Getting Ahead to Normal

The American Heritage Dictionary defines the word normal as “conforming with, adhering to, or constituting a norm, standard, pattern, level, or type; typical.” What the dictionary doesn’t do is identify what that standard is. And in the aftermath of Sept. 11, nobody else can, either. Certainly it’s not whatever it used to be.

So forget about getting “back to normal.” Unless you have a time-travel machine, it isn’t going to happen. Instead, we must get ahead to normal. What’s going to emerge will be what’s always been normal in the rest of the world: accepting that the possibility of terrorism—and just plain old violence—exists everywhere and every day, and nobody gets papal dispensation from living with that risk. Just ask any resident of Jerusalem. Or London. Or Belfast. Or Paris, Tokyo, Madrid, Oklahoma City, Columbine, or Rome. After all, even the Pope himself has had personal experience with it. Sometimes events will happen frequently, and sometimes we’ll go years without an incident. We have no control over it, and in reality we were no safer on Aug. 11 than on Oct. 11; we just didn’t know it.

A friend of mine heard a recent interview with racecar driver Eddie Irvine, who’s from Northern Ireland. When asked what he would say to the American people, it was that one just needs to get on with life. If you live in fear of real or implied threats, the terrorists have won. He recalled a local shop destroyed by a bomb one day—and the next day he went to the shop next door. It’s a positive message, both to the terrorists and to the psyche.

JCK has spent a lot of time researching the economic ramifications of the September attacks. About 95% of what we read and hear is doom and gloom. But about 5% has been positive. For example, a military buildup will create jobs across a variety of sectors, and consumers with good jobs tend to feel better about spending money. And the population in general seems fairly optimistic. In a survey by U.S. News & World Report, more than half of those polled expected the economy to recover in 2002. A poll conducted by BIGresearch LLC and Deloitte Research finds 77% of Americans confident that a strong economy will return next year. And 74% of BIG’s respondents reported doing what Eddie Irvine advises and President Bush requests: getting on with their lives and maintaining spending patterns, viewing both as patriotic duty. Many people this year will want to give meaningful holiday gifts to cherished ones—a boon for jewelry—and others have gone ahead with big purchases, reasoning that if not now, when? Both are first steps in getting ahead to normal.

If getting ahead to normal requires an unpleasant dose of pragmatism (some would say fatalism), the good news is that we can emerge better for it. Before Sept. 11 we were, as a society, bored. Having no real issues to focus on, we worshiped celebrities, relished the details of politicians’ sex lives, watched people humiliate themselves on TV for a chance to win a million dollars, and excused criminals who cried “victim,” as though a bad childhood justified their actions as adults.

Now we have a real problem to address. Americans have shown their mettle, drawing together, helping one another, and rallying around our leaders and our flag. It came with a hideous price, but we have learned what a real survivor, a real victim, and a real hero is, and we finally understand how most of our friends around the world live. Now it’s time to choose whether to get ahead to the new normal or just keep looking back at the old normal.

Rarely have the words “peace on earth and good will toward men” been so poignant as they are this year. From our house to yours, wishing you the best for this holiday season, and a happy, healthy, and peaceful new year.