By Roger Simon
ne year, a single circuit of the sun, is time enough for many things. It is time enough to bring life into the world and more than time enough to take it. It is time enough to fight great battles and to resolve to win great wars. It is time enough to rebuild, rededicate, and remember. But some things need the healing balm of time, and for the wounds of September 11, one year is not time enough. After listening to Americans from all walks of life and from all over this nation, one thing is clear a year later: We are a nation still unsettled, still coming to grips, still trying to deal with the pain. Few doubt a day of resolution will someday come. Few believe it is at hand.
We know some things: The worst has not happened. There has been no second wave of terrorist attacks after September 11 and the anthrax mailings that followed. But the best also has not happened: We have not brought Osama bin Laden to justice "dead or alive," destroyed his terrorist network, or made ourselves invulnerable to future attack. And so we find ourselves a nation in between, in flux, in an uneasy search for what "normal" life is going to mean when we get there. The good news is that Americans now realize they are connected to the rest of the world. The bad news is that they don't like it.
Mark Leaf's father fought at Pearl Harbor and Leaf fought in Vietnam, but one was "ancient history" and the other "over there someplace, 9,000 miles away." Today, at 55 and working as a planning director in Pompano Beach, Fla., Leaf realizes that ground zero refers not just to 16 acres in Manhattan but to the entire country. "I realize now that we are as vulnerable as all of those nationsEurope, the Middle East," he says. "The oceans we have to separate us do not separate." He now worries that many of the "gazillion" flags that people put out in front of their houses after September 11 have disappeared. "My concern is, if we have another major attack, can we show the same resolve?" he asks. "We seem to be drifting back to polarization in this country." Leaf, like many people interviewed, is very sure of his own resolve, however. The flag in front of his home, which he used to display only on holidays, has been flying 24 hours a day since September 11. "I'm not taking it down," he says.
The changes wrought in the past year have been both pervasive and subtle. Increased security has been creeping up slowly on Americans since metal detectors were installed in airports in 1973. (Before then you simply bought a ticket andhard to believe!walked onto the plane.) But the dangling security pass has now become our new fashion accessory; boarding a plane can be a teeth-gnashing, stomach-churning, show-us-the-bottom-of-your-feet experience; purses and bags are checked at baseball games for more than just beer; and customs inspectors carry hand-held radiation detectors. Large objects we never thought aboutwater reservoirs, power plants, oil pipelines, bridges, tunnelsare now the subject of intense scrutiny. And at the U.S. Capitol, where the grounds are ringed by squat concrete barriers and where the public may no longer wander inside unescorted, 25,000 gas masks have been ordered. (It was decided that ordering just enough for the 535 members of Congress would look, well, not good. So, now, staff and tourists are included in the survival plans.)
There are other things that require guarding, and civil liberties are among them. America has yet to find its balance point here, too. White House spokesman Ari Fleischer began with the chilling warning that Americans ought to "watch what they say, watch what they do." And in the weeks following September 11, the Bush administration significantly expanded law enforcement's power to detain, investigate, and prosecute people in this country. Congress also made it easier to conduct searches, wiretap telephones, and obtain electronic records on individuals. Attorney General John Ashcroft approved giving FBI agents new powers to monitor the Internet, mosques, rallies, and other once restricted areas in search of possible terroristssteps that had been barred following disclosures that the FBI had snooped on the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and antiwar protesters. But a flap arose in July over a Justice Department plan to have a million letter carriers, utility workers, and other workers with access to private residences report suspicious activity to the government. Civil libertarians charge that the Justice Department has overstepped sensible boundaries in its war on terrorism, and some judges have ruled against some of the broader tactics. But nearly 4 out of 5 Americans are willing to give up certain freedoms for security, according to a June Gallup Poll. While some compare such results to American reaction after Pearl Harbor, there is one significant difference: Then the interning of Japanese-Americans met with public approval. Now, polls say Americans do not support actions aimed at restricting Muslims.
The Justice Department's concentration on terrorism has caused changes nobody expected. Mark Eiglarsh, 34, a former prosecutor and now a defense attorney in Miami, used to spend a lot of his time working out plea bargains with prosecutors. Not now. "September 11 has changed my business tremendously," Eiglarsh says. "The feds readily admit that they aren't focusing on the heavy drug dealers or big-time fraudulent folk." Instead, he says, they are working on terrorism-related issues. "We have clients in federal custody who are extremely eager to cooperate with the government," Eiglarsh says. "One of my partner's clients was prepared to assist the government uncover a scheme to defraud a bank of over $50 million. Before September 11, federal agents would have run to jail to debrief the client. Now, they are so busy chasing down other issues. Their response is, 'When we have a free minute.' I don't like it as a criminal defense attorney, and I dislike it more as a citizen."
