An Anniversary We Didn't Want

Are we a different people because of Sept. 11?

by Bob Jones

They're supposed to be happy occasions, these dates we call anniversaries. We expect cards and gifts. We plan a special dinner. We look back on the big event-wedding vows, usually-and turn reflective, emotional, misty-eyed.

Americans will be all those things on Sept. 11, but not in a good way. Politicians, preachers, and parents will all wrestle with the same question: How do you mark the anniversary of an event that never should have happened? Not just an event that's embarrassing or regrettable; but one that shook an entire nation, that scarred our collective consciousness and made us question our deepest assumptions.

Anniversaries typically get bigger with time. One year of marriage gets you paper. The 25th gets silver, then gold, and eventually diamond. So what do you call the first anniversary of a disaster? Is it the ash anniversary, or smoke perhaps? And as time goes by and wounds start to heal, do disaster anniversaries, like the marriage kind, get bigger and better? If year one is smoke, perhaps year five will be soot and year 10 merely dust.

We simply don't know how best to remember something at some level we'd rather forget. Already, TV news producers are debating how to use the tape of that awful day. Again and again in those first few hours, we saw the instant replay: death and destruction recorded in slow motion, from multiple camera angles. And then, nothing. For months now we haven't seen the fireball, the collapse, the tidal wave of debris. By common consent, the horrific images disappeared from the airwaves. But what do we do with them a year later? Do we show them again on TV, or just wait for the inevitable rerun inside our heads?

Remembrance is a tricky business. Dwelling on the past is considered bad form, but willfully forgetting it is even worse. So we try to honor our values even as we're forced to reconsider them. Is the idea of an "open society," for example, a sign of America's noble spirit-or its naivete? Are we the Puritan "City on a Hill" or the isolationist "Fortress America"?

Sept. 11 was supposed to have changed us for the better, yet too much change, we're told, would mean the terrorists had somehow "won." We're supposed to be patriotic without being jingoistic, to be proud without being arrogant. We're supposed to be watchful but not paranoid. We're supposed to pursue our material good while recognizing our spiritual need. We're supposed to appreciate our political system while abhorring "politics as usual."

Given the seemingly contradictory expectations, have we really changed at all since Sept. 11? Some would say there have been no lasting changes, that Americans went back to life as usual literally as soon as the dust had settled. Military enlistments hardly budged, they point out, and the highly touted spiritual revival petered out as early as November, according to Christian pollster George Barna.

But military enlistments may not be the best way to measure patriotism in the wake of the terrorist attacks. Remember, no one ever asked for more recruits. President Bush urged Americans to spend money and travel, not to sign up for the armed forces. During World War II, posters advertised that Uncle Sam wanted you for the U.S. Army. Now, evidently, he just wants you for the U.S. economy.

In an era of smart bombs and shadow wars, patriotism takes more subtle forms. Americans from all walks of life donated staggering amounts of money to relief funds set up for victims of the attacks. From PTA groups to rescue missions, volunteerism jumped across the country. A year later, the "God Bless America" sentiment is inescapable-and not just because folks can't peel the old bumper stickers off their cars. (They still choose to don their "GBA" hats and T-shirts, after all.) And at baseball stadiums this summer, some fans actually sing the words to the national anthem, rather than merely hum along.

Granted, such patriotism is subtle. But one can only wave a flag so long.

As for the short-lived spiritual revival, who's to guess at its long-term impact? There's no direct correlation between church pews and changed hearts, so polls can't accurately gauge spiritual growth. The terrorists raised ultimate questions in the minds of many Americans, even as they razed the World Trade Center. The nagging sense that there must be something more isn't one that goes away completely, even when life returns to some semblance of normal.

So, did Sept. 11 change us socially, politically, or spiritually? It may be too early to say. It's only the ash anniversary, after all.

World Trade Center

It seemed inconceivable that the World Trade Center towers could simply disappear. Yet that's just what happened, right before the eyes of millions. The two towers that so completely dominated the striving skyline of New York suddenly vanished behind the buildings they had once dwarfed.

Up close, of course, there was still a mountain of debris to deal with. At first, the dump truck drivers were applauded like heroes on the streets of New York, but such an ovation could only last so long. After the first thousand or so loads were hauled away, New Yorkers stopped noticing. But officials were still counting: as of early August, nearly 109,000 loads, totaling 1.65 million tons of concrete, steel, and other debris.

In time, new concrete and steel will be trucked in to fill the hole in Lower Manhattan, where developers abhor an empty lot the way nature abhors a vacuum.

But the six plans submitted for consideration have done little to quiet the debate over the future of the site-perhaps because the past was only so recently carted away, one truckload at a time.


A jet loaded with hundreds of thousands of pounds of fuel crashed into the Pentagon at perhaps 500 mph-and many in the building never even felt the impact. Call it a tribute to Depression-era engineering: Never flashy or awe-inspiring like the World Trade Center, the Pentagon's low-slung, concentric-circle design sustained a direct hit yet remained defiantly intact.

