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.

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.

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.

At the same time, the terrorist attacks, the war in Afghanistan, and the rumors of war in Iraq have not led to a hunker-down, pull-up-the-drawbridge outlook on the rest of the world. On the contrary, many more people, according to a just-released study by the Pew Research Center, say the US should "take on world problems" rather than avoid them.

And it's understood that taking on world problems means more than briefly and violently smacking Saddam Hussein, that it may well have to include long-term commitments to "nation building" (something President Bush once dismissed but has been forced to rethink in mopping up in Afghanistan and in a post-Saddam Iraq) and sharing more of the nation's wealth abroad.

Most would agree with Secretary of State Colin Powell who said last week, "Our well-being depends on the well-being of the rest of the world." As 9/11 recedes in time (if not in memory), the "old normal" reemerges in other ways – including a strong concern for civil liberties and the freedom of dissent.

In Washington next month, venerable antiwarrior Ramsey Clark will lead a protest against possible war with Iraq. We see no more of Ralph Nader than we do of Osama bin Laden these days. Still, as expressions of patriotism become less rally-round-the-flag reflexive and more thoughtful, political progressives are finding ways to more obviously reenter the public dialogue.

"As the Bush administration paints itself into a corner, we could be headed toward a new liberal moment," Todd Gitlin, long-ago head of Students for a Democratic Society and now Columbia University professor, wrote recently in the New York Times. Well, maybe. At this point, this is no more certain than the opposite view – that Americans have become more conservative in outlook and politics since the country came under terrorist attack, and that this will affect domestic policy accordingly.

It's too soon to tell now whether those things summed up as the "new normal" are lasting – whether they go as deep as character, whether they'll have any real effect on how Americans see themselves or conduct their lives a generation or two from now. It's too soon, and it's too close.

There's something else too: An awful event over in a few hours – as contrasted with something like the war in Vietnam that was far more costly but took more than a decade to play out (killing 20 times as many Americans as were lost last Sept. 11) – is bound to be more shocking. But it doesn't necessarily have the same impact over time. Well, maybe.

For now, we'll have to settle for what daily reporting, snapshot public-opinion polls, and short-term analysis can give us. The perspective that historians bring necessarily comes later.

Journalism, it is said, is the first draft of history. We're still writing that first draft, all of us.

More accurate history will take longer; lasting art will take longer still. It wasn't until a generation after the Civil War that the first great book to tackle that historical fault line, that threshold, was written: "The Red Badge of Courage," by a young man – Stephen Crane – who hadn't been born when Robert E. Lee surrendered to Ulysses S. Grant at Appomattox.

"It takes time to layer all this together in this complex country," observes Kevin Starr, California's state historian. "So we're between acts. The play is on.

We've seen Act 1, we've gone out for a breath of fresh air, but we know we have to go back in again. The play is not finished."

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