People who work in high-risk occupations are used to wondering if each day might be their last.

Most of the rest of us have gone about our days oblivious to the specter of possible death. We've taken for granted that the sun will rise again tomorrow and we'll be there to see it.

Sept. 11 changed all that. Now all Americans are in the same boat—and well aware that another deadly gale might blow in at any moment. Will we be one of those swept off the earth by it next time?

We watch the news for the latest on the bombing of Afghanistan and our mail for signs of bioterror. We debate the finer points of the just-war theory.

And we learn to live in this state of clear and present danger. As we do, we remember that we are all, at core, the same. From dust God made us and to dust he shall, on the way to glorifying us if we are in Christ, return us.

Our debate this summer, too, over the human embryo and its utility for stem-cell research covered the same ground, even though, because of the nature of the embryo—unable to crawl, cry or coo—not all of us realized it at the time. Are embryos human beings? Should they be adopted? Used for research? Disposed of? And, yet, whether you think they are extinguishable or not, there was no denying that we all started out in this dependent, helpless, vulnerable state, too.

The state of war in which we now find ourselves has reminded us that, in many ways, we are just as dependent, helpless and vulnerable, even as adults, to forces we can't control. And the forces just may kill us.

It's a humbling thing to reckon with, this new reality, and it has led many to remember whom they are dependent upon: God. Will it also remind us who is dependent on us? We hope so, for therein lies the very foundation of a free society—the family, bound together by love.

Register columnist Jennifer Roback Morse spells out this equation in her recent book, Love and Economics: Why the Laissez-Faire Family Doesn't Work (Spence, 2001).

“The family performs a crucial and irreplaceable social function,” writes Morse. “Inside a family, helpless babies are transformed from self-centered bundles of impulses, desires and emotions to fully socialized adults. The family teaches trust, cooperation and self-restraint. The family is uniquely situated to teach these skills because people instill these qualities in their children as a side-effect of loving them. Contracts and free political institutions, the foundations of a free society, require these attributes that only families can inculcate. Without loving families, no society can govern itself.”

Is she onto something, or what? Do we need anything more right now than well-rounded, God-fearing adults?

A recent study prepared by the Institute for American Values for the Independent Women's Forum—“Hooking Up, Hanging Out and Hoping for Mr. Right: College Women on Mating and Dating Today—found that the majority of college girls who responded were clear on what they wanted from life. Are you ready for this? They want committed love, stable marriage and children. Yet, despite those goals, their dating lives seem designed to sabotage such stability: “Hooking up”—a term young people use to describe sexual activity devoid of commitment—is the rule on most campuses.

Young women want to be wives and mothers; yet, at the very point in their lives at which they are surrounded by more available “husband material” than they'll ever see in one place again, they bounce from one meaningless one-night stand to the next. This has the effect of de-valuing them in the marriage market, which increases their chances of having to settle for a less desirable mate when they finally do settle down.

It's a shame, and the girls who responded to the survey seemed to know how unwise were their choices. So why do they do hook up? According to “Hooking Up,” it's what they're encouraged to do. Their advisers, friends and maybe even their families are telling them they “don't have time for anything serious” now. That they have to “make it” first. Maybe go to graduate school even before that.

Mix this advice with a potent culture that presents sexual pleasure as a right and an end in itself, and you can see where many would lose their way in spite of their own best judgment.

It remains to be seen whether or not our views of marriage in America will change with the trauma we are now suffering as a nation. There are some signs our perspective will. The New York Times, for example, has lately been running stories of single 20- and 30-somethings in Manhattan who have tried to re-establish contact with long-since discarded boyfriends and girlfriends. It turns out they're coming to see their “independence” as “loneliness,” and looking to their earlier relationships as the closest thing to commitment they every knew.

Before Sept. 11, the census data reflected a sad state of American unions. More Americans are cohabitating then ever before. And those who marry after cohabitating are more likely to divorce. Surprise, surprise.

Which brings us back to the Morse book.

In writing about the truths of love and marriage, sex and divorce, Morse isn't just another academic telling us how to live our lives (even though, as a research fellow at the Hoover Institution, she certainly is a well-respected scholar). Writing Love and Economics, she explains in her introduction, was a labor of love. She draws heavily from her own experiences as a wife and mother—she even tells how she and her husband “tried each other out” before they were married. She says it took quite a while to overcome the habits developed during their cohabitation period. Having experienced “marriage with reservations” and marriage the right way, she's in a good position to interpret census data and our sociological state.

Whether demographics change on a substantial scale, now that we have lived through the first major attack on the continental United States, remains to be seen. Either way, as Love and Economics shows, our present crisis points to one remedy for all that ails us from within: families bound by love.

Kathryn Jean Lopez is executive editor of National Review Online

(http://www.nationalreview.com).