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A corner still not turned in America's story

The anniversary of Sept. 11 reignites the deep desire to make sense – personally and globally – of a terrible event.

By / September 11, 2002



The wheel of history has turned just 365 days since the shock that has become simply "9/11." But for most of us, it seems, the "new normal" is starting to look a lot like the old normal.

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Our kids are heading reluctantly back to homework and school in their new clothes. We scan the sports pages and movie listings more than the serious op-ed columns. We go to church as much (or as little) as before last year's terrorist attacks. The parade of CEOs in handcuffs has become more interesting than the Al Qaeda suspects languishing in cages down in Guantanamo Bay. And there are new things to worry about – like a noticeable spike in the number of young people using illegal drugs.

So what's the big deal? Why are we glued to the one-year-after TV specials? Why did 300 lawmakers make a show of taking a special train from Washington up to New York the other day, laying a wreath at ground zero in what one called an "act of defiance" to terrorists?

Is it simply that the media have piled on to an easy story – the anniversary of an important event? Many think so. Laura Bush is asking parents to turn off the television today and instead read to their children or light a memorial candle.

Or has the American character really changed since three airliners hurtled murderously into symbols of US greatness (one stolid, the others soaring), a fourth burrowing into a Pennsylvania farm field as heroic passengers struggled with suicidal terrorists? Have those things that seem to define the nation and its people – patriotism, nationalism, reverence for individual liberty, a sense of religiosity, the presence of both a muscularity about the world and a sense of vulnerability about attack – been altered in any substantial way?

The only honest answer is: Nobody knows. Which brings to mind what Chinese Premier Chou Enlai said when Henry Kissinger asked him about the importance of the French Revolution. "It's too soon to tell," Chou answered.

"These things take time," comes the gentle reply to the heart-rending plea for "closure." And yet part of that summing up – the personal attempt to make sense of jolting events – has to be a new awareness of one's self, of those around one, of one's place in a world that seems more dangerous than it did a year ago.

There's a broader global need to sort things out. No one talks about "the end of history" any more – "the end point of mankind's ideological evolution and the universalization of Western liberal democracy as the final form of human government," as political scientist Francis Fukuyama put it in a provocative 1989 essay that generated discussion around the world.

Today, University of Pennsylvania scholar Robert Wright believes, "We're standing at a genuine threshold in history, rivaled in significance by only a few past thresholds."

A threshold presumes an entryway, a crossing to something new, maybe something unknown. And that's just as true of individuals as it is for nations.

"The Sept. 11 attacks and their aftermath simply have no paradigm or model in the American psychological experience," says Harriet Braiker, author of "The September 11 Syndrome" and an authority on stress. But just as trend is not destiny, neither is how we feel about things or react to them in the short term the same thing as character. How we behave – now or 10 years from now – isn't necessarily who we are over the course of a life or of a nation's life.

We can see the brush strokes to a new (or at least evolving) year-later portrait of Americans: Almost all say their families are more important to them now than before 9/11. A substantial minority says their religious beliefs (or at least some feeling of spirituality) remain strengthened by the terrorist attacks, even though church-going has dropped back to pre-9/11 levels. More young people are choosing to attend college near home. More than half of Americans have changed their spending habits – more gifts to loved ones, more spent on meals prepared at home, more spent to improve one's home rather than take a pleasure trip. These amount to a very direct and personal sense of "homeland security," although the troubled economy may have had something to do with it.

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