Americans Unite, Literally, After Attacks

Since Sept. 11, it's been impossible to get through a day without hearing about how America has united or how people from New York to Seattle are pulling together.

And preliminary evidence seems to indicate the unity is more than just feel-good, patriotic hooey.

Naturally, in the tense time before a likely military engagement, soldiers, sailors and their beloveds rushed to the altar to seal their love. Places like the Candlelight Wedding Chapel in North Dakota were swamped with military couples from nearby Grand Forks Air Force Base asking for the "Short and Sweet" express marriage.

And some family courts in Harris County, Texas, saw a "spike" in the dismissal of divorce cases after Sept. 11, the Associated Press reported Wednesday.

The attacks' positive effects were seen on the streets, too. New York City Mayor Rudolph Giuliani proudly announced that the Big Apple had become not just one of the safest in the country since the attacks, but among "the safest in the world" due to a drop in crime.

"Last week, crime in New York City was the lowest it has been in about 40 years," the mayor said. "This week, we have an 18 percent reduction over last year at this time, and last year was one of the safest years we had in 35 years. And this year, we are 18 percent below last year."

In the week of Sept. 16, New York had four homicides, as opposed to last year's 10 in the same week. In 1995 or 1996, the city would have recorded from four to seven homicides in a single day, the mayor said.

Police departments also reported temporary, modest drops in crime in St. Louis, Kansas City, Mo., Fort Lauderdale, Fla., and Hartford, Conn.

Crime returned to usual levels in the following week, however, police departments said.

Sociology experts warned that the heartwarming stories can't all be taken at face value.

Brigham Young University sociologist Louis Hicks said he wasn't surprised by the reports of post-attack marital and brotherly love, but not necessarily for the reasons one might think.

"You get these things after big disasters where people are so focused on what's happening to the larger community that they're distracted from their private projects," he said. "Crime goes down for the same reason basement remodeling goes down."

Then there's the largely immeasurable factors. Is crime dropping because people aren't reporting it? How about because cops are all over the place now?

As for people opting out of divorce court, that has an historical precedent, Hicks said, and it might not be due to couples reconciling.

"It was especially true in the Great Depression, where the divorce rate plummeted," he said. "Divorce goes down during economic hard times. If you don't have any money coming in, you can't set up a new household."

In his own research, Hicks found that divorce rates also dropped temporarily in the recessions of 1981 and 1991. So, with the stock market tanking after what had already been a blue year for the economy, it's easy to see how that applies to the post-Sept. 11 world.

But Hicks didn't rule out the love-conquers-all scenario.

"It could be some of these people are reassessing their lives and saying, 'Oh, I ought to be happy with what I've got, look how much better it is than the pain and suffering elsewhere,'" he said.

Family demographer and sociologist Steven Nock was skeptical about the evidence itself, saying it wasn't solid enough to announce a true trend.

"How anyone could record a divorce rate in less than six months strikes me as impossible," he said. "It sounds like a good story, but it's all anecdotal."

As if to prove his point, the Associated Press had to retract a story it printed on Tuesday based on a Houston Chronicle article. The original report claimed that three times as many people were dismissing their divorce cases in Harris County, Texas, but in Wednesday's correction, the news service reported that the level of divorce dismissals was actually relatively static.

However, Harris County District Clerk spokesman Fred King said some courts were seeing a drop in divorce suits.

Nock said he wouldn't doubt it if, with more data at hand, demographers proved that divorces and crimes had both gone down after the World Trade Center collapsed and the Pentagon was attacked.

"People aren't buying, marrying or divorcing," he said. "Everything has been put into slow motion, and people's moral and spiritual lives are in a state of suspended animation. Everything we know about the way people conduct their lives is different right now, and people aren't making decisions. The question to ask is: Are marriage rates down too?"

Ultimately, Hicks said, drops in crime and divorce may show that Americans have taken away permanent lessons from the experience of being attacked.

"There's a big decline in selfishness of all kinds," he said. "People are holding their loved ones closer, and the petty squabbles that obsessed us before seem pettier in the light from the TV screen."