Alan Elsner | 16.06.2002 00:49
by Alan Elsner 6:40pm Sat Jun 15 '02
In addition to what is mentioned in the article, there is the burning of Colorado, the flooding of the Midwest, the knocking down of the bridge in Oklahoma and the hammering of the stock market. Not to mention the pretzel.
Is Scandal, Fear Inspiring Malaise Among Americans?
June 15, 2002 08:33 AM ET
By Alan Elsner, National Correspondent
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Nine months after the Sept. 11 attacks, the United States finds itself in a jittery mood, as scandal and doubts envelop a growing number of major institutions.
The CIA, the FBI, the Roman Catholic Church, the stock market, major corporations, accountants and brokers are among the organizations and professions facing criticism either for their honesty or their ability to perform -- or both.
"The country is restive. There's all this worrisome stuff happening and there's deepening concern about whether the dangers are being properly addressed," said Bruce Buchanan, a political scientist at the University of Texas.
"Sept. 11 has affected the way we feel. People are not changing their lifestyle but how they look at life has changed ... We all know that there is the potential for more bad things to happen to our country," said Ed Klimek, mayor of Manhattan, Kansas, a town of 44,000 in the American heartland.
A sense of anxiety about the reliability of company balance sheets has weighed down the stock market for weeks. Ordinary investors, who rode the boom of the 1990s, now seemed spooked as the value of their retirement funds erodes day by day, although the economy has resumed growth.
In one Wall Street Journal survey released this week, 57 percent of respondents expressed lack of confidence in corporations and brokers to give them honest information.
Additionally, 59 percent said they lacked confidence in the intelligence services; 68 percent said the Catholic Church was covering up the child-abuse scandal instead of releasing the facts, and 54 percent expressed negative views about drugs companies, suspecting them of manipulating prices.
"We have an extremely jittery nation. I do sense there is tremendous insecurity out there. It's almost like the reaction of children whose parents get divorced and start to question everything they once took for granted," said Jennifer Laszlo, a public opinion pollster.
PAST PROBLEMS OVERCOME
The United States has gone through such periods of doubt before, notably during the Vietnam War and again in the late 1970s when a recession and energy crisis prompted then President Jimmy Carter to deliver what became known as his "malaise" speech, declaring that the country was facing a deep crisis of confidence.
Two years later, President Ronald Reagan took office, the economy bounced back and the crisis was overcome.
But there are two key differences between that period and the current loss of nerve. Thirty years ago, there was no sense of impending physical threat underlying that crisis, the way there is now. And that crisis did not include so many important non-governmental bodies.
"The institutions that keep us up and humming, or at least keep us mutually invested in and respectful of one another and our way of life, continue to wobble and groan from their weight of their misconduct," wrote Peggy Noonan, a speechwriter for former President Ronald Reagan, in a recent opinion piece.
"The American Catholic Church is a victim of self-inflicted wounds, its corruption as towering as its cathedrals. Big business -- Enronned. Wall Street -- stock tipped, finagled and fooled by a bubble. Big accounting, by which we judge how our business investments are doing, is a joke. The FBI and the CIA are more joke fodder," Noonan said.
So far, President Bush seems to be largely untouched by the malaise, although his approval ratings have slipped a little in some polls below the 70 percent mark -- still high in historic terms but below the stratospheric levels Bush recorded for many months after Sept. 11.
The president tried to calm fears by announcing his support for the creation of a new government department of homeland security. But this week's disclosure of a new alleged terror plot to build a "dirty bomb" gave Americans something new to worry about.
Laszlo said Bush's support was wider than it was deep, bolstered by the fact that Americans desperately needed someone to trust and partly by the fact that the Democrats had not managed to tie him personally to any of the failures.
But Buchanan said the president seemed for the time being to have lost his ability to inspire the nation, which he had demonstrated so well in his speech to Congress a week after the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon that killed around 3,000 people.
BUSH UNABLE TO INSPIRE
"Bush seems to have lost his rhetorical ability to rally and inspire for the moment. He's in damage control mode right now," said Buchanan.
With the military campaign against Afghanistan largely over, the next stages of Bush's "war against terrorism" seem ill-defined and complicated, hamstrung for the time being by seemingly intractable conflicts between India and Pakistan and between Israel and the Palestinians.
So far, at least, the polls have not detected any groundswell against the president's party in the upcoming November mid-term congressional elections. But voters seem to be paying little attention to the campaign at this stage.
However, there are signs that Americans are beginning to change their behavior in response to the gnawing uncertainty, which has been fueled by a steady stream of government warnings that more attacks on civilians are inevitable.
Financial analysts were surprised this week by a drop in retail sales in May of 0.9 percent instead of a predicted increase of around 0.3 percent. The figure increased fears the economic recovery underway from last year's mild recession would be sluggish, though few expect a "double-dip" recession, which would see the economy begin to contract again.
The analysts are awaiting other economic reports to see whether American consumers are turning conservative in their buying habits.
In the current atmosphere, the least thing can set people off. Earlier this week, there was a full-scale biohazard alert aboard a plane from San Francisco to Memphis after two passengers noticed that a man sitting next to them had a rash on his neck. The man said he was returning from the Philippines and might have caught something there.
The pilot notified the Mayo clinic that there was a possible case of smallpox aboard and the Centers for Disease Control was also alerted. When the plane landed, medical officials rushed aboard. It turned out the man had hives and some sunburn.