• U.S.

What a Difference A Year Makes

16 minute read
Nancy Gibbs

The country is more united, and less; more fearful and more secure, more serious and more devoted to American Idol. It is like looking at your child’s baby pictures. You know exactly who it is: every feature is both different and the same, despite new expressions, and furrows and knowledge.

Holding two contradictory ideas in your head was supposed to be a sign of first-rate intelligence. Now it just feels like a vital sign. To say we have changed feels like rewarding the enemy, but to deny it risks losing the knowledge for which we paid a terrible price–knowledge about who we become under pressure, in public and private. People talked about living on a higher plane, with an intensity of fear and faith and gratitude, when it was easy to salute and hard to sleep and nothing was bland or phony or cheap. But we could not live there forever; it was like the day you graduate from high school or your first child is born or your father dies–days of power and insight that grab you for a moment and, when they let you go, leave marks on your skin.

What marks can we see now? President Bush says great good may come from the evil that struck, but you need a long lens to bring that hope into focus. We resist the idea that we have changed because so much of the change of the past year feels like damage. Lives have been lost or broken. Whole sectors of the economy are in intensive care. We talk about the need to balance freedom and security, but both have shriveled in the heat of the threat. There seemed to be a spirit of infectious virtue everywhere we turned a year ago; we have since looked from the pulpit to the boardroom to the baseball diamond and wondered if there was an honest man anywhere in sight.

So, having hardened the soft targets and stored some water and a flashlight, we try to move on as though nothing fundamental has been lost, head down the road in our gas-guzzling cars and not mind if there’s a checkpoint along the way. The Fourth of July fireworks in Omaha, Neb., this summer culminated first in a proud, fiery, red-white-and-blue U.S.A., then in rockets that formed smiley faces, then peace symbols. Which mood best fits the moment? Berkeley, Calif., the antiwar town, is busy promulgating laws that would ban coffee that’s not environmentally friendly. The most popular TV show for the year was Friends–whose Manhattan-based characters, notes Chicago Tribune TV critic Steve Johnson, “never seemed to realize the skyline had changed.” Applications are up for both the Marine Corps and the Peace Corps; does that reflect good hearts or bad job prospects?

For a while last year, we All were One, stunned, numbed, crushed and inflamed. But the road forked somewhere, dividing those most directly affected from everyone else. It is one thing to choke up when we read the “Portraits of Grief” obituaries in the New York Times, another to wake up every morning knowing there’s a pair of ski boots in your hall closet that will never be used again and decide whether this is the day you’ll finally take off your wedding ring. Many may have had a burst of spiritual fuel, but that’s not the same as having your minister suggest that God must have quite a plan for your life or he wouldn’t have saved it, as a pastor told Genelle Guzman-McMillan, the last survivor pulled from the hellfire. We all may want to be closer to our families, but consider Sergeant Randel Perez, who met his firstborn son on Christmas Eve by borrowing a commando’s laptop and grabbing the satellite link from Afghanistan to visit the hospital website. “I’m sorry I couldn’t be there,” he told the image on the screen softly, over and over. It’s one thing to calculate what we’ve lost; but then there’s Victim Compensation Fund arbiter Ken Feinberg, advising a widower who wants to know whether he should fill out one claim form or two, since his wife was eight months pregnant. Most kids had their shock and confusion, but unlike Hilary Strauch, they didn’t have a teacher pull them aside in the hall and say, “You’re my hero,” for how she has handled having her father crushed on TV.

TIME has tracked 11 people, 11 lives, men and women and children who are trailblazers in a new century, a new world, and they had no choice in the matter. A President elected in times of Peace and Prosperity finds he has to preside over War and Retrenchment. A military designed to sweep a continent is hunting shadows in caves. A progressive Pakistani girl sees her classmates reach for a burqa and wonders about progress and peace. We may dread the anniversary because we don’t want to go back there, but these people have never really left. Sept. 11 might as well have been yesterday. So what do we owe them–and what can we learn from them?

On Sept. 10, we were living in a country with 19 terrorists poised to kill as many of us as possible, but we thought we were safe. From the next day forward, we thought otherwise. We bought gas masks and burned our mail, and flight attendants called in bomb threats to their airlines because they were scared to fly. People in Spencer, Iowa, began locking their doors, taking their keys out of their cars. Wal-Mart, which can race blankets, batteries and bottled water to any region hit by a hurricane or fire, ran out of the one thing everyone suddenly needed: a flag. Soon it was selling Little Patriots diapers. Spangle your baby’s fanny with stars.

