Taking stock

September 11, 2002

HARD TO BELIEVE a nation that considered itself so sophisticated could actually have been so naive.

One day this country was brash, cocky, confident, swaggering along with an air of invulnerability. The next, a small band of suicidal fanatics commandeered civilian airliners, crashed them into the country's economic and military nerve centers and American innocence was lost.

In its place came a rush of impulses both noble and shameful. Unity, selflessness, bravery and pride mixed with waves of fear, anger, intolerance and xenophobia.

A year later, Americans are still struggling to find a balance between conflicting feelings in their personal lives and as a nation. The challenge is to learn and grow, to extract something positive from these despicable acts.

We're changed, and we're not. Thousands of Americans lost their lives, many thousands more lost relatives and friends. Yet, even for many of the most directly bereaved, a kind of normalcy has returned. We're back to work and school and movies and football games, while fretting about the weather and the stock market. We treasure the American flag, but don't need to see it everywhere all the time. Moving on is a survival skill and we've got it.

We're scared and we're not. We want security and protection, but not too much. Nobody wants to live in a cage. We're beginning to understand that a wide-open society comes with a degree of risk, and we're trying to determine how much risk is acceptable. So far, we've said yes to tightening sloppy airport security -- but no to anything that smacks of national identity cards.

We're angry, but trying to focus our ire on real enemies -- not on people down the street or even across the world who might look like the hijackers. Most of all, we don't want to train our fear and suspicions on each other. Americans have given the raspberry to suggestions that we spy on our neighbors and turn information over to the government.

We're discovering once again the brilliance of the nation's two-century-old constitutional framework, even as it comes under challenge from a Justice Department that would use the threat of attack to suspend fundamental rights. As the framers intended, the courts seem to be rising to the task of thwarting prosecutors run amok.

We're all different, but the same. Americans come in a broad range of colors, sizes and religious practices. What we share is an attitude -- often instantly recognizable regardless of our individual appearance.

It's sort of a can-do thing, left over from the pioneer days. Those New York firefighters who raced into the infernos that were once the World Trade Center had it. One of the hijacked planes never reached its intended target in Washington because some American business guys copped an attitude and took charge.

We like to think we are friendly, but we often appear to others as arrogant -- loud, offensive, condescending. We are beginning to grasp -- but still can't quite accept -- that our attackers and perhaps millions more around the world hate us for who we are.

Whether that's fair or not, many of us have resolved to be better. Better to our families, better to our friends. Better to ourselves.

On this anniversary of the first attack on the American homeland in a half century, we feel a duty to remember the horror of that morning. But human nature ensures that sooner or later we will forget. The confidence, the swagger will come back.

They will be welcome.

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