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DECEMBER 2001

The year of distraction
Before September 11, terrorism was a distant threat.
Since then, it has been hard to think about anything else.


BY IAN DONNIS



THE GOOD PART: September 11 unleashed a compassionate response by Roth (left) and countless other Americans.


An elective course on International Terrorism, taught by two deans from the Naval War College in Newport, seemed like a fairly esoteric pursuit -- the kind of thing for students of geopolitics or aspiring policy wonks -- when it was offered at Salve Regina University over the summer. That the class would also examine "the growing domestic terrorist threat and the problem of proliferation of weapons of mass destruction" did little to galvanize attention in the months leading up to September 11.

It was hardly news for history buffs, those in the military, and a relative handful of others that the world is a dangerous place. Certainly, there was evidence -- such as the 1993 strike against the World Trade Center -- that international terrorists were targeting the US. Still, even after the bubble burst on the prosperity of the '90s, our national focus remained easily fixed on pseudo-stories (shark attacks, anyone?) instead of the more relevant business at hand. It's understandable, if unfortunate, given the tendency of Americans to exist more as consumers than citizens.

As word spread on the morning of September 11, our perception was harshly altered, bifurcated between the seemingly placid era before the attack and the anxious time to come. The threat of terrorism wasn't new, of course, but the realization that it could threaten us, even those of us who take safety for granted, dawned with a nightmarish quality and recurring images. Osama bin Laden, previously obscure, became a household word. If terrorism was once a distant concern, suddenly we could think about little else, although not always in the clearest or most proportional ways.

Call it the law of the anomaly. Although far more people die in car accidents than terrorist attacks or air crashes, the volume of air travelers plummeted in the aftermath of the New York attack. The risk of anthrax exposure for most individuals remained virtually non-existent at the peak of the crisis, but a drumbeat of publicity kept us on edge. Chalk it up to the emotional adjustment to a strange new world.

After being tipped off, police escorted a turban-wearing man with a vaguely Middle Eastern appearance and a ceremonial dagger from a train at the Providence station shortly after September 11. There were those in the crowd who would perhaps have administered their own perceived brand of justice, never mind that the man, Sher J.B. Singh, an 29-year-old engineer from Virginia, is a member of the Sikh faith with no connections to terrorism. The city ultimately dropped a weapons charge against Singh after the attorney general's office indicated that it wouldn't prosecute the case.

Some isolated hate crimes were launched against other innocent victims, but such ignorance was quickly eclipsed by a wave of compassion and generosity as people made their way past the initial shock. Rick Roth, a businessman and community activist in Pawtucket, responded from the heart, insisting on gathering $1200 in $10 donations to replace the vandalized sign of a Middle Eastern businessman. Seeking to tap this kind of spirit, groups like the local chapter of the National Conference for Community and Justice (NCCJ) perceived September 11 as an opportunity to build stronger bonds among different communities in Rhode Island.

Among other efforts, the NCCJ has organized a project, dubbed the Wall of Hope, in which up to 10,000 Rhode Islanders will paint tiles for a memorial to the victims of September 11. After televised images of destruction from the World Trade Center were broadcast over and over, "we were impacted emotionally, with a very limited outlet to respond initially," says Anthony Maione, executive director of the NCCJ of southern New England. "After you would send your contribution to the Red Cross, you were left wondering what to do with the rest of the emotions that you were feeling." The Wall of Hope was envisioned as a way for people to offer a positive response, to build community relationships, and to support the NCCJ's efforts to fight bigotry and discrimination.

For the most part, Maione says, Rhode Islanders responded well to the crisis, with some offering to stand guard at mosques and to accompany Muslims as they went about shopping and other routine tasks. At the same time, he notes how racial profiling has been redefined and some other important issues -- such as the growth of hunger and poverty -- get scant attention in the aftermath of September 11. "These other kinds of issues still cry out for community involvement," Maione says.

Herein lies the rub. It's incredibly heartening that our darkest collective hour in decades was met with an outpouring of some of our best values. But the greatest societal problems in America are diffuse, complex, and not susceptible to quick-fix solutions. They've been with us for years and mobilizing an effective response is extremely difficult. As New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman recently wrote, the response to September 11 shows the yearning and ability of Americans to make a difference. This capability typically remains latent, though, in the absence of leadership or strong public interest.

It's a similar story when it comes to many of the most important issues facing Rhode Island. During the annual dinner in November of Common Cause of Rhode Island, five of the six presumed gubernatorial candidates for 2002 backed the concept of establishing the kind of separation of powers among the three branches of government that exists in other states. Critics cite the lack of balance among the branches as a key factor in the conflicts of interest, lack of accountability, and periodic scandals that blemish the state's reputation. But despite the candidates' degree of support, Common Cause delayed a public campaign to move the issue forward because attention was so firmly fixed on terrorism and the war in Afghanistan. In the same way, the process around redistricting, the decennial redrawing of legislative lines, suffered from a lack of public interest.

September 11 cast things in a decidedly different light, but it was a year, in some cases, in which the more things change, the more they stayed the same.

Some observers thought House Speaker John Harwood, who was facing an ethics complaint for practicing law before a state agency, might be vulnerable. But after the weakened state Ethics Commission dismissed the complaint, accepting the argument that lawyer-legislators are a special class, the powerful speaker's grasp on power remained strong, and reformers were fuming. H. Philip West Jr., executive director of Common Cause, says, "It's really a sad thing for the Ethics Commission to walk away from its own role.

The much-anticipated indictment of Providence Mayor Vincent A. Cianci Jr. arrived in April, almost two years after Operation Plunder Dome was unveiled when the FBI stormed City Hall. Cianci remained popular, trotting out accolades such as the recent finding that Providence is among the nation's 10 most mannerly cities. The allegations contained in the indictment are far less flattering, of course, but it remains to be seen whether Cianci will take a plea agreement (he says absolutely not) or go to trial in April 2002. In the most telling reflection of the mayor's political strength, only state Representative David Cicilline (D-Providence) has moved forward with plans to challenge Cianci.

Meanwhile, Sheldon Whitehouse, Myrth York and Representative Antonio Pires (D-Pawtucket) were maneuvering on the Democratic side for the run to succeed Lincoln Almond as governor, while Don Carcieri, Jim Bennett, and Bernard Jackvony formed the field of GOP aspirants.

Although Rhode Islanders were still turning to the Providence Journal for their news, the movement of reporters, photographers, and other employees away from the paper swelled from a trickle to a flood in 2001, in part because of a buyout that sparked the departure of more than 90 longtime employees. A bitter contract dispute between the Belo Corporation of Dallas, which bought the Journal in 1997, and the Providence Newspaper Guild showed no sign of relenting and actually worsened, as departing and remaining staffers continued to question the paper's direction. Even if Belo-backed mangers don't skimp on adding new hires, 2002 could be the year when such concerns increasingly come to fruition.


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