But at some point it was time to get on a subway or a plane. And that first ride, that first flight, was the first step back to Now. The blood banks had so much blood in the fall, they were throwing it out, but by Christmas some were putting out emergency calls because donations were lower than a year before. There was no baby boom nine months later. The markets survived the attacks, but not the crooks. The diabetics who craved the comfort of sundaes have gone back to watching their diets. The survivors are bickering over the payouts. The city is arguing over memorials. The doors are unlocked again in Spencer, but “nothing is ever going to be the same,” says a local car dealer. Have we changed? Or just moved on?

The debate now has a natural geography. Washington is on a war footing, unless you call machine-gun squads near the Mall normal. Lower Manhattan has become hallowed ground, like Omaha Beach or Gettysburg. But elsewhere most people say the fear has largely passed or congealed into superstitions. A Chicago mom still won’t take her kids to visit Dad in his Sears Tower office. People stay awake when they fly. Some Florida school districts have lifted the ban on cell phones, under pressure from parents who want to be able to reach their kids at any time. We have banned coolers from stadiums. Look around any city when a plane flies low, and you can see people pivot to the landmarks. The Empire State, the Golden Gate–is it still there?

The Washington Post reports that government experts know that lots of lives might be saved in the next terrorist attack if people had certain basic information: how to seal a room with duct tape or avoid radiation from a dirty bomb. But they don’t trust people with the information, the paper quotes an official as saying, because “we’re not in the business of terrifying the public.” So members of Congress have evacuation routes, but the general population does not, despite the fact that a year ago the premise that people panic in a crisis was put to the ultimate test, and people passed, with honors. The states, soaked in red ink, can’t do much without Washington’s help. Texas put its land commissioner in charge of state security and gave him $50,000 to do the job. Last month President Bush decided not to release $5.1 billion for homeland security to show he’s serious about controlling the budget.

There are the pragmatic reactions of a deeply pragmatic people determined to change as little as possible because we are so invested in our way of life. In Washington the government is installing 200 cameras around the city to safeguard the monuments to people who safeguarded our freedom. The D.C. hazardous-materials team, which used to be a part-time unit, now has more money than it knows what to do with. The fire chiefs have stormed the attics of the capital’s municipal firehouses, dug the cold war-era Geiger counters out of their green canvas bags–some still bearing the old Civil Defense logo–and shipped them off to New Jersey for recalibration. Some of the counters’ handbooks are dated 1963. All that’s missing is a solemn voice intoning, “Everyone, remain calm.”

That’s a little harder to do when the headlines report that the FBI’s computers still can’t talk to one another, its top managers are fleeing the force, the Customs Service can’t find more than a thousand credentials that let people into the most sensitive areas of airports and harbors, and the Justice Department has lost 775 weapons and 400 laptops over the past three years. Al-Qaeda appears to be alive and well, or at least well funded. Pilots keep pushing for guns because, they say, the plan to put air marshals in planes turned out to be a joke. The Nuclear Regulatory Commission still doesn’t know how many foreign nationals work at nuclear plants; the reactor sites fail security checks about half the time. But talk to a customs inspector, and you’ll understand that stopping every truck in search of spores and dirty bombs would mean 16-hour delays and halted assembly lines at auto plants throughout the hemisphere. Whose scales shall we use to balance security and prosperity and freedom?

The notion of recruiting the UPS driver into a domestic spy service was widely ridiculed, but people argue freely that we are all spies now, unrepentant racial profilers. “Driving down the highway, I’ll look at people in cars and decide if they’re people I should try and get away from,” says a Chicago businessman. If a car’s occupants “look like terrorists, I’m going to try and not drive too close to that car. It might explode.” Some Muslim Americans say they can’t imagine normal anymore. A Muslim woman in Florida who wears a hijab, or traditional head scarf, says she is afraid to stand at a bus stop for fear of a car swerving to hit her. Some men named Mohammed have changed their name to Michael.

The books and seminars on Islam are booming, but does greater knowledge of other faiths lead to understanding or alarm? “I’ve been this big pluralism person. I’ve studied Islam, been to mosques, done ecumenical stuff,” says Mary Nilsen, an Iowa writing instructor, “[but] Muslim fundamentalism really scares the hell out of me. A lot of people have become more educated about Islam, more tolerant and open. I think I’ve just edged the other way, and I’m not very proud of that.” West Point has reinstituted its language requirement, trimmed back in 1989, as well as culture classes and added a new terrorism course. At Emory University twice as many students have signed up for Arabic courses as last year. There has been a 50% increase in enrollment for religious studies at Georgia State since last summer. But over at the business school, the hot class is corporate risk management.

