9/11 was a day that made America less naive, more wary
Volunteers light thousands of candles Saturday at the Flight 93 Memorial to honor the victims of all the Sept. 11, 2011, terrorist attacks.
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On Sept. 10, 2001, catastrophic terror attacks by radical Islamists happened only overseas, there was no Department of Homeland Security, color-coded threat level or Axis of Evil, and the worst thing about airline travel was the food.
All of that changed the next day when a coordinated group of 19 al-Qaida terrorists from four Arab countries commandeered four commercial airline flights and crashed them into the twin towers of the World Trade Center in lower Manhattan, the Pentagon in Arlington, Va., and, after a passenger revolt, a field in Somerset County.
Some 3,000 innocent people died that day, along with any sense of national invulnerability. Americans vowed that the shadowy forces behind the attacks would not defeat us. But they did change us, and today, the 10th anniversary of the attacks, we are in many ways a different country -- warier and more withdrawn, yet paradoxically more cognizant of the world beyond our borders.
Almost overnight, concrete barriers went up around government buildings and airports. Airline travel, or what remained of it, became an elaborate ordeal of ID-checks, with security agents searching luggage and bodies for a growing list of contraband -- nail files, matches, liquids, gels, shoe explosives.
Passengers regarded each other with suspicion, especially anyone who looked Middle Eastern or was overheard praying in Arabic. Immigration clamped down tight on student and travel visas to the U.S. A country once famous for its openness pulled in on itself, having seen that attribute exploited by its enemies.
A decade later, Sept. 11 is enshrined in American history alongside Dec. 7, Pearl Harbor day, as a calamity that caught us sleeping.
For all our myriad intelligence agencies and operations -- and despite an earlier attempt to blow up the World Trade Center -- we were utterly undefended against 19 fanatics with box cutters and a will to martyrdom.
That late summer day delivered a powerful blow to the American psyche and economy, setting the stage for a deep recession, two wars on land and a third on terror worldwide, the Patriot Act, duct-taped houses and freedom fries.
It scorched our memories with indelible images -- the towers' conflagration and collapse, desperate jumpers plummeting to earth from 1,000 feet, ash-covered survivors wandering in a daze, the gaping hole in the Pentagon building, the smoking field near Shanksville that became a mass grave.
It gave Americans a newfound respect for first responders -- firefighters, police, EMTs -- who sprinted full-bore into disaster while everyone else was rushing out. And it created 40 citizen-heroes, the passengers and crew of Flight 93 who fought for control of their plane, which crashed in Stonycreek Township rather than hitting its target in Washington, D.C.
Sept. 11 jolted American Muslims, who awoke to find the image of their faith hijacked by Osama bin Laden and his jihadi recruits, suddenly the face of Islam to Americans with little knowledge of the religion. Innocent Muslims found themselves targeted with threats, insults and vandalism; religious leaders responded by redoubling interfaith outreach and conciliation.
The attacks unleashed a flood of recrimination and self-examination in the intelligence community, as agencies pledged to find and fix the breakdowns.
They also drove home how little this country knew about the Muslim world, and the seething anger and hatred directed at the U.S. in parts of it, including the officially friendly country of Saudi Arabia, from which 10 of the hijackers hailed.
American college students began heeding the call for more Arabic speakers, also leading them to study Islamic history, culture and politics in unprecedented numbers. Other young citizens volunteered for the armed forces, eager to protect their country in a time of peril.
In the early days following the trauma, the nation was united in shock and grief. Volunteers traveled to the crash sites, offering whatever help they could. Neighbors reached out to each other, religious institutions and towns held fundraising drives and vigils. Contributions and expressions of solidarity poured into New York City from parts of the country that once viewed it as a foreign territory. Communities around the world held memorial services for the 40 heroes of Flight 93, signing registration books and sending them to Wally Miller, the Somerset County coroner, who still has them.
Politicians across the spectrum lined up behind President George W. Bush, who swore to defend the nation and strike back at the enemy.
That unity did not last, and today the country seems more divided than ever.
The invasion of Iraq drove a deep wedge through American politics that remains to this day. With the war came fierce, ongoing arguments over the definition, legality and usefulness of torture, and also the greatly expanded use of extraordinary rendition -- the transfer of foreign suspects to detention and interrogation in countries without legal safeguards.
A similar fault line persists between security and civil liberties, with warrantless wiretaps and other domestic surveillance once more associated with the Soviet KGB now embraced by the U.S. government and many citizens as the price for preventing another attack.
May 1 brought a fitting coda to the post-9/11 decade, when Navy Seals tracked down and killed Osama bin Laden in the Pakistani city of Abbottabad.
"Justice has been done," President Barack Obama said, announcing the end of a long and frustrating manhunt. Yet the struggle to find our footing in a changed world, to protect both ourselves and our principles, is far from over.
Ten years to the day after the Sept. 11 attacks, the nation pauses to recall those who died in the terrorist attacks and the wars that have followed, to send comfort to their families, to thank the responders, rescuers and helpers. There is no better time to reflect on what was lost, what was gained, and, above all, what is remembered.
First Published September 11, 2011 12:00 am