Still salving wounds from the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, bracing for a war against Iraq that looks increasingly likely, rocking in a switchback economy that seemed instantly to go from boom to bust, the nation absorbed yet another blow Saturday when the space shuttle Columbia broke apart just before landing, killing its seven crew members and adding to a grim list of public tragedies that has become far too long, far too quickly.
Comparisons to the 1986 explosion of the space shuttle Challenger, in which seven people also died, were inevitable. Yet America is a vastly different nation than it was then--which is why, some believe, the breakup of the Columbia may not be remembered in the same way.
"This is surrounded by much more momentous and grave issues" than past public tragedies, said W.J.T. Mitchell, an English and art history professor at the University of Chicago who writes frequently on international cultural issues. "I suspect the national mourning for this will be relatively subdued."
The potential war with Iraq has already blotted up much of the nation's capacity for apprehension, Mitchell believes.
"I'm so depressed over this impending and irreversible charge into war that I don't have a lot of time to mourn this," he said.
After an extended period of giddy economic expansion and relative peace and quiet abroad in the 1990s, the nation was plunged into mourning and doubt with the terrible events of the new millennium.
For the many Americans who were wondering, "What's next?" the answer came Saturday: yet another national tragedy, covered with grim efficiency by media outlets that have learned all too well how to deliver time-release snippets of bad news in a breaking story.
The coverage sent Alex Lohr of Chicago to Holy Name Cathedral in search of solace Saturday evening.
"It's difficult, after 9/11, to relive any tragic disaster like this again," Lohr said. "I tried not to watch TV as much."
Marilyn Greenwald, a journalism professor at Ohio University, had the same thought.
"It's just been one thing after another," she said.
Until recently, Greenwald said, she saw little change in her students during her 15 years of teaching. Now many have gone from from apathetic to intensely interested in national and international issues.
"For a long time, students were oblivious. Why wouldn't they be? Nothing bad had really happened to them," Greenwald said. "Now, there have been a list of things happening that affect them--that affect all of us.
"The economy is touching them with tuition increases. Many of their parents are unemployed. ... And if there is a war, any sort of draft would obviously affect them."
The students' journey over the last several years is the same one many Americans have undertaken, she noted.
And it has made Americans more aware of the nation's vulnerability in a perilous world.
"We're interested in news again," Greenwald said. "If something happened an hour ago, the students already know it."
Some argue that it was high time Americans understood the shadows of oppression, danger and need under which much of the world lives.
Indeed, one of the justifications routinely given for suspicion of America in some international quarters was the nation's sense of invulnerability, its apparent conviction that it could float above the problems stalking other parts of the globe.
The interconnectedness of the world has asserted itself with cataclysmic force. Conflicts in foreign nations had a devastating impact on American lives.
At noon Saturday, after learning that President Bush had ordered flags lowered to half-staff, building engineer Randy Andersen made his way to the flagpole at the Adler Planetarium and did just that. There was no ceremony, no witnesses.
"It's a sad day for the nation," Andersen said. "I hate to see it come down ... the symbol being so proud."
Doubtless many people experienced a familiar shock of sadness Saturday, a "here we go again" heartsickness.
"My first feeling when I heard about it was, `It's just like the Challenger,'" Mitchell said. "Then I thought, `No, it's not.'"
It's not the same because no two tragedies are alike--and because, more important, the nation has changed so drastically in 17 years. The roll call of horrific events has become longer. The skies are newly darkened with dread.
Tribune staff reporters Brett McNeil and Lynette Kalsnes contributed to this report.