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The American idea: Post 9/11 to election day 2004

One thing uniting the country is unease, but even that has a dividing line: Should we fear terror or the means to quell it?

Published October 28, 2004

[Times photo: Bob Croslin]
Phil Gary Scianamblo shows his underground safe room, where he hopes to survive with his five cats.
Is fear tearing us apart? Are we a less optimistic nation than we were three years ago? Has information overload crippled our democracy? Can youthful idealism survive this age of cynicism? In a series of four essays, we explore how our nation has changed between the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, and this year’s presidential election.

Part one
Fear: One thing uniting the country is unease, but even that has a dividing line: Should we fear terror or the means to quell it?
Part two
Information: There are a lot of truths out there. Just choose one that suits you.
Part three
Optimism: Are we a less optimistic nation than we were three years ago?
Part four
Idealism: Can youthful idealism survive this age of cynicism?

Is fear tearing us apart?

Are we a less optimistic nation than we were three years ago?

Has information overload crippled our democracy?

Can youthful idealism survive this age of cynicism?

In a series of four essays starting today, we explore these questions and examine how our nation has changed between the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001 and this year's presidential election.

GRANDVIEW HEIGHTS, Ohio - Fear lives in a weathered white house on a quiet American street, where gas masks wait in an underground safe room and a map of nuclear facilities hangs on the living room wall.

The house belongs to Phil Gary Scianamblo, an online entrepreneur who has turned his fear into a livelihood. Since Sept. 11, he has sold hundreds of black rubber gas masks, transparent child-size hoods and protective cocoons with built-in air pumps for infants.

At 61, Scianamblo has the lined face of a man who has been up and down and seen a lot of life on the way. His interest in homeland security dates to the Persian Gulf War, when the talk was of gas attacks, chemical and biological weapons.

In 1999, he watched a weeklong TV series on anthrax and set up a Web site to market gas masks and chemical suits. He didn't get a single call until a clear day in September 2001. Then he had to take his phone off the hook.

The orders flooded in: $2,000 here, $1,500 there; at least one order topped $10,000. The standard Survivor gas mask costs $289.95. People bought for their extended families, for children and grandchildren.

When you hear the alarm or cries of "gas," Scianamblo sometimes tells customers, hold your breath. Seal the mask to your face and tighten the four straps around your face and head. Remove the safety sticker from the charcoal filter attached to the mask. Breathe.

The stakes are high, Scianamblo says. All it would take is one attack on a reactor, one dirty bomb, a loose strain of anthrax or smallpox in a big city.

"My concern is losing America," he says. "A major attack now could bring it down."

* * *

Fear also lives hundreds of miles away on a leafy college campus in Cambridge, Mass. Harvard University English professor Elaine Scarry is afraid of losing America, but while she fears terrorism, she also sees danger closer to home: in the erosion of governmental checks and balances, the suppression of public debate, the country's new guardedness toward immigrants.

"To be told over and over again that to speak out is unpatriotic is really a danger to the country," said Scarry, as dusk settled outside her office. "I don't think America is at risk as a nation from terrorists, but I do think it's at risk if we put aside our own laws and our own principles, which we have done."

Fear stalks America. A July Gallup poll found that 58 percent of Americans believed a major act of terrorism was likely on or before Nov. 2. In August, 67 percent said terrorists would attack anywhere in the United States as opposed to only major cities like New York.

Opening the final presidential debate, CBS News anchor Bob Schieffer asked the candidates a question that "hangs over all of our politics today": "Will our children and grandchildren ever live in a world as safe and secure as the world in which we grew up?"

In the depths of the Great Depression, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt told Americans "the only thing we have to fear is fear itself - nameless, unreasoning, unjustified terror which paralyzes needed efforts to convert retreat into advance." Today, fear may be the one thing that binds Americans together.

The threat of terrorism and the promise of security are persistent undercurrents in this year's presidential campaign. But Americans fear something larger, however defined: that the country they know is slipping away.

* * *

What does it mean to be American on the eve of the first presidential election since Sept. 11? Do Americans agree, or claim the right to disagree? Are they defined by their support of the president or by their willingness to question him?

The French political philosopher Alexis de Tocqueville, who analyzed American democracy nearly 200 years ago, wrote that his own spirit was "less afraid of danger than of doubt." Could the same words be used to describe this country?

America in late 2004 is a nation that is in many ways at odds with itself, a country flush with contradictions. It is a prosperous nation with a growing number of poor and a record deficit. A welcoming country where the number of foreign asylum seekers admitted in 2003 was less than half the number in 2001. A model nation that is viewed favorably by fewer than half the people in France, Spain and Germany, according to a 2003 report by the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press.

