Tuesday, November 6, 2001

I’m still trying to adjust to the New Normalcy. That’s what Vice President Cheney called the new security-conscious life that we Americans find ourselves living after the terror attacks of September 11.

“I think of it as the new normalcy,” he told a meeting of Republican governors in Washington recently. “Many of the steps we have now been forced to take will become permanent in American life.”

The “New Normalcy”? It sounds like a headline from one of those trend-spotting lifestyle magazines.

In fact, there is great therapeutic value, according to psychiatrists and others who deal with the troubled and traumatized, to restoring as much order and routine as possible to your life after catastrophic events.

In England, Southern Africa and other troubled spots, I have seen people adjust by resuming as normal a routine as possible, partly to keep their sanity and partly out of sheer defiance of the terrorists.

But, for some of us Americans, the quest for normalcy these days raises a perplexing question: What’s “normal”?

Is it the smiling airport security guard who cheerfully greets me with, “How are you, Mr. Page? May I see your identification?”

In the Old Normal, we might have noticed some irony in the juxtaposition of those two sentences. That was back when the purpose of carrying identification had something to do with helping people to find out who you are. In the New Normal, the presenting of identification is becoming an essential ritual for you to get to where you want to go.

Does the New Normal include the grounding of aircraft, the halting of mighty locomotives or the clearing out of office buildings because somebody spilled some white powder?

Will it be the flooding of doctors’ offices and outpatient clinics by sufferers who fear their ordinary flu or sniffles may be signs of anthrax poisoning?

Congress has responded to this new crisis in classic fashion by finding new ways to spend money. The era of shrinking government is over. Even though our nation’s economy has been remarkably resilient to government tinkering in the past, everyone on Capitol Hill seems to have his or her own pet idea or project that they are confident will work to bring back the boom.

My favorite suggestion comes in a Senate bill to enact a 10-day national “sales tax holiday” right after Thanksgiving. The charge or should I say “charge card”? for this measure is being led by Senators Patty Murray, Washington Democrat, and Olympia J. Snowe, Maine Republican, in keeping with President Bush’s suggestion that we Americans show our patriotism by buying stuff.

Ah, yes, as the old saying goes, when the going gets tough, the tough go shopping.

At least it certainly felt good, after fretting about it for days, to celebrate Halloween with door-to-door trick-or-treating in our neighborhood, despite the warnings of Arkansas officials and some other municipalities around the country to avoid it this year.

The kids needed it and so, I think, did we parents. The neighborhood children never looked cuter and old-fashioned fantasy spooks looked downright comforting, compared to the looming unknowns of the current era of terrorism.

In the background of the New Normal is the war in Afghanistan, which also displays how much things have changed in the world of combat and international relations.

As America increasingly seems to be fighting wars from the air more than on the ground, Afghanistan offers a place where our bombs appear to cost more than the targets they are bombing.

We also are trying to win the hearts and minds of the civilian population by dropping food packets. This lovely gesture was marred somewhat by a startling revelation, almost two months into this operation: The color of the food packs happens to be the same shade of yellow as the unexploded bomblets from cluster bombs that our planes are dropping on the Taliban.

This revelation brought to mind a term from my Army days: “SNAFU.” It means “Situation Normal, All Fouled Up.”

The key word here is “normal.” Foul-ups were part of the Old Normalcy. Some things never change.

Clarence Page is a nationally syndicated columnist.

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