Is the young generation really transformed? A New York City student tells his parents, “Yeah, I know, I’m lucky to be alive. I just don’t want to hear it anymore.” A survey by the Horatio Alger Association found that two-thirds of teenagers believe that Sept. 11 was the most significant event of their lifetime. Parents say it is their kids’ Watergate and Vietnam rolled together and see a blessing and a curse. “Best-case scenario?” asks a white mom of an adopted black son, 9. “His generation pays attention to world politics and doesn’t ignore–as I feel I have–foreign policy, with the idea that it can’t affect us. Worst-case scenario? They’re fearful of people who look different from them, different cultures, different religions. We’re working harder now at making that not happen.”

Parents like the fact that their kids finally have real role models, not radioactive rock stars and bionic athletes. Being a cop or a fire fighter is now less a trade than a calling. Leaving Shea Stadium after a New York Mets game one summer afternoon, an 8-year-old boy with a baseball glove approaches the cops directing traffic and asks one to sign it. “Don’t you want a ballplayer’s autograph? Why a cop’s?” the officer asks. The boy responds, “Because you helped save the world.”

President Bush tried to find an escape hatch from the corporate scandals that stalked him this summer in the spirit of higher callings and new priorities. He addressed the attack of the robber barons by saying, “You know, the bottom line and this corporate-America stuff, is that important? Or is serving your neighbor, loving your neighbor like you’d like to be loved yourself?” But people who do not live in New York and Washington have been hit more directly by the attacks on the markets than by the attacks of last fall. Enron’s collapse turned its hometown of Houston inside out. “That affects a lot more people’s lives on a day-to-day basis,” says resident George Nelson. “If you are afraid that you might be unemployed, you are not thinking about 9/11.” More people said they thought the country was on the right track in October–amid daily alerts and anthrax fears and fire fights in Afghanistan–than in July.

It is harder for the President to argue that we are at war when so little is asked of anyone but the soldiers doing the fighting. “The fact that the country quickly returned to normal life is something I do not quite understand,” says Duane Jackson, a retired Wisconsin businessman. “Perhaps because no one is having to make any direct sacrifices like we did in World War II. We fight a phantom war, against an unseen enemy, with no direct battle lines. Where is the war?” During the Civil War, he notes, more than “600,000 lives were lost, and yet we do not even have a special national holiday to remember any part of that great conflict. So my feelings on 9/11 remain complex and, in a strange way, uninvolved.”

Because Sept. 11 is still one of a kind, people can make it what they want. The left says it has made us more aware of the need to be both humble and generous at home and abroad. The right is glad we now honor our soldiers and suspect our allies and can finally agree that some values are not just a matter of opinion. The faithful talk of a spiritual revival, even though the pollsters say that moment has passed; if we are on a spiritual journey, it does not necessarily pass through a sanctuary, and clerics from coast to coast must wonder whether they missed an opportunity they never expected to have, when they were flooded with people searching for answers but who, after waiting a few weeks, went looking elsewhere.

The only things scarier than the questions we can’t answer are the answers we can’t avoid. Somewhere in the back of our minds is the knowledge that stunned us that day–knowledge about how America is seen, about where democracies are vulnerable, about what we are capable of at our very best, what courage, what creativity, what kindness individually and collectively. That knowledge, now framed as memory, still poses a challenge. When we didn’t know we had the strength, there was no shame in not using it. But now that we know what we can do, how do we excuse ourselves for falling back into the shallows? “In some pathetic way, I miss the realness of it all,” says Nilsen, who still has an American flag propped up in a planter in her Des Moines kitchen: “People were real, and now we’re back to all this petty politicking. Not that I want another bad thing to happen, but something in me misses the kind of country we were during those weeks.”

The survivors and the soldiers on the front lines still live in that country. Most of us will just be visiting sometime in the next few weeks, dragged back by a thousand hours and pages of retrospective and elegy. We will be reminded of the destruction, relive the fury and fight again the battle between the change we value and the change we fear. We’re not meant to have fixed everything by the big day; as with New Year’s resolutions, anniversaries are a chance to take stock and keep working. And this first one is important because with each successive one, the memory may fade. Whatever other wars we fight together, this one we each get to fight alone, defending our habits and confidence and freedom against enemies who would destroy them and using as a weapon the skills we have built by doing so. We know more now. If only we can remember that we do.

–Reported by Michael Duffy/Washington, Harlene Ellin/Chicago, Deborah Fowler/Houston, Mitch Frank/New York and Betsy Rubiner/Des Moines

Photographs by Sean Hemmerle, who, inspired by World Trade Center photographs taken before and on 9/11, revisited the site to see how the landscape had changed almost one year later

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