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Empowerment of the Individual

Soon after 9-11, a pilot told his passengers that, if anyone tried to take control of the plane, they should get up and seize the hijacker. A few days later, a mentally unbalanced passenger on another flight actually broke into the cockpit area. Passengers immediately rushed the man, overpowered him, and regained control of the situation. It was a close-up of Americans responding to the challenge of the new normalcy, a sign of the sense of individual empowerment and of personal responsibility.

Prior to 9-11, air passengers had been told for years that, if their plane was hijacked, they were to remain quiet and passive so that nobody would be hurt. The strategy worked, since hijackers usually just wanted a free ride to some other country. But the rules of the game changed after 9-11, when hijackers crashed aircraft into buildings, giving passengers the choice of either dying that way or trying to foil the hijackers. It might still cost them their lives. Or save them, as happened with the mentally unbalanced passenger. In the weeks that followed the pilot's suggestion that passengers take charge of their situation, passengers all over the United States commented to the press on how they would do the same thing. They felt empowered and responsible.

The incident symbolized what was happening. Americans were being asked to take charge of their circumstances in a nation whose culture always celebrated personal initiative. This authentic American trait was dramatized in the landings of Allied troops at Normandy in June 1944, when American soldiers found that the German defenses differed from what they had been trained to meet. Because they faced up to their objective—to get inland as fast as possible and overrun German defenses—they brooked no delay. Rather than call back to commanders in Britain or on ships for orders on what to do, they took things into their own hands. With so many officers killed or wounded on the first day within hours of landing, enlisted men made decisions about how to move forward and what actions to take without asking for permission. The results were stunning: They broke through German defenses, devised new tools to cut through the hedgerows blocking their advance, and improvised tactics. Privates and corporals took charge of groups of men that normally would be commanded by lieutenants and captains. And it worked. Officers of both Allied and Axis military units commented for years afterward about this unique characteristic of American soldiers: They didn't need permission to do what was necessary to get the job done.

This feature of American society grew out of the necessities of frontier life, where often homesteaders did not have the benefit of nearby army units to protect them or law enforcement officials to keep the peace or government agencies to handle community-wide problems. They were on their own. This attitude, nurtured when Americans went West to settle the frontier, is still around. Throughout American history, institutional support for taking the initiative ensured the existence of an empowered citizenry and reinforced this behavior. Constitutional rights, the protection of copyrights and patents, the free enterprise capitalist system, free speech, and entrepreneurship all contributed to this characteristic. To be sure, alternative pressures to regulate and dampen this trend also have emerged. Censorship during war and laws against specific business practices (such as monopoly behavior) have surged and waned over time. But a sense of empowerment persists.

In the new normalcy, we can look for a resurgence of empowerment and a sense of responsibility. In the wake of 9-11, public officials reverted to a long-standing American practice of reminding people that all citizens had to personally be part of the vigilance required to ensure security. People had to report problems and unusual behavior or circumstances, individuals had to seize control in a crisis, and everyone had to assume responsibility for handling their mail very carefully. From the president on down, public officials urged Americans not just to leave things to the government, rather to take personal responsibility for security in the new normalcy.

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