Two rings collapsed on the building's west side, and 125 people died in their offices or onboard American Airlines Flight 77. But as the terrorists quickly learned, America's war-making capabilities were never severely compromised. Displaced workers commandeered nearby buildings, including a Citgo gas station, to set up their laptops and make important phone calls. Some were back in their offices before the sun rose on Sept. 12, planning the nation's retaliation.

If the military response was swift, the reconstruction was even more so. Crews worked night and day to clear the debris, then began the task of rebuilding. No design debates here: The new construction will precisely match the existing building, wiping away any visual reminder of the attack on the nation's capital. And, though their contracts don't call for it, construction companies vow they'll finish the job by Sept. 11, 2002.


Politicians promised that terrorism would never change "the American way of life," and yet clearly it did. Travel as a way of life has yet to recover from the attacks. For weeks after Sept. 11, the nation's airports looked like clean, shiny ghost towns. Airlines dropped hundreds of flights from their schedules and mothballed billions of dollars worth of planes. Only a huge congressional bailout prevented the entire industry from declaring bankruptcy.

Slowly, Americans started flying again, but not in the same numbers as before-and certainly not in the same style. Airport lines became so long that luggage manufacturers began designing rolling bags with built-in seats, and passengers resigned themselves to frequent pat-downs and searches.

Washington promises that things will get better, but no one can say just when. By Nov. 19, all baggage screeners are supposed to be federal employees, but the new Transportation Security Administration is having trouble hiring enough workers to staff the nation's 429 commercial airports. Moreover, the Transportation Department insists there's no way it can meet a Dec. 31 deadline for installing high-tech X-ray machines in all those locations.

So, for the moment, those lines at the airport don't seem to have any end in sight-especially if you happen to be standing in one.

Wall Street

Has Wall Street recovered from Sept. 11? If Wall Street means the physical location, just five blocks from the World Trade Center, yes.

Although the New York Stock Exchange was closed for an almost unprecedented four days following the terrorist attacks, it triumphantly reopened for business on Sept. 17.

The problem is, business hasn't been so great since then.

Despite sporadic attempts at recovery, the markets today still hover around their post-Sept. 11 lows. Wall Street, as shorthand for American business, still has a long way to go.

Corporate accounting scandals have rocked the Street almost as much as the fall of the World Trade Center. Stock prices are based (loosely, at least) on earnings, and earnings at some companies are starting to look entirely arbitrary.

The crisis of confidence among investors has become so acute that Congress recently passed-almost unanimously-a sweeping new bill aimed at halting accounting fraud. But with consumer confidence plunging, it may be too little, too late. Many economists are starting to worry about a double-dip recession, something that seemed unthinkable just a few months ago.


What a difference a year makes. Shortly after Sept. 11, members of Congress gathered on the steps of the Capitol to sing "God Bless America," vowing to put aside party differences for the good of a nation under attack. Motivated by genuine patriotism (and President Bush's intimidating poll numbers), Congress quickly OK'd every request coming out of the Republican White House.

As the year progressed, three things happened: al-Qaeda was routed in Afghanistan, the president's poll numbers eased, and Election Day drew nearer. That combination emboldened Democrats to challenge their commander in chief on domestic issues and foreign policy.

By the time Congress recessed in early August, the harmony of last September was all but forgotten. Democrats in the Senate refused to pass the president's request for a new, cabinet-level Department of Homeland Security and tried to embarrass the White House on domestic issues such as corporate accounting and prescription drugs.

Even the war on terrorism became fair game for partisan bickering, with Democrats pressing for an independent investigation of the Sept. 11 attacks and demanding that the president obtain Senate approval before invading Iraq.

President Bush

Even clothing styles changed in the wake of Sept. 11. All across the country, "He's not my president" T-shirts disappeared, replaced by the ubiquitous "God Bless America" fashion statement. The terrorist attacks had done what the Supreme Court could never do: impart legitimacy to an embattled administration.

And not just legitimacy, but unprecedented popularity. In his televised address to a joint session of Congress, President Bush calmed a nation's nerves. With his embrace of exhausted rescue workers at Ground Zero, he touched a nation's heart. His poll numbers quickly doubled, notching 90 percent approval levels and staying there throughout the shooting war in Afghanistan.

As Democrats began jockeying for political advantage and the Afghan war turned into a mere occupation, those numbers finally began to come down. The latest Zogby Poll shows the president still enjoying a 62 percent approval rating, 12 points better than pre-Sept. 11, but well off his record. Economic worries and political wrangling may erode those numbers still further, but Mr. Bush has forever quieted critics who initially found him vaguely unpresidential. His huge popularity may even help Republicans take back the Senate in November's elections-not bad for a man once accused of "stealing" his own.

Copyright (c) 2002 World magazine . All rights reserved. Used by permission.