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How Have We Changed?

In the weeks after the Sept. 11 terror attacks, several commentators both in the US and abroad predicted that the tragedy would mark the end of a long era of American innocence, forcibly pulling the country out of its isolationist shell.

A year later, many of those same pundits are struggling to decide whether the expected evolution in America’s worldview has really taken place. Most, like The Philadelphia Inquirer‘s Dick Polman, maintain that our national attitude of detachment has been irrevocably challenged. The terror attacks, Polman asserts, served as a “cold-blooded caveat to the American dream,” and taught Americans that they cannot live outside of history. The Economist makes a similar argument, suggesting that the attacks on New York and Washington shattered America’s atavistic myth of being a nation apart, secure and buffered from the rest of the world: “By introducing Americans to an experience already shared by others, the attacks made America more like the rest of the world.”

The Globe and Mail acknowledges in a lengthy editorial that, largely because of the attacks, America is again engaged in world affairs. But that involvement, the paper’s editorial writers assert, has been pursued with a disquieting “go-it-alone” attitude. “America is not a monolith; unilateralism is not the country’s sole sentiment. But President Bush it is, for better or worse, and lately he has tended to act alone.” The International Herald Tribune‘s William Pfaff makes a similar observation, suggesting that the attacks have resulted in an alarming geopolitical shift in which Washington has increasingly acted on the temptation to assert its agenda without consideration or cooperation.

Those tendencies, Todd Gitlin argues on MotherJones.com, have pumped new life in the sort of anti-American sentiments which seemed so petty and pale in the months after Sept. 11. Still, as American writer Mark Hertsgaard notes in The Guardian, much of the world remains supportive of and sympathetic towards the American people. “[T]he world doesn’t hate us, the American people,” he writes. “It is our government, our military, and our corporations that are resented.”

For much of America, those resentments were reduced in the weeks after the terror attacks to a single question: ‘Why do They Hate Us?’ A year later, historian Bernard Lewis suggests in The Washington Post that the answers may be distressingly simple: “It is difficult if not impossible to be strong and successful and to be loved by those who are neither the one nor the other.The Christian Science Monitor offers a more nuanced answer based on a survey of citizens from 16 countries. “People are ambivalent about America,” the Monitor suggests, resenting the country’s influence and affluence while yearning to benefit from both.

Finally, several conservative commentators, considering the larger question of how the Sept. 11 tragedies changed the nation, maintain that the American psyche has altered in other, more fundamental ways. Michael Novak of The National Review, for instance, maintains that , after Sept. 11, “the category of evil came back into civilized discourse.” Suggesting that the tragedy pushed America to reject a tendency towards “multicultural relativism,” Novak claims that “Americans rediscovered an evil that was not just a preference like any other.” George Will takes Novak’s argument and expands upon it, asserting in The Washington Post that Sept. 11 served as a ” Great Refutation” of the “cultural relativism that gives rise to the fetish of multiculturalism.”

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