WASHINGTON -- Bruce Springsteen, as well as anyone, put words to the feeling that permeates America five years into the first decade of the new millennium - a sense that life is the same, except that it's not.
"The sky is still the same unbelievable blue," Springsteen marvels in a song from The Rising, his redemptive response to the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.
The brilliant clarity of that blue is tied in our memory to America as it was. But there was danger hidden in that vast sky.
The decade's first half also ended memorably, with a catastrophic blow. Hurricane Katrina made landfall on the Gulf Coast on Aug. 29, closing out five years in which Americans found their homeland under attack, went to war in Afghanistan and Iraq, and mourned the loss of the space shuttle Columbia's crew. President Bush cautions that in 2006, "we will see more sacrifice - from our military, their families and the Iraqi people."
Stress points, historian Dwight Pitcaithley calls times like these. We ask ourselves: What does it mean to be an American? Who are we?
"There wasn't a golden age when we weren't thrashing them out," Brent Glass, director of the Smithsonian's National Museum of American History, says of these questions. But now - as during the Great Depression of the 1930s, with the future of our economic system then hanging in the balance - they feel especially urgent.
Sept. 11 remains the defining event of this young decade, providing the framework for all that has followed - and eclipsing the contested 2000 election that engulfed the country in political turmoil for weeks before Bush finally prevailed over former Vice President Al Gore.
"What we experienced on Sept. 11, 2001, was the loss of the known world," says the Rev. Luis Leon, rector of St. John's on Lafayette Square, parish church to presidents since 1815. "We are feeling our way through that loss."
Zogby pollsters revealed just before the attacks' most recent anniversary that seven of 10 Americans think about Sept. 11 at least once a week; 87 percent say it was "the most significant historical event in their lifetime." The president casts this time in just those terms, saying in a Dec. 14 speech, "We are living through a watershed moment in the story of freedom."
In this new era, Miss Manners addresses questions about the propriety of a Sept. 11 wedding - "Have you put down a deposit?" The father of a 4-year-old details how his daughter plays at fairy godmother by waving her wand over him "like an airport security guard." A Harvard student recounts the stares directed at her Muslim headscarf, and how a small kindness from Al Gore - he picked up her dropped keys from a gym floor - reassured her that "I belong to America and that America belongs to me."
We've grown accustomed to seeing the names of our daughters alongside those of our sons among the war dead - including that of 1st Lt. Laura Margaret Walker, U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, who was killed in action in Afghanistan last Aug. 18, and who, her obit recounted, had "a deep love for all the holidays, especially Christmas."
America is the land of the self-made man, of the Hollywood ending, of "life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness." The belief in the American dream runs throughout our history. Glass oversees the Smithsonian's telling of that story - and he believes Sept. 11 was a direct attack on that dream, challenging our confidence in its power.
It is also a matter of American faith that problems have solutions, says Marc Pachter, who preceded Glass in his job. And so what happens in the wake of Hurricane Katrina should concern every American.
"If we get New Orleans rebuilt and without the loss of its soul ... we will have regained our faith in survival and resilience," Pachter says. "If we abandon New Orleans ... it will say, in the end, that there are some things that cannot be fixed. It would be a sadness that would extend over generations."
On another front, military historian Victor Davis Hanson already sees a success story: "On Sept. 12, 2001, I doubt that anyone would have believed you could have taken out the Taliban and Saddam Hussein, and had constitutional elections and had this ripple effect in Beirut and the Gulf states, and Libya and Egypt. On Sept. 12, 2001, looking at the smoke of the Pentagon and World Trade Center, people would not have believed that we would not have had another attack in the United States."
What happens next, Hanson has come to believe, may hinge on the outcome in Iraq. He likens the high stakes there to "a poker hand where everybody has upped the ante."
Now would be the time for a vibrant civic discussion of who we are. "There's a lot of discussion," notes Pitcaithley, former chief historian of the National Park Service, "but are we getting anywhere?"