What a day -- what a sad, retching, awful day -- it was two years ago when a group of Islamic militants seized four planes and slammed them into the World Trade Center, the Pentagon and a Pennsylvania field. What a horrible thing it was for the nation and the world. God damn them, and I mean that in the fullest, theological sense of the word.
In the weeks that followed the attacks, a pall of grief descended over the country, and some things were said in haste that have not aged well. The most famous was Ann Coulter's advice to invade all Muslim countries, kill their leaders, and convert them to the true Christian faith, but for my money the most ill thought out slogan was "we shall never forget."
Certainly, no one who saw the second plane smash into the World Trade Center, or the people jumping to their deaths, or the plumes of smoke and rubble is ever likely to forget. But neither, I think, is it something that we want to linger on for too long. There is too much pain there, too much potential for greater damage. Often healers of animals will cover a wound that has been stitched together, to keep the creature from scratching at it and doing itself more harm. Mindful of this, the television networks have banished the most gruesome coverage to archival oblivion.
"The world has changed," they said incessantly, and who could argue with that judgment? But it hasn't changed in ways that one would have expected, and certain habits of mind have proven remarkably resilient, not to say stubborn. The regime that gave aid and comfort to our attackers is no more, but the House of Saud (15 of the 19 hijackers were Saudis) still stands, and is thought to be friend by the Bush administration.
Homeland security is a watchword of government, though its execution is often either laughable or lamentable. Who would have thought that, two years after September 11, most pilots would still be barred from bearing arms in the cockpits? Or that the U.S. borders would still be so porous? Or, well, we could compile a very long list. I recall, an Israeli security expert was brought in not too long after September 11 and asked to evaluate U.S. airport security. He concluded that this system was designed to frustrate people, not screen out terrorists.
Which is not to say that the war on terrorism has been a dud. Most of the principals of al Qaeda are now in custody or dead, Osama bin Laden likely among them. Millions in funds have been seized. After two nasty regimes were successfully toppled, with a minimal loss of American life, most non-western European governments have become obliging and conciliatory. The world now understands there are few countries that the U.S. could not overrun, were it so inclined.
Reported changes in the American people have been overblown. However, they are very real. Most of the social indicators (e.g., church attendance, divorces, charitable donations) have gone back to their pre-September 11 levels, but then things like the August blackout occur and there are no riots and little theft in New York of all places. My sense, from polls and from talking to people close to the attacks two years ago, is that we no longer have the same fear of death that we once did.
I know that's true for me. If someone had told me two years ago that I would be taking the Metro into this section of Virginia on the anniversary of September 11, right across from D.C. and nestled in amongst dozens of government buildings and quasi government buildings, I would have thought them daffy. And yet, when this occurred to me on the way to work, I just shrugged. Nor was my reaction atypical.
When my co-worker Suzanne Shaffer came back from the bank this afternoon, she said she couldn't enter the bank building because there was a bomb scare. People were milling about in the street, waiting to get back in.
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