A changed moral landscape?

September 11, 2001 is permanently engraved in history for the horrific events that took place in New York, Washington and Pennsylvania that day, but it will be some time before history determines the full legacy of those terrorist attacks. One possibility may be a changed moral landscape.

So incomprehensible was the attack – even as it we watched it on live television – and so devastating its results, it has moved people like nothing else in most individuals’ lifetimes. Across the continent people have rushed to donate money, blood, food, labour, expertise, love and anything else they thought would be helpful to the victims.

"The last time there was this sense of common belonging to the nation was World War II," the historian and author Doris Kearns Goodwin told the New York Times . "People felt their lives were enlarged by a cause that was greater than themselves."

Robert Putnam, a political scientist, argues that during the Second World War, daily acts of sacrifice – saving coffee cans, scrap metal and other materials that could help the war effort – created an enduring civic commitment amongst a generation.

That sense of civic commitment hasn’t died entirely in the generations since – the environmental movement is one example – but it has often been hard to detect. The last decade of paper fortunes and high-tech expansion, perhaps the greatest period of economic growth in history, has sometimes seemed like a race among individuals to "get ahead" by collecting material goods. It has also produced a new generation of workers who know only prosperity and, until a few months ago, had never encountered an economic downturn.

But in the two weeks since the Sept. 11 attacks many people seem to have re-evaluated what is important to them. Assumptions about security, safety, economic prosperity, even health have all been challenged. Whether this new concern for non-material things and our fellow man is a passing trend or a wholesale change in attitude remains to be seen.

Whistler is viewed by many – with some justification – as the embodiment of the "me-first" philosophy that emerged in the ’90s. Just the week before the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks the story emerged of a guy who had taken advantage of the desperate housing situation and milked at least five people out of $2,300 for security deposits on a condo he didn’t own. A couple of years ago there were stories of people auctioning off rental homes to the highest bidder.

This sort of greed and preying on others’ needs hasn’t always existed here. In fact, Whistler was built on a sense of responsibility to one another and to the collective whole. That was how Whistler survived the snow drought of 1976-77 and the recession of 1982-84. In November of 1982 plumber Arpi Beleznai wrote a letter to the editor that galvanized the community. At the time the Whistler Village Land Company was $8 million in debt, had a damaged and unfinished conference centre, an unfinished golf course, and because it couldn’t find any buyers for parcels in the village it had no revenue. Beleznai, frustrated with his lack of work and criticism of Whistler in general, offered his services for free to help finish the conference centre. The letter sparked a flurry of similar offers from others.

In the wake of Sept. 11, people across North America and around the world are realizing a new sense of civic responsibility. To date most manifestations of that have been directed to New York, but the civic lessons will also need to be followed through at home.

The rebound of the stock markets this week is an encouraging sign for all. However the airline industry has been rocked by the events of Sept. 11 and that will have an impact on everyone in Whistler. There is time to adjust strategies and still have a successful winter, but it will require a continuation of our rediscovered civic commitment.

As consultant Myles Rademan said some years ago, speaking of the uncertainty in resort towns, "There are no concrete answers. From our experience, the only wisdom is the wisdom of holding hands."


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