A nation transformed

September 11, 2006

On that surreal morning in September when lawmakers milled aimlessly about the Capitol grounds in a kind of stupor - images of airline attacks on New York replaying in their brains and the stench of the burning Pentagon in their nostrils - Nebraska Republican Sen. Chuck Hagel made an observation that would become an instant clich?. The nation, he said, "is forever changed."

Five years later, the metamorphosis is still under way but so far not much seems to have changed for the better.

Most damaged is the national psyche. Terrorist attacks on random Americans going about mundane daily tasks have made their countrymen shockingly fearful. A nation built by explorers, revolutionaries, pioneers, cowboys and the muscular grit of the industrial age is nervously looking over its shoulder, wondering in what seemingly innocent face and peaceful place evil may lurk.

Fear has prompted a surrender of legal and privacy rights with barely a whimper as terror suspects were spirited away to secret prisons while the government pried into phone and financial records, e-mail exchanges and even library transactions. Investigatory power may seem abstract, but Americans have also endured all manner of personal inconvenience to comply with often nonsensical security dictates.

Vows made in the aftermath of the attacks to become better people, live more meaningful lives, may have been kept. Yet at the same time, heightened insecurity has fed an intolerance for newcomers hardly unique in American history but arisen again with a vengeance in the ugly debate over border control and illegal immigration.

More ominously, a palpable yearning to be kept safe contributed to an unquestioning trust in government that ensured broad acquiescence in President Bush's invasion of Iraq - long after the strategic rationale for the war was exposed as misguided, possibly fraudulent. It's a bitter irony that the Iraq war, so poorly planned and executed, has made the world even more dangerous for Americans, souring a global outpouring of sympathy in the wake of the 9/11 attacks.

There has been little comfort in the absence so far of a second attack here, perhaps because Europeans have not been so fortunate. The nation may have been overconfident and naive before 9/11, but the pendulum, powered by fear, has swung too far in the other direction. Americans have to believe in themselves again and in their ability to find smart, practical measures to protect the nation without yielding on the ideals of freedom and justice that have been a national hallmark.

If America is to be forever changed, it's the dark, fearful, intolerant side that should be jettisoned in favor of a brave, optimistic and compassionate national self. That should be the goal for the next five years.

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