"What if Bush gets elected? Are we going to attack Iran?" asks Scianamblo, who plans to vote for Kerry. "What if Kerry gets elected and doesn't do a good job?"

In the ashes of Sept. 11, Americans mourned and raged, but some also saw rebirth, the possibility of a stronger, more unified country.

* * *

In Canon City, Colo., Randall Muenzberg, 58, a retired prosecutor and Vietnam veteran, saw resolve and commitment as well as the anxiety that fueled them. Muenzberg commands the Colorado State Defense Force (Provisional), a uniformed military-style volunteer group that focuses on emergency preparedness. The group doubled in size after Sept. 11. People were "concerned about the future," Muenzberg said; they wanted to be ready in case of another attack.

Muenzberg watched flags go up in people's yards, on lampposts, on car antennas. Today, some of those flags are gone, along with the unity they signaled.

"We're supposed to be at war, but nobody feels like we're at war," said Muenzberg, who has two sons in the military. "Nobody feels that they have a personal stake in what's going on."

His group makes citizens stakeholders. They share "a desire, born of basic American patriotism, to be prepared for what may come," Muenzberg wrote in an e-mail. "We may well be fighting for nothing less than our nation's survival."

But that unity has a price: Members must check their political views at the door. They are professionals and law enforcement officers, laborers and college students, men and women, white and Hispanic. At least one, a City Council member, is an adamant Bush supporter; others have John Kerry signs on their lawns.

They are told before joining the group that it is nonpartisan and apolitical; if they don't accept those guidelines, Muenzberg wrote, "we simply don't need them." Sometimes he has to remind members that they are bound to defend the Constitution and obey the governor, whether they agree with his political positions or not.

Talking about politics could be "very divisive," Muenzberg said. People should vote, "but don't bring it here."

* * *

On the outskirts of the nation's capital, Jim Schwartz, fire chief of Arlington County, Va., worries that in America today, people can't even have "a reasonable debate" without being accused of treachery.

Schwartz was among the first to respond to the burning Pentagon on Sept. 11; he was the incident commander there for 10 days after the attacks. Today, America's polarization concerns him, the way the terrorist threat has been politicized, the way "the discussion has become less about community and more about who wins."

In addition to the Pentagon, Arlington is home to the National Guard Readiness Center, Arlington National Cemetery, the State Department Foreign Affairs Training Center, Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport and a host of other federal facilities. Residents have "every belief" that terrorists will strike this Washington suburb again, Schwartz said.

In the past three years, federal money has bought high-tech mobile command units and new radios for Arlington. A countywide system sends text messages to residents' cell phones in case of an emergency. Still, Schwartz knows it's easier to respond to a terrorist attack than to hold a nation together.

"We as Americans don't realize how fragile this democracy and our way of life actually is," he said. "Our form of government and sense of community is not something you can leave to other people. If we all just sit back and let someone else do it, I think we'll run tremendous risks."

If terrorists attack again, Schwartz fears that America's response could be its undoing.

"Would we see the kind of rioting and civil unrest we saw during the '60s and '70s? Would there be a vigilante mentality? Would people be looking to take out their fears on a portion of the community?" he asked. "It could be us turning against ourselves."

* * *

Ebrahim Moosa, an Islamic studies professor at Duke University in Durham, N.C., says it is already happening. He calls the attacks of Sept. 11 "atrocities," but says they also have been "terribly misused" to scare people, particularly Muslims.

Moosa came here in 1998 from South Africa, where a radical Muslim mob burned his house after he condemned its use of violence. Now a permanent resident, he saw this country as a haven of freedom and relative safety, a place defined by open discussion. In a recent commissioned article for a book, he criticized American imperialism and the U.S.-led war in Iraq. When the editors asked him to tone it down, he refused. The article was rejected.

"Religious communities have the duty of speaking truth to power! That's what Martin Luther King taught us," Moosa said, his voice rising. "This is not only a very strong Muslim tradition, it's very strong in the Christian community."

* * *

In Farmington, N.M., Bryan Garrison, a 42-year-old restaurant owner, weighs openness against security. He worries about the border, where Mexicans cross in search of a better life. He's concerned, too, because New Mexico has been a testing ground for nuclear weapons, because the government makes mistakes and doesn't always acknowledge them.

In August, he bought gas masks for his family, including his 2-year-old daughter. Current world events played a role, he said, but having a young child also makes you take extra precautions.

