NEW YORK — For Americans, this was a year of revelation. Proud and confident, they were staggered by the Sept. 11 terrorist assaults, bringing sudden realization that fortress America was vulnerable.
Plunged into recession, they learned that the magician of the Federal Reserve, Alan Greenspan, with his rate-cutting wand, could not preserve them from economic pain. Many found new strength and comfort in greater devotion to family, home, and prayer. In New York, where the mourning of the victims was unabated, the fireman replaced the television and sports star as the most admired of celebrities.
The most reassuring revelation came from George W. Bush. He assumed the presidency after a flawed election and amid doubts about his capacity to lead. On Sept. 20, speaking before a joint session of Congress, he rallied a nation unnerved by the massive loss of life. He emerged as a strong, vibrant leader, applauded by Democrats and Republicans, capable of leading the fight against terrorism. It was a view reinforced by the effective conduct of the Afghan war, with minimal American casualties.
People no longer spoke of Mr. Bush as a one-term president like his father. There was also less talk of the president's disregard of many environmental concerns or the disappearance of the promised budget surpluses.
The war in Afghanistan began with the assumption that it would be a long struggle with an uncertain outcome. The disastrous Soviet experience was cited. American arms were said to be unsuited to warfare in Afghanistan. But confounding the media analysts, the Taliban and Al Qaeda forces were defeated within 100 days by a stunning projection of US military power. It was a feat that bolstered Americans' confidence in their military, dispelled fears of a Vietnam-like quagmire, and should serve as a deterrent to adversaries abroad.
Sept. 11 revealed to Bush the reality that the United States cannot go it alone in world affairs. He had dismayed the international community by remaining aloof from the United Nations, and apart from the Kyoto Protocols on global warming, the ban on nuclear testing, the International Criminal Court, and other multilateral accords.
Impelled by Sept. 11, he switched to a strategy that may reshape US foreign policy for years to come. He asked the United Nations to take the lead in peacekeeping and nationbuilding in Afghanistan, and forged a diverse coalition of nations to combat terrorism. Once ridiculed in European chancelleries as a fumbling cowboy, Bush became adept enough to draw such old adversaries as Russia and China into his common front and mute their criticism of his plans to build an antimissile shield. He has also hopped into a more activist peacemaker role in the Israeli-Palestinian clash.
The burst of patriotic spirit across the country showed more than a response to Osama bin Laden and his ilk. It also revealed a shift in attitude toward government. Many Americans had been opting for less government, fewer regulations, and greater reliance on free markets. Now they're not so certain this freewheeling bent can provide the security they seek.
Made profoundly apprehensive by Sept. 11 and the anthrax letters, Americans accept greater government in their lives, whether in airport security or more rigid law enforcement that impinges on privacy. The recession has also produced a flight to shelter under the government umbrella.
The world will never be the same. That's been the conventional wisdom after Sept. 11. At year's end, Congress provided some evidence to the contrary. The parties indulged in politics as usual, generating deadlock on a needed economic stimulus package.
When Congress returns, not only the economy but also the long-term struggle against terrorism may depend on a willingness to loosen the purse strings. On Sept. 14, Congress appropriated $40 billion to finance the war. What remains to be addressed is funding to ease the poverty in those parts of the world where terrorism has its roots.
There was a sense abroad that the US, sobered by the revelations of the year, was emerging as a more compassionate and stronger nation.
Seymour Topping, a former managing editor of The New York Times, is administrator of the Pulitzer Prizes and San Paolo Professor of International Journalism at Columbia University.