At that moment, it seemed as if nothing would ever be the same, that we had all been changed in some essential way.
How could anyone live a normal life in the shadows of thousands of innocents, slaughtered in minutes ... of one colossus obliterated, and then another ... of suicidal hijackers and the specter of more terrorism, suddenly all too real and close by?
But here we are, a year later.
Millions of red-white-and-blue ribbons have come and gone from lapels. People sometimes talk about Sept. 11, but more often the conversation is about Ozzy Osbourne's family, the stock market doldrums, the summer of child abductions.
What has changed in us is deep but subtle.
"People are looking inward more," observes Wistar Kane, a 54-year-old unemployed accountant in Chadds Ford, Pa. "We've had a very basic change in our way of life."
There are many for whom the sun's rays are still dimmed by tears. There are some whose lives have been reordered spectacularly -- they've made career moves or solemnized marriages because of a sudden realization that life is short.
But if America has changed -- and it has -- most of the changes have been less dramatic. We have adjusted to the horrors of a year ago in ways we may not even notice.
Cynthia Lurie says her life is no different now. But probe a little deeper and she admits, yes, she arrives at airports hours earlier; yes, she jumps at loud noises. She pays more attention to news events, keeps up with terror alerts.
"I guess there have been changes, quite a few changes. I try not to dwell on it. But it's always there, isn't it?" says Lurie, 54, of Newport Beach, Calif.
She chatted as she submitted to security screening at John Wayne Airport -- perhaps the most obvious difference in our lives since Sept. 11.
Frequent fliers now go to the gate prepared to open their suitcases and shuck their shoes, and most do it without complaint, though some have rejected flying entirely; airlines have reported that traffic dropped 6 percent to 10 percent in July from July 2001.
Some of that can be blamed on a sick economy, but not all. A poll conducted for the AP by ICR/International Communications Research of Media, Pa., found that when asked about several worries including flying and terrorist attacks close to home, 29 percent of Americans were most concerned about flying in commercial airliners.
Second, with 14 percent, was attending a public event with a big crowd.
So at games, theme parks and other public gathering places, backpacks, bags and purses are checked for weapons. "I have no problem letting them look," said Heidi Wolfrum, 40, of Kingston, Mass., as she entered Disney's California Adventure. "That's life now."
We're all more watchful, says Jessica Smith, a 21-year-old Westville, N.J., convenience store saleswoman. "Everybody sticks together and watches out for each other. If we see anything, we let the other person know."
At many office buildings, guards check employee IDs and others with mirrors examine undercarriages of trucks making deliveries. In some places, trash cans -- where bombs might be placed -- are scarce.
To judge from surveys, all of these security measures have not made Americans feel secure; the AP poll of 1,001 adults in early August found that 63 percent believed another terrorist strike in the United States was at least somewhat likely.
But the percentage who said such an attack was "very likely" has dropped from 53 percent in October -- at the height of the anthrax scare -- to 23 percent. And the level of fear has clearly dropped from those early days, when America seemed to be under siege by the unknown.
On the morning of Sept. 11, Mayor Doc Eldridge of Athens, Ga., got a call: A woman had parked a van full of threatening-looking electronics between two government buildings, and then run away. The police stormed the scene.
As it turned out, the suspected terrorist was a woman scorned -- her husband had informed her that day that he was leaving her for a younger woman, so she stole his van. And after parking it, she ran to the bank to clean out their accounts.
For the police, it was all part of reinventing themselves to thwart further terrorism -- and deal with the heightened fears of further attacks.
They were assisted by the USA Patriot Act, proposed by President Bush on Sept. 19 and signed on Oct. 26. To fight terrorism, law enforcement agencies were granted broad new powers.
They were allowed to detain aliens who were deemed threats to national security, and hold them without any public acknowledgment (more than a thousand were arrested). Libraries and bookstores were required to provide the FBI with records of their patrons' reading habits. Universities were forced to hand over records of students from some countries.
Have Americans accepted these measures as part of the price they must pay to wage war against a cunning enemy?
Yes and no.
Laura Thompson, 43, an Auburn, N.Y., sales representative, says Sept. 11 awakened in her a sense of patriotism that she -- and many of her generation -- had never felt.
"I remember most of my life feeling that government could not be trusted and being somewhat embarrassed by the foreign policy that my government practiced," she says. "Yet, in the wake of Sept. 11, I was enraged, because criticism is one thing and mass murder is another and the acts were totally unjustified."
A Democrat, she says she strongly supported President Bush. "It was sort of 'politics be damned, George W. is my president."'
Rachel Gibson, 28, of San Francisco views the government's reaction with concern. "The threat of terrorism has always been there. It will always be there. But I worry about the removal of our constitutional rights in the effort to fight terrorism."
The AP poll found that 63 percent of the respondents were either somewhat or very concerned that the measures enacted to fight terrorism "could end up restricting our individual freedoms."
