BY KRISTEN LOMBARDI
IN RETROSPECT, given the events of September 11, who wouldn’t prefer a battle of words to open warfare? But then again, the year 2001, pre–September 11, wasn’t exactly peaceful. The year dawned with the grisly news of mass murder in suburban Boston. On a seemingly normal post-holiday morning — less than 24 hours after Christmas 2000 — Michael McDermott, a 42-year-old software engineer known affectionately as " Mucko, " went on a shooting spree at a Wakefield-based Internet-consulting company. McDermott, angered that his wages were being garnished to pay back taxes, carried an arsenal of weapons into Edgewater Technology on December 26, 2000. He spent two hours on the job before pulling out an AK-47, a pump-action shotgun, and 55 rounds of ammunition. It would take just seven minutes for him to shoot dead seven of his co-workers — four men and three women, ages 29 to 48.
Violent crime rocked small-town New England in January, with the murder of two Dartmouth College professors. A friend discovered the bloodied bodies of Half and Susanne Zantop — both stabbed to death, their throats slashed — in their home in Etna, New Hampshire. The story made national headlines when police traveled 30 miles northwest to Chelsea, Vermont, to arrest two teenage boys, Robert Tulloch and James Parker, for the killings — only to find that they had fled. The fugitives were captured days later at a truck stop in Indiana, 1000 miles away.
Similarly ghastly scenarios played out when yet more violence shattered everyday life at two Massachusetts schools. On Thanksgiving Day, it became clear that a deadly plot had unraveled, one that could have led to bloodshed on the scale of the infamous 1999 Columbine massacre. This time, though, the tale was set in our own back yard, at New Bedford High. Five teens, aligned in their apparent hatred of everyone, had planned to sneak into school with weapons, run through the halls, and kill everyone in sight. The plan included a group suicide pact — to take place atop the school roof.
When one of the teens turned in the others, we breathed a sigh of relief. The latest bomb had not, in fact, gone off. We might have forgotten about the viciousness of it all were it not for the murderous actions of another teen, Corey Ramos. Just seven days after the New Bedford plot was revealed, Ramos stabbed to death a counselor at a Springfield high school. The reason? The counselor had ordered Ramos to abide by school dress codes and remove his hood. Education officials bemoaned the incident — the first Massachusetts educator killed by a student since 1997 — as the " realization of our worst fears. "
Horrifying acts of cruelty seemed to occur everywhere. When Edward Thompson was discovered beaten and shot to death in a Roxbury parking lot on December 11, Boston sounded the alarm. The murder put the city’s homicide toll at a five-year high of 64 victims in 2001. In a matter of months, random brutality had returned to the streets with a vengeance. Even residents in affluent neighborhoods like the South End were waking up to the crackle of gunfire at night.
Senseless. Incredible. The words came to mind as we shook our heads while reading one news story after another about the deadly rampages. The sickening events taught us that our day-to-day life could abruptly turn ugly, that our colleagues and neighbors could suddenly take up arms. But then, the fear faded. We read articles detailing high-profile arraignments as if the crimes for which these people were being held responsible were fictional — as if we were, after all, still safe in our worlds. We responded in our customary way: we fell back on the knowledge that such acts of random violence " could never happen to us. " As Derrick Jackson observed in a December 8 Boston Globe column about school violence, " There are already signs that we will ignore the knives and the guns until the next bomb goes off. "
BUT WE COULDN’T shake off one act of pure evil. The moment 19 hijackers plowed commercial jets into the World Trade Center, the Pentagon, and a Pennsylvania field on September 11 — sending 3300 people to their deaths — our ordinary social balance crumbled. How could it not? What occurred that fateful day exceeded even the loss and destruction at Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941 — the " day of infamy " that saw 2500 people perish in a surprise Japanese air attack. We soaked up the terrifying images on TV — the towers collapsing, the Pentagon smoldering — and knew instinctively that a decade of relative ease and excess had come to an end. The assault was all the more cataclysmic because it took place within our borders. No one was startled when President Bush, after ill-advisedly hopping around the nation on Air Force One for a day, finally projected a strong image of resolve and declared war against terrorism.
