Was the world sweeter before 9/11?

From airport security to overseas wars, the world changed dramatically as a result of 9/11. That doesn't mean it was better before.

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    Jazz musician Kofi Karikari of Syracuse, N.Y., practices at a local amphitheater.
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The spring of 2001 was perhaps the most glorious ever, a golden time of sunshine and innocence, a time before the world changed forever ...

That’s the way many a remembrance begins. The lost world is always sweeter than this one, the music is always better, the laughter more joyful. Think about Margaret Mitchell’s antebellum South, Ernest Hemingway’s Paris in the 1920s, and the epoch between the wars in almost everything Evelyn Waugh wrote.

Nostalgia is a powerful illusion. Looking back, events seem more certain than when we lived through them, which makes life back then seem more comforting.

Everybody older than 15 on the East Coast of the United States remembers what a clear, blue morning Sept. 11, 2001, was and what was lost on that awful day – the horror of the attack; the uncertainty and worry; the grieving; the major reordering of national and homeland security; the wars that followed; the bitter debates over Abu Ghraib, Guantánamo, and torture. The first decade of the 21st century also gave us a scary financial crisis followed by an unprecedented debt burden.

In a special report, the Monitor examines the long journey we have made since then. We’re more wary in airports and more used to intrusive screening. If you are in the military, you may have served in Iraq or Afghanistan five or six times. Doubt and concern have been the decade’s hallmarks. Even the humor has had a nervous tinge. New York Mayor Rudolph Giuliani got a laugh on Sept. 29, 2001, on the first “Saturday Night Live” after 9/11. Tina Fey asked him if it was all right to be funny. “Why start now?” he replied.

With the 10th anniversary of 9/11 approaching, the stock-taking we are doing this week already had been penciled in. But before the commando raid on Abbottabad, Pakistan, retrospectives would have been inconclusive. They would have shown how much the free world had changed because of Osama bin Laden and wondered where he was and what he might try next. Now there has been a surprise ending that tempts us to think we can close the book on the 2001-11 era.

The threat of terrorism is not over, of course. The double-secret security measures enacted after 9/11 won’t lapse. Still, the feeling that we are moving on is very much in the air, and not just because the leader of Al Qaeda is gone. The Arab Spring, the slow but steady progress out of recession, even events like the splendid royal wedding are reasons for guarded optimism. As Kurt Volker, a former ambassador to NATO, notes, “for the first time in years, there may be a glimmer of light at the end of the tunnel.”

So it is worth asking: Was the world before 9/11 really bathed in warmth and innocence? Here are a few remember-when facts from before we were consumed by the war on terror: The US had just gone through the surreal overtime election of 2000, which left the country politically divided. The dot-com bubble had burst, leaving thousands of speculators in debt. The “second intifada” was under way in the Middle East, a clash between Palestinians and Israelis that brought a wave of suicide bombings and retaliation that cost 7,700 lives.

Yes, there were good things, too. Gasoline in the US cost $1.46 a gallon. The unemployment rate was only 4.7 percent. The singer Pink’s “Get the Party Started” wasn’t a bad anthem for the time, although even the good stuff could have a downside.

In May 2001, the Monitor reported how difficult it was for young people to buy a starter home because of the long economic boom. Starter homes are plentiful now. Palestinians and Israelis may not be friends, but they are not at war. And sober investors are steering clear of speculation.

There are always great days to go with grim ones. People fall in love, start families, take risks on new businesses. The sun shines as warmly today as it did 10 years ago. The sky is as blue. Music still stirs the soul.

And yes, it’s all right to be funny.

John Yemma is the editor of The Christian Science Monitor.

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