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Has America Changed? Have We Changed? Has Anything Changed?

by Kirsten Andersen
kirsten@politicalusa.com

9/12/2002

 
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September 11, 2001. It was a day none of us will soon forget -- the day that everyone said would change the world. For a while, there was talk of Armageddon and the Beginning of the End. On that fateful day one year ago, we seemed to have lost more than the buildings, the planes and the people. For a moment, we wondered if we had lost our future.

As our nation prepared for war against an unseen enemy, plans were changed and some dreams were abandoned. Sure, everyone said that to give up on the small things – an adventure in New York, an internship at the Capitol, an airplane trip to Grandma’s house – was "letting the terrorists win." But when it came time to make real decisions, practicality often won over symbolism. People took the train, and when the trains started crashing, they drove. They sent e-mails and signed up for online bill pay services just to avoid their mailboxes. Kids attended good ol’ State U. and lived close to Mom and Dad.

I remember well sitting up late at night with my boyfriend just after the attacks, rethinking aloud the very concept of marriage and whether or not it was fair to bring children into a world so full of chaos. From our vantage point in Arlington – with the smoldering Pentagon in plain sight – the world seemed too dangerous a place for us, let alone any unborn children.

A friend who was then a brand-new teacher for Fairfax County told us of her plans to move home to Pennsylvania at the school year’s end. "Depending on what’s going on with the war," she said, "I might not want to be here in a year." Her words sobered us as we realized that the war on terror would be fought on our soil, and that we as Washingtonians were prime targets for the other side.

Nearly everyone at least discussed moving. Many followed through. Mostly they left New York, though a few left Washington. (Then again, almost everyone leaves Washington eventually -- even Strom Thurmond.)

But most New Yorkers did stay, and America loved them for it. We called them heroes as they took ferries to the same old jobs . . . in New Jersey. We imagined their thoughts and feelings as they crossed the river each day and looked back at the gaping hole in their beloved skyline. We cried for them, and we cried for their fallen colleagues and friends who were carried across that same river, by a different ferry, to their final resting-place.

Slowly, things returned to normal – but a new kind of normal. A kind of weird, parallel-universe normal where CNN displays a terror alert status monitor on the TV screen right next to the weather forecasts. Chance of precipitation: 30%. Chance of death and devastation: 97.7%.

Airlines cut their rates and people started to fly again. The government took an already bad situation and made it worse by trying to make it better. Air security was federalized and became a national (unfunny) joke. One major airline filed for bankruptcy, and more are expected to do so in the near future.

Ground Zero is cleaned up now, leaving a sixteen-acre slab of nothing where people and commerce used to be. No one knows what will be done with the site. It’s too big to just build a memorial, but to build anything else seems almost a sacrilege.

The Pentagon looks wonderful—like nothing ever happened. A local paper printed a photo of a portion of the newly-refinished exterior. One blackened stone stands out among the pristine white—it was there that day, and survived not only the inferno, but the renovation.

No one seems to fear the mail anymore – at least not in the places with reason to worry. Every six weeks or so, you still hear of some secretary at an office supply warehouse in Tulsa, or somebody like that, who spilled Sweet N Low next to an envelope and was taken to the hospital with all the symptoms of hysteria. But the people who should be scared, aren’t. It’s hard to be scared when you’re filled with righteous anger.

I guess at this point, we define normal as being angry instead of scared. As long as we can sing along with Toby Keith when he shouts, "We’ll put a boot up your ass, it’s the American way!" and really mean it, we figure we’re going to be okay. And I think that’s all right. It’s better, at least, than acquiescing to the silent demands of an invisible army with no discernible goal beyond our physical, spiritual and emotional destruction.

As for our hope for the future?

Well, I can only speak for those people who are close to me, but everywhere I look, I see hope and confidence about the future. My teacher friend from Pennsylvania is now in her second year of teaching in the Fairfax County schools. She says she plans to teach here in the Washington area until she retires.

The boyfriend with whom I discussed the merit vs. folly of marriage and children in a world as scary as ours? He’s now my fiancé. We’ll be married next October, just a little over two years after our panicked late-night dialogue. And we definitely plan to have kids. However frightening the world may seem today, or how frightening it truly was one year ago today, it could never compete with the despair of a world without families, love or hope.

If you don’t believe me, just ask those people on the ferry.

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