On the international front, the attacks on America shifted the priorities of U.S. foreign policy overnight. Within hours, the Bush administration needed what it had not thought it needed before: to build an international coalition to wage a war on terrorism. (In the months prior to September 11, Bush's top-level national security advisers met 90 to 100 times, but terrorism came up at only two of those meetings.) Our friends and foes alike were now told that they would be judged on their willingness to cooperate in tracking down and defeating terrorists, most important al Qaeda. Today, the war continues, with al Qaeda's former Afghan sanctuary now patrolled by American soldiers. For a military that had spent years planning to fight the high-tech battles of the future, the war in Afghanistan was a wrinkle in time. Conscious of the pitfalls of a massive ground invasion, war planners launched precision airstrikes to help a band of mountain men on horseback, the Northern Alliance, kick the Taliban out of power. U.S. Green Beret teams fighting alongside the Northern Alliance used laptops and lasers from the saddle to guide 200-pound bombs to their targets, crushing their foe in a matter of weeks.
Terrorists, including some key figures, have been arrested all over the world. But America's most-wanted terrorist, bin Laden, remains at large, as do several of his top deputies. In fact, less than half of al Qaeda's senior leadership is believed dead or captured. "This is not a war that can be won by an impatient people," says Peter Probst, a former Pentagon and CIA terrorism expert. In fact, this might be a war without an end. "There are no final victories," says Vincent Cannistraro, a former CIA counterterrorism chief. "Even if you kill bin Laden tomorrow, that's not the end of it." Our new foreign-policy emphasis has served to strengthen old bonds between the United States and traditional allies like Great Britain, France, and Germany. Pakistan, a longtime U.S. ally that had fallen from grace, was also thrust forward as a key partner in defeating al Qaeda. De facto military and political alliances were forged with several of the former Soviet Central Asian republics, which are under threat from terrorists themselves. "The Bush administration has really excelled in the early stages of the war," says Walter Russell Mead, a highly respected international-affairs specialist with the Council on Foreign Relations.
The ousting of Iraq's Saddam Hussein is presumed to be America's next phase in the war on terrorism. U.S. officials stepped up their involvement in the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, in part, because of its role as a breeding ground for terrorists and, in part, because the continuing conflict makes forging an Arab coalition against Saddam so difficult. State Department officials have given a label to their newfound activism: "hardheaded multilateralism." One senior State Department official says: "It's a time of opportunity to change some of the rigid, basic facts of international life."
George W. Bush never thought it was going to be this way. The last election was fought largely over who would be a good steward of our economic prosperity and the huge surpluses that America was wallowing in. And while Americans did not exactly give Bush a mandate (he lost the popular vote), the president and his advisers were confident that a laserlike focus on the economy and a tax cut would keep the good times rolling. That the country now finds itself struggling with a bear market, multibillion-dollar deficits, and continuing job layoffs cannot, the White House emphasizes, be laid at the feet of the president. But presidents are elected to solve problems in this country, not merely endure them.
Before September 11, Gallup put Bush's job approval rating at 51 percent. Although it hit 90 percent soon after the attacks and stayed at least in the 70s for the next 10 months, in late July the effect of a prolonged stock market plunge and relative complacency over the war on terrorism had taken its toll: Bush's approval rating slipped into the 60s. Also, more than half of those Americans polled by CBS News53 percentsaid the nation was on the wrong track, and while 70 percent approved of the way Bush was handling the war on terrorism, only 44 percent approved of his handling of the economy. Blaming presidents can be seen, however, as another sign that America is returning to normal. And, in some ways, of course, America never changed at all. Silvia Christmann, 21, a student from Oldenburg, Germany, who's attending the University of South Carolina-Columbia, says that she was shockednot just by the events of September 11 but by the initial reactions of Americans. "I spoke with my family over the phone almost immediately after I heard about the attacks," she says. "They said that the shops in Europe had closed and the streets were deserted. Here, you could still go to a Wal-Mart." While other nations have lived in a state of sustained tension for much if not all of their existence, this is not the American way. Americans have a passion for normal, even when normal seems odd. Paul Wigoda, 34, lives in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., and is a plastic surgeon specializing in cosmetic surgery. Since September 11, his business has boomed, especially with those patients seeking breast augmentation and face-lifts and particularly among patients in their 50s and 60s. "I think people realize life can be short, and a large percentage of the population thinks about plastic surgery," he says. "When they saw what happened on September 11, it pushed them to do what they've been dreaming of." And what could be more normal, more American than thinking: If I have to meet my Maker, at least I'll do it looking buff?
