and more people are trading in their aspirations of entering corporate America for a stack of applications and a GRE prep course.

Although plans for the future can be easily quantified and the numbers organized into a series of charts and graphs, the questions remains open as to how more intangible priorities have been affected. While the events of Sept. 11 clearly initiated a time of self-reflection for many, I am not certain how much people here, on the Williams campus, have actually changed. As the initial fundraisers and service projects wind down, what remains? There is something to be said for maintaining a sense of normalcy, but perhaps a balance can be struck between complacency and frenzy, neither of which are productive.

I often criticize those who point out problems, but lack the insight to propose solutions to the practices they condemn. In this case, I particularly wish that I could offer up a five-point plan of action. Perhaps a self-test so that each individual could determine the precise level of time and interest he or she should devote to addressing policy issues and the society that seems to be changing while we remain safe in our dorm rooms.

If I could develop such a plan, I have no doubt that I could skip my last semester at Williams, pack my bags and head directly to a cabinet position in Washington. However, for now I have to lump myself with the confused masses. I do not want to live in a country at war. I do not want to see my friends or family shipped overseas. I do not want to wear gloves and a mask whenever I check my mail. As much as anyone else I want to wake up one morning and hear that terrorism worldwide has been squelched, that we can thank our military and go back to “normal.”

This is what I want, but this is not what is going to happen. For now all I know how to do is donate blood, clothes, and money and continue to wonder, when I leave here at Thanksgiving, will I recognize the world around me?