But what will it mean?

Sept. 11 will be defined in history by how it affects the years to come

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On this solemn day, members of the clergy, civic leaders and commentators are reflecting on the meaning of Sept. 11. They are asking what this tragedy meant, how it changed us, how the world is different. These are important questions, and we can hope that their constant repetition on this commemoration doesn't diminish them by making them part of the din rather than part of the discussion.

But let's try to get at the answer by asking the question literally and not figuratively: Not what is the meaning of Sept. 11 but, instead, what does Sept. 11 mean? What will it mean a decade from now? Two decades from now?

The answer is elusive but vital. And that answer depends in large measure on what happens in the next decade.

If the next 10 years are marked by tragedies resembling Sept. 11, or events that grow directly out of the terrorist attacks of that day -- the establishment of Yemen, for example, as a haven for al-Qaida attacks -- this date will be regarded as an opening act rather than a solitary or isolated act. It will render the attacks on New York and Washington as 21st-century versions of the shelling of Fort Sumter, which opened the Civil War, or the attack on Pearl Harbor, which prompted American entry into World War II. But if no such tragedy follows the one a decade ago, it may be regarded quite differently.

Today, everybody knows the meaning of Sept. 11. We regard it as one of the most horrific days in our nation's history, along with Pearl Harbor. We can think of no equal, not even the Battle of Antietam, which with its 23,000 dead is the bloodiest day in American history. We believe the shock we felt a decade ago will last forever, shared by those who follow us, for as long as there is a United States. For all of us who were alive that day, that is our most somber hope.

But time passes, and events vivid in the national memory become moments in the nation's history, and though Sept. 11 will never be an ordinary day in the calendar there may come a time when that date is simply a sad event in the country's long narrative.

Few will pause this Saturday to mark the 149th anniversary of Antietam and even next year, when the decimal system prompts us to recall Sept. 17, 1862, as the 150th anniversary of that bloody day -- the day that prompted Abraham Lincoln to issue the Emancipation Proclamation, arguably a more important event than anything that has happened in the 21st century thus far -- most Americans won't linger on the importance of the day, or even notice it.

Even Dec. 7 has lost its power. For decades the date required no explanation, and even to add one here seems unnecessary, even insulting. But ask recent college graduates what happened on Dec. 7 and you will be astonished at the blank faces. Yet for the first quarter-century after Pearl Harbor, maybe more, that date had special impact.

Lady Bird Johnson once told me that one of the hardest things about what followed Nov. 22, 1963, was that the Johnsons had to move into the White House on Dec. 7. The notion of doing such a thing on such a day horrified and saddened her. It was, after all, only 22 years later.

But even the force of the date Nov. 22, dropped so casually in the previous paragraph, has diminished. It will always be a day of crying and crepe for those who were alive when John F. Kennedy was assassinated. But who among us stopped on Tuesday in sadness and shock? That was the 110th anniversary of the shooting of William McKinley, and it passed virtually unnoticed. How many people are moved by the passing of each July 2, the anniversary of the assassination of James A. Garfield, who in his youth may have been nearly as inspiring a figure as Kennedy? Quick: What's the meaning of April 14?

There is a simple way of determining the general age of Americans. You simply ask them to identify V-E Day. The tie breaker is to ask the specific date. Anyone who can answer the first question (Victory in Europe Day) is 50 or older. Anyone who can answer the tie-breaker (May 8, 1945) is 75 or older. You can try this at home.

But don't even attempt the most poetic moment in European history: the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month. Hardly a person is now alive who remembers that famous day and year.

The great American historian and essayist Henry Adams returned to the United States after seven years in Europe at the end of the Civil War period. He wrote this about his and his parents' return to Boston:

"Had they been Tyrian traders of the year B.C. 1000, landing from a galley fresh from Gibraltar, they could hardly have been stranger on the shore of a world, so changed from what it had been 10 years before."

The change in the United States in the 10 years since the planes smashed into the World Trade Center, the Pentagon and the field at Stonycreek near Shanksville, Pa., is profound, almost certainly indelible. We think differently about our place in the world, about power, about freedom and about the price of them both.

Two generations ago, during the ascendancy of the dictators in Europe, we defined freedom as the right to boo the Dodgers. Today we define it as the right to go to the mall or on a plane without mortal fear. Anyone who says we haven't changed hasn't looked at an airplane cruising above a city skyline on any of the 3,651 days since Sept. 11, 2001, and had the same terrifying thought 300 million other Americans have had.

We have changed, but we will change some more, and as difficult as it is to imagine now, the power of the digits 9/11 may diminish, just as the power of Nov. 11, 1918 (the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month, when World War I ended) and April 14, 1865 (the assassination of Lincoln) have seeped away. That's what the head says. But only a decade out, the memories still vivid, the sadness still raw, the heart says a far different thing. It screams: Never forget.


David M. Shribman is executive editor of the Post-Gazette ( dshribman@post-gazette.com , 412 263-1890). Follow him on Twitter at ShribmanPG.


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