Yet, while pollsters say Americans are feeling better as time passes, there are results in their mountain of statistics that are still heartbreaking: Months after September 11, 1 out of every 5 Americans still bursts into tears when thinking about the attacks. And this represents significant progress. In the weeks immediately following the attacks, the figure was 60 percent. Asked if the post-September 11 stress will ever disappear, Jennifer Berktold, a researcher for the National Opinion Research Center, which conducted the survey, said, "It's hard to say. A lot of this stuff depends on current events. If we don't see any other attacks, then I would expect yes."
But that is a mighty big if. In just three days in May, three senior administration officials painted a very pessimistic, if not fatalistic, picture of the future. On Sunday, May 19, Vice President Dick Cheney told NBC: "In my opinion, the prospects of a future attack against the United States are almost certain." On Monday, FBI Director Robert Mueller told a meeting of the National Association of District Attorneys: "There will be another terrorist attack. We will not be able to stop it. It's something we all live with." Then on Tuesday, Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld told a Senate Appropriations subcommittee that terrorists were certain to get their hands on nuclear, biological, and chemical weapons to attack the United States. "They inevitably will get their hands on them, and they will not hesitate to use them," Rumsfeld said.
Not surprisingly, this has left many people hoping for the best but fearing the worst. Don Morgan is a 43-year-old stockbroker living in Post Falls, Idaho, with his wife, Violet, and their three children. "The city of New York had five high-rise rescue teams up there [in the towers]," he says. "Not a single one of them on duty that day lived. Everyone chose to stay in those buildings to save as many people as they could. We've heard throughout the 20th century that our country is corrupt and decadent, failing. Those people showed the real strength of this country.'' On the other hand, Morgan is certain America will again be attacked. "I'm sure of it," he says. "The advantage terrorists have is their minds don't think like I do. They're certainly criminal, probably crazy by our standards. My guess is they will try and take hostages next time."
Yet there remains something unquenchable about the American spirit, even in the face of terror. Mary Margaret Frederick, 53, is a New York psychologist whose home and practice are four blocks from where the World Trade Center towers once stood. Every day she would step out her front door, look at the towers, and meditate on them. "It was my daily ritual," she says. "I would do it in all weather, day and night. They were my towers; they were my buildings." Frederick says that to her the towers represented "someone who had dared a dream, a dream bigger than any before, and had built it." She says this is a metaphor for the work she does with her patients. "I tell them to dream their dreams, because miracles happen every day in my office," she says. For a year, however, there have been a lot more tears than miracles in her office. "We were all targets," Frederick says. "The buildings just didn't land on us." She says that while "overall things have gotten better" for most people she sees, a year later she still occasionally cries along with her patients, something she never did before September 11.
But, she says, there have been a couple of "gifts" from the tragedy. "I used to see a lot of people who suffered from generalized anxiety," she says. "They were afraid to go to a store, go on a date, balance their checkbook. Now, for some, all of their fears of the little things have stopped. They say, 'I can ask that girl out. How bad can it be? It won't kill me.' Because of September 11, they have gotten over their irritating, daily neurotic fears." The second gift, she says, is that people who had a cavalier attitude toward commitment now feel differently. "They say, 'This relationship may be my last; I better make the best of it,' " she says. "Two or three people I see are getting married. They were unlikely candidates before."
Some might say Frederick's search for "gifts" is merely an attempt to find a silver lining in the hideous black clouds that issued forth from the twin towers. But others would point out that America has always been a nation of silver linings. "I get excited by turning points," Frederick says. "That is when miracles occur. We are at a turning point. And we can say to ourselves, 'I am scared, but I am taking the next step.' "
A single circuit of the sun is time enough for many things. If not to fully renew, if not to completely resolve, if not to finally restore, then at least to begin.
Angie Cannon, Mark Mazzetti, Thomas Omestad, and Kevin Whitelaw contributed to this report along with Lisa J. Huriash in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., W. Thomas Smith Jr. in Columbia, S.C., and Winston Ross in Coeur d'Alene, Idaho.