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9/11: First came the horror

A jet airliner is lined up one World Trade Center towers New York Tuesday Sept. 11 2001. |  AP

A jet airliner is lined up on one of the World Trade Center towers in New York Tuesday, Sept. 11, 2001. | AP

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Updated: May 9, 2012 9:47AM

On a fine Tuesday morning, out of a clear blue September sky, came crashing planes, burning buildings, tumbling bodies — it hardly needs to be recounted now because nobody past kindergarten age at the time will forget the shock of 9/11: the World Trade Center destroyed, the Pentagon damaged, nearly 3,000 dead, a dagger at the financial heart of the United States, a wound to America’s people, pride and sense of security.

We thought our country was permanently changed. Was it? And if so, how? Had we become weaker — America the victim, America the vulnerable? Or were we now stronger, united in purpose, our patriotism renewed? Or is it possible that, after the shock wore off, we reverted to being basically the same nation we were before?

A decade gone by — 10 years today. Decency demands we pause first to remember those innocents murdered for the crime of being Americans. More Americans died on 9/11 than in the War of 1812. It was the bloodiest morning on American soil since the Civil War.

After commemoration, though, consensus about how 9/11 changed us will be hard to reach.

Are we more fearful? When the recent earthquake hit Washington D.C., many immediately assumed that it was the aftershock of a bomb. Our historic devotion to free speech and protection from government intrusion is now balanced against concerns for security. We adopted the Patriot Act, an enormous expansion in the powers of the government to investigate and monitor citizens. We permitted an elaborate security theater to take place at our airports, where nail cutters were suddenly banned and toddlers patted down. Was it too much? One man’s fearful overreaction is another’s prudent safeguard.

To many Americans, the foremost legacy of the attacks is air travel hassles — longer lines and nonsensical rituals. It is telling that so many mention personal inconvenience first, before they mention war. The United States is at war — two wars actually— the most concrete consequence of 9/11. Within a month of the attacks, U.S. forces were hammering the Taliban in Afghanistan, a war that will mark its own grim decade anniversary Oct. 7. In 2003, we attacked Iraq, a more controversial war that again can be viewed as trumped-up payback based on a lie or prudent, pre-emptive self-protection.

However you see the wars, America lost some 1,700 troops in Afghanistan and 4,400 in Iraq — so far, a loss that points to another post-9/11 divide in America. The military and their families shoulder the brunt of these conflicts. The public foots the enormous bill, but otherwise tends to slip into inattention, if not indifference, mistaking praise for support, satisfied to slap a yellow ribbon magnet on the back of their SUVs and be done.

Another segment of the population bearing an extra burden are Muslim Americans. First their country was attacked, then their countrymen — some of them — turned and blamed them. Though President Bush took pains to emphasize that we are at war with terror, not Islam, that distinction was lost on many. Assaults, vandalism, threats against Muslim Americans increased significantly after 9/11, and while there was no official backlash — no concentration camps like the ones Japanese-Americans were put in during World War II — there was a sense of unease and suspicion felt by the Muslim American community. They have to deal with both the hostility of their neighbors — only half of U.S. Protestants believe that Muslims are loyal Americans, according to a Gallup poll — plus broad investigation by federal authorities, who have the near impossible task of fighting a genuine threat that could easily hide within an innocent population.

A decade on, however, we must wonder if America’s earlier diligence is slipping, as political opportunists like Newt Gingrich seize upon the vulnerability of Muslims — who make up just one half of 1 percent of the U.S. population — to scapegoat and ostracize them, whipping up hysteria against the construction of mosques, sharia law, and the supposed “Islamization of America.”

That some Americans would blame Islam for the attacks is not surprising given that a scary number believe — or at least suspect — that the United States government itself was responsible. A national Scripps-Howard poll in 2006 found that 36 percent of Americans believed it was either “very likely” or “somewhat likely” that the U.S. government either deliberately allowed 9/11 to take place or carried out the attacks itself.

As always when evaluating history, there is no control sample, no test America where 9/11 did not happen so we can isolate all the results the tragedy brought about. It’s guesswork.

We are without question a more fractured nation. All you have to do is see the recent game of chicken in Washington over extending the debt limit, which once was a matter of routine, to see how far apart we’ve drifted, between those who expect the government to bind up our nation’s wounds, and those who blame those wounds on the government.

This fracture certainly accelerated after 9/11, but is it a result of it? How about the current economic slump — how much of that is the result of the attacks, and the gridlock that followed? The markets roiled, the billions lost to the airline, insurance and financial markets, the wars fought, the lives lost, the increased cost in time and money spent trying to impose security on a free nation.

There is no tragedy so huge, however, where some good doesn’t result, and just as World War II had the unintended effect of speeding racial integration at home, so there have been positive results from 9/11. We are not so quick to dismiss the woes of the world; we now see the interconnectivity between what happens in a cave in Pakistan and what happens here. Maybe we are less focused on ourselves.

The struggle over how to face the menace brought our core values — our civil rights, our view on torture, on who is an American — into stark focus, and while we didn’t always make the right decisions, these matters were hotly debated as America wondered if it could still consider itself a force of good in the light of Abu Ghraib, Guantanamo Bay and Dick Cheney.

Time stopped for 2,976 victims on Sept. 11, 2001. For the rest of us, it dragged, minute by minute, hour by hour, day by day, then suddenly shot by. Now it is Sept. 11, 2011. A decade, today, with more decades to come, and centuries waiting after that. Maybe it is still too early to decide what 9/11 meant, what it has done to us. Maybe that will be history’s task, to decide whether the United States was left fearful and fragmented, reeling under blows, lashing out at enemies, real and imagined, quick to compromise its values and absorbed in meaningless safety rituals while real threats went ignored.

Or will it wobble and then emerge stronger, more willing to both protect itself and cling to its values? Will we refuse to adopt the terrorists’ view of the world?

There are some 60 million Americans with no direct personal memory of Sept. 11, 2001 — those under the age of 14, who mostly were too young to process what was happening a decade ago. They will only know what their parents and the history books tell them, and what they conclude from looking around and seeing the kind of country they find themselves living in. They will be the judges of how we as a nation reacted to that terrible day.

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