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Lucy Perkins 

2001: An Earth Odyssey

A lot of people say that we now live in a different world than the one we lived in on September 10, but I don't buy that. The world is the same, it's only our perception of it that's different. In fact, it's our collective belief that "the world changed" on September 11, 2001 that pisses the rest of the world off so badly. There has been terror and violence and war going on in other parts of the world for longer than even Strom Thurmond's lifetime, yet until this year we were content to ignore it. Yes, our government has given money to countries in need and there are many good Americans who have physically been a part of aid efforts in other countries. But collectively, we weren't bothered by violence and tragedy if it wasn't happening to us.

Now we are no longer exempt from the fear and tragedy much of the rest of the world has faced regularly. This is a revelation to us, but to say that the world has changed is a lie. And it highlights the self-absorbed, condescending attitude that the September 11 attacks were intended to punish.

Personally, when I reflect on the year, the days prior to September are a blur. Other people I've talked to feel the same way ­ except for my sister. I asked if she remembered anything prior to September 11, and she replied that she'd graduated from college, gotten married, gotten her first real job and had to get stitches in her leg from a giant dog bite. So she doesn't fit into my survey results at all. But what were the rest of us worried about back then? How many votes George Bush accumulated in Florida? As important as a presidential election is, somehow squabbling over the ballot in Florida, which seems like it occurred a century ago, seems inconsequential today.

But my sister's response reminded me that, despite our year of collective tragedy, the things that really change our lives and speak to us usually vary widely from person to person. I must confess that one thing that changed my life this year was a movie. Hedwig and the Angry Inch is a wacky rock musical that's a surefire cult classic. This movie has been endlessly compared to The Rocky Horror Picture Show, probably because both have their roots in stage productions and both have lots of cross-dressing. But although I'm a big Rocky Horror fan, one thing I would never say is that Rocky Horror changed my life. It makes me laugh and sing, but it has never caused me to contemplate the nature of life, love, sexuality and religion, even as it totally rocked out.

Ironically, Hedwig is generally perceived as a cult film because of its supposedly outlandish plot: gay German boy has a botched sex change operation in order to marry an American citizen, move to the United States, and escape East Berlin prior to the Berlin Wall coming down. In reality, though, Hedwig is a film for all of us, screwed up sex change operation or no. Hedwig herself is divided, torn, in terms of relationships, gender and even personality. The movie is her journey of self-reconciliation.

Yeah, I've thought about this far too long. But for me, Hedwig is oddly appropriate during these changing, unsettled times. We as a people are torn by choices and beliefs as well. We find ourselves torn between freedom and safety, between religious freedom and theocracy, between war and peace, and between forgiveness and vengeance. I don't think I'm giving away anything to say that Hedwig and the Angry Inch ends, not with Hedwig becoming a whole person, but with her choosing to search for her own identity.

Hedwig's choice inspires me to be hopeful even though I'm surrounded by a world that seems basically hopeless. Not that I worry that we're going to destroy the world or even ourselves (although they both remain possibilities), but finding our national identity seems a hopeless quest, especially in the months following the tragedy of September 11. I see Christians calling on each other to practice forgiveness and turn the other cheek in their personal lives and the exact same people calling for the complete decimation of Afghanistan. I see people requesting financial aid for relief efforts and pocketing the cash. To quote Hedwig, "We don't know who we are anymore."

It used to be easy when our biggest national concerns were Elian Gonzalez and Madonna's new look. It was easy to talk about upholding freedom in the United States and to feel as though we were the world's bastion of freedom.

Now our national identity is challenged. With full public backing, Congress has passed anti-terrorist measures that strip away personal freedoms we once regarded as our greatest national treasures. But once people started knocking down other national treasures, suddenly these most important heirlooms became disposable. But we must hold on to the personal freedoms and liberties we once valued more than ever. Right now it seems as though we're protecting ourselves from some unseen enemy, but history teaches us that once we let go of our freedom, it's dangerous and difficult to regain it.

We used to value freedom of religion, a liberty as crucial as any others. In order to protect it, though, we can't view the war against terrorism as a holy war against Islam. For those who may find this warning melodramatic, open your ears. Listen to what Christian extremists say about Muslims, about how we may as well kill them because they're going to hell anyway. I won't attack the religious hypocrisy in these statements right now, but the insistence on Christianity as the superior religion is frightening enough.

I intended to look back on the year 2001 here. But I find myself instead looking ahead to the future and hoping that we won't allow our personal tragedy to keep us from remaining true to ourselves and to the ideals that we valued more than our lives prior to September 11, 2001. *

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