"Tell me we're not a target!" Garrison said. "If all these Mexican nationals are walking in the door, I'd be surprised if one of Saddam's nephews couldn't do the same."

Yet the immigrants who come to wash dishes in restaurants like his also offer the clearest definition, in his words, of "what it means to be American."

"To live in a land of opportunity," Garrison said without hesitation. "As long as there is opportunity to be sought, people will seek it. They'll seek it with their heart, with fire."

* * *

The man from whom Garrison bought his gas masks, Phil Gary Scianamblo, is an Ohioan of Irish and Italian descent who has cobbled together a living by chasing the zeitgeist.

When he was 17, his high school band, Phil Gary and the Catalinas, had a hit single. In 1964, when most people saw the Rolling Stones as a threat to the nation's youth, he booked the band at an arena in Dayton. Three years before Saturday Night Fever, he was organizing national disco dance contests. He claims to have been the first to market water beds east of the Mississippi after seeing one in Los Angeles.

In the two-bedroom house Scianamblo inherited from his aunt, pictures of President Bill Clinton, whom he met at a White House NAFTA conference in 1994, adorn the mantel. Photos of him with a young Mick Jagger, the glitterati at Studio 54 and the legendary DJ Wolfman Jack hang on the walls, alongside a certificate of his black belt in tae kwon do. An old Mickey Mouse telephone and a statue of the Virgin Mary watch over it all.

Scianamblo lives alone with his five cats. His greatest fear, in case of a nuclear or chemical attack, is that he won't be able to herd them all into his safe room in time. In the basement, he keeps bottles of water, a radio, batteries and a chemical weapons suit locked in shrink wrap. Paper face masks - protection from viruses like SARS - spill from a cardboard box.

His entrepreneurship is as American as his faded denim shirt and his red Ohio State baseball cap. But it has not made him rich.

On his Internet site,, bold red letters say the "terror alert" is on HIGH! After the rush of Sept. 11, his distributor ran out of gas masks, leading to scores of canceled orders. Demand spiked again in the spring of 2003, before the United States invaded Iraq. Since then, it has slowed to a trickle. He makes a little money with an online poker business and by selling a six-hour cat sitting video ("the only video made exclusively for cats") with lingering shots of woodpeckers and mice.

Scianamblo knows fear has a downside. Over sirloin and french fries at a restaurant near his house, he reflects that Americans don't seem to trust one another as much as they used to. He can't say exactly why, but he thinks Sept. 11 had something to do with it. After the disaster, all that fear had to go somewhere. These days, the media plays up every scary story. The economy is tight. People worry about paying the bills.

"I think we have a paranoia now that we've never had before," he says. "It can really change your life. You can't relax when you're paranoid. It's hard to meditate when you're paranoid."

He pauses.

"I don't think I know anybody who's not paranoid."

* * *

Paranoia is fear at its most isolating: the anxiety that divides people when fear of a common enemy has faded. For a while after Sept. 11, fear - and sorrow, compassion, even rage - made Americans' differences seem small. But the rifts are opening again. This election season, the country seems to be coming apart.

"If you ask people, "What is this nation? What is this community?' you suddenly are faced with the question, "What is it we all agree on?' " says Corey Robin, an assistant professor of political science at Brooklyn College and author of Fear: The History of a Political Idea.

"If you try to figure out what that is, you're instantly back before 9/11, arguing about it."

Frightened people agree about what they fear, not what they desire, Robin says. Fear fosters a veneer of unity that dissolves as soon as the imminent threat is gone. He quotes Sigmund Freud, who wrote that one goal of psychoanalysis is to transform "hysterical misery into common unhappiness." For Americans anguished by Sept. 11, that would be progress.

"Violence and death - that's what we came to get away from," Robin says. "That was supposed to be the old world."

America is "about hope, that willingness to dare, to think and imagine something can be better when every bit of evidence tells you it cannot be. It's a transcendent hope."

America is also about the future. Walt Whitman saw in this country "a world primal again, vistas of glory incessant and branching," a place without history but with "new contests, new politics, new literatures and religions, new inventions and arts."

Active, questioning citizens would define America. "You shall no longer take things at second or third hand," Whitman wrote in Song of Myself:

You shall not look through my eyes either, nor take things from me,

You shall listen to all sides and filter them from your self.

Times researchers Kitty Bennett and Caryn Baird contributed to this report. Vanessa Gezari can be reached at or 727 893-8803.

[Last modified October 28, 2004, 00:44:17]

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