September 11 revived a deep sense of community among Americans. Was this the 1950s redux? The American flag sprouted up all over, on mailboxes, computer screens, car antennas. Politics gave way to patriotism, and dissent yielded to agreement. After nine months of fighting each other, we ended 2001 in the most unlikely fashion: united. Or did we? The catastrophe brought with it news of unnervingly sour incidents. Reports of hate crimes and acts of twisted retribution poured in from across the country. In Mesa, Arizona, a man gunned down a Sikh Indian outside a gas station and then, within 20 minutes, fired on a Lebanese clerk. A Pakistani man was found slain on the floor of his Dallas store. In Massachusetts, a Molotov cocktail burned a Somerset store operated by an Indian family. Vandals trashed mosques in six states — four in Texas alone.
In other words, some reacted to the attacks by lashing out at their fellows. The vicious backlash also sparked cries for tolerance. But ironically, at the precise moment Bush urged Americans not to target the Muslim and Arab-American communities, the FBI proceeded to scoop up 1200 illegal immigrants, most of them Arabs and Muslims, in a vast dragnet.
Public anxiety intensified with the threat of bioterrorism. First came the news October 9 that three employees of the same Florida media company tested positive for the anthrax disease, including a man who died. Uneasiness mounted October 12, when an assistant to NBC Nightly News anchor Tom Brokaw, in New York, also contracted the disease after opening a threatening letter containing a white powder. That same day, another powdered envelope forced the evacuation of the newsroom at the New York Times. Around the country, people panicked: they cleaned store shelves of antibiotics; they wore gloves to open mail. Still, anthrax spores kept showing up in letters, from Capitol Hill to the White House, from mailrooms to hospitals. By the time 94-year-old Ottilie Lundgren, of Connecticut, succumbed to anthrax in November, dozens of people in five states had been exposed to the disease. Five had perished.
Life looked more like the stuff of Star Wars — i.e., science fiction. One minute, federal officials insisted that anthrax-contaminated mail was not a threat. The next, they ordered 3000 government workers to undergo 60-day antibiotic treatments. One minute, officials declared government buildings decontaminated. The next, they recanted. Americans felt under siege — and not necessarily by foreigners. When police accused Clayton Lee Waagner of sending 550 anthrax hoax letters to abortion clinics, the Illinois escaped convict admitted he had wanted to frighten doctors. When the anthrax mailed to congressional offices matched stocks of the bacteria kept by the US army, officials admitted the suspect likely has a military background. The anthrax scare reinforced the conviction that the post-9/11 world is undefined, unruly, and unsettling.
EVEN IN THIS ERA of unprecedented turmoil, we found that normalcy — that life as we knew it pre-9/11 — is possible. Among the people who showed us the way were those who toil in New York’s financial district, who re-opened the stock market after the attacks and recovered nearly all the monetary losses suffered. We also learned from Politically Incorrect host Bill Maher, who proved that irony can live on, even after one is excoriated for suggesting that slamming a plane into a building is many things, but it is not " cowardly " — unlike lobbing missiles at targets from afar.
Most especially, however, we learned all about returning to normalcy from the Bush administration itself. Ashcroft, ever the conservative crusader, managed to find time to push his social agenda — even while rooting out terrorism. The attorney general tried to reverse state laws allowing for physician-assisted suicide and medical use of marijuana in Oregon and California, respectively; he even went so far as to order the raid of a San Francisco health-care facility. As for President Bush, he withdrew the US from the 1973 Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty, and revived his campaign to allow oil drilling in Alaska’s wildlife sanctuary. All this, while chasing " evildoers " like Osama bin Laden. To liberals, who rallied behind the president and his administration after September 11, these moves evoked the infamous red-and-blue electoral map that dominated our psyche just months before.
Which, of course, speaks to two prevailing theories of how September 11 has changed American politics and culture. The first holds that the disaster transformed everything. That the old divisions between Democrats and Republicans are irrelevant, and that the red/blue split of Election 2000 is obsolete: we are now one country. The second has it that the war on terrorism will bring those fractures into sharper focus, and that the lines between conservatives and liberals will grow wider and deeper.
If the Bush administration’s recent actions are any indicator, the latter theory might turn out to be correct. And the combativeness that characterized 2001 may burn brighter next year. Or perhaps politics will remain relatively partisan-free. Predicting the future, especially in these unpredictable times, is a perilous business.
But one thing can be said for certain: both theories see the dawn of a new political moment, the opening of a new chapter in American history.
Bring on 2002.
Kristen Lombardi can be reached at email@example.com.
Issue Date: December 27, 2001 - January 3, 2002