Imad Hamad, head of Detroit's American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee, complains that his people are too often singled out. They are detained by law enforcement agents, profiled by airlines, often studied suspiciously by their fellow Americans.
And yet, Hamad says he has reason to be happy.
Younger members of his community, especially those born in this country, have been politicized by the difficulties they have faced, he says. And the hate crimes and threats that made many Arabs prisoners of their own homes last September have abated.
"Definitely, it's much easier. ... This heavy burden, this heavy cloud, is more scattered now. The sky is more clear," he says.
Tempers have cooled, but patriotic ardor has not. More than a half-million immigrants applied for citizenship between Oct. 1, 2001, and May 31 -- 65 percent more than in the same period a year before. Some of them almost certainly wanted to avoid post-Sept. 11 immigration hassles, but many "wanted to show their pride in this country after Sept. 11," says Luis Gutierrez, executive director of Latinos Progresando in Chicago.
At the Flag Co. in Acworth, Ga., sales of 12- by 18-inch American flags have increased by more than a million in the past year. Toland Enterprises in Mandeville, La., has added the Stars and Stripes to other seasonal banners, putting an American flag, for example, in the yellow-mittened hands of a snowman.
"I think our country needed sort of a wake-up call to have pride in our country and care for one another," says Tanya Cooksey, 37, a doctor's office worker from Broken Arrow, Okla.
"That whole situation has put us back on our toes where we need to be. We have to realize that bad things do happen to good people."
But the more bellicose patriotism that spread after Sept. 11 seems to have passed. Osama bin Laden toilet paper is not replacing Charmin in America's bathrooms. And though Toby Keith's "Courtesy of the Red, White & Blue" -- with its promise to kick al-Qaida derriere -- is a country hit, Bruce Springsteen's more somber work, "The Rising," sold 526,000 copies in a single week.
One Springsteen song offers the lament of a fireman's lover: "I need your kiss, but love and duty/called you someplace higher/Somewhere up the stairs, into the fire."
A year has not dimmed the public's admiration for New York City's firefighters and police officers; they cannot pay for a drink, and they're often greeted with cheers and thumbs up.
And it's not just New York's Bravest and Finest. Their brethren across the country report a surge of affection, a recognition of the risks and sacrifices they face every day.
Columbus, Ind., has never lost a police officer or firefighter in the line of duty. But Jordan Meek, a 14-year-old candidate for Eagle Scout, is building a plaza in their honor -- 1,000 bricks, each engraved with the name of a uniformed man or woman. It will be dedicated Sept. 11.
These days, people in Columbus "pay more attention, they're more friendly," says Deputy Chief Tom Rebber of the Columbus City Fire Department. "They wave. There's more of a closeness."
Lake Angelus, Mich., Police Chief Dan Black shows off a scrapbook full of snapshots of New York -- but not the usual kind. His tiny department has just two full-time officers, but after Sept. 11, Black took five of his part-timers to help at ground zero for seven days.
What does he remember?
"To be frank with you," he says, "the smell at the site. The camaraderie. The hard, hard work the ironworkers did...."
He hopes to bring a delegation back to New York for the anniversary: "It might be good for us, for closure for our people."
The thought has occurred to many. Officials estimate that this year, 3.6 million people will visit the place where the World Trade Center once stood. In shorts and T-shirts, kids in tow, they stop and stare at what is now just an immense hole in the ground.
They want to see history, they say. They want to pay their respects.
For those who cannot make the trip, the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey's police department has put together a traveling exhibit of artifacts. Among them: pieces of fuselage from the two planes that hit the trade center; mangled office equipment; twisted street signs.
At the North Way Christian Community Church near Pittsburgh, 8,700 visitors waited as long as four hours to see the exhibit.
So Sept. 11 has not lost its power to fascinate. But has it changed us?
Famously, Vanity Fair editor Graydon Carter pronounced on Sept. 12 that the age of irony had ended. He takes it back now: "It does put you off from making broad pronouncements at urgent moments in human history."
Others insisted that silly fluff would no longer occupy us. Those same clairvoyants could not have foreseen cable's "Anna Nicole Show," in which cameras capture every moment of the pneumatic former model's day.
Yet the AP poll found that 50 percent believe that the United States has changed for the better by the attacks of Sept. 11; only 15 percent say it has changed for the worse.
"Before, we didn't hear so much talk about the news. Now, that's all we talk about and I think it's for the better," says Thelma Provencher, 73, a retired hospital secretary from Gardner, Mass. She hadn't subscribed to a newspaper in years but now gets two. "There's nothing like having information and being aware."
And many feel another change: a unification of the country.
"You'd never expect mass destruction of that nature bringing anyone together," says Mark Burby, 30, a Caribou, Maine, potato worker.
But it did, agrees Holly Zakharenko, 27, a Fort Lee, N.J., homemaker.
"This is something that hit everybody," she says, "even if they didn't lose anybody, or lose a job -- it hit everybody and they all hit back. It elates you a little bit."
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