WASHINGTON -- The day began in crystalline sunlight and endlessly blue skies, but soon whipsawed into a decade of war, economic meltdown and deep political division.
Ten years after Islamic terrorists hijacked passenger jets and crashed them into the World Trade Center and the Pentagon on Sept. 11, 2001, the America that emerged from the smoke and rubble was in some ways a very different country.
First, a story: It’s said that when President Richard Nixon made his groundbreaking visit to Communist China in 1972, he asked Premier Zhou Enlai what he thought about the French Revolution.
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It’s unclear whether Zhou thought Nixon was asking about the political upheaval of 1789 or the Paris student demonstrations just four years earlier. In any case he replied: “Too soon to tell.”
It might be too soon to fully understand the impact of 9/11 as well.
Did it somehow help spark the Arab Spring because our response unleashed so much upheaval in the Middle East?
Or the tea party, which harnessed an anxiety that America had lost control of events and turned that into an intimidating political force?
It was easier to gauge the fallout on the day itself. From the moment of impact, the terrorists struck not only concrete and steel, but also the very notion of American might and invincibility.
From crowded cities to one-stoplight towns, from farmsteads to factories and across the rugged spaces where the singular character of America has been mythically chiseled and shaped, the nation held its collective breath.
Perhaps we still do.
Don’t many of us pause when we hear the unmistakable scream of a jet engine in downward flight -- and wait?
“I think 9/11 and its aftermath years later were a shock to our national consciousness because of the way we thought about ourselves and our place in the world,” said Nicholas Burns, the American ambassador to NATO at the time and a top State Department official during the Iraq War. “It has been a much more difficult, much more fearful time for us.”
Nearly 3,000 people died on Sept. 11. The wars in Afghanistan and Iraq that followed have so far claimed 6,000 American lives and tens of thousands of civilians in each country. Military suicides are at record levels. Another 45,000 U.S. troops have been wounded, some in devastating ways, and will forever bear the scars of their service.
Troops are coming home, but “there are no victory parades,” Burns said.
The country is spent, emotionally and fiscally. The wars have cost us more than $1 trillion, all on credit, and that’s come back to haunt us.
“Lots of kids ran down to the recruiting office,” said Paul Rieckhoff, who led an infantry platoon in Iraq and now is the executive director of Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America, a nonpartisan activist group. “I don’t think they thought they’d do five tours and come home to find an unprepared (Veterans Affairs Department) and unprepared work environment.”
The wars took their toll in other ways as well. The invasion of Iraq became shrouded in a fog of questionable motives. The war in Afghanistan, where the 9/11 plot was hatched, turned into a sideshow.
Though the dots didn’t all connect, 9/11 for many became a lens for viewing everything that came after: the wars, a sagging economy, the social and cultural rancor. They provided coherence to the notion that the day was a point of demarcation.
America has long been “deeply divided on who it is and where we should go and what our priorities should be,” said Richard Land, the president of the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention.
Resentments festered. Fringe issues became mainstream. Decorum disappeared.
“You lie!” a congressman shouted at President Barack Obama during a speech. Critics questioned the president’s citizenship and warned that “death panels” in his health care plan would decide the fate of the elderly.
“It just seems as if the post-9/11 world has been a world in which our country seems to show itself as not very good in solving problems anymore,” said historian Michael Kazin of Georgetown University. “Both parties reflect this sense that America is not working very well, that we’re not able to set goals and achieve them.”
A brief moment of national unity did occur in the immediate aftermath of 9/11. The country became a tapestry of shared grief. Leaders spoke with one voice.
“There was this sense there would be this profound change for the better,” documentary filmmaker Ken Burns said. “Americans were coming together in an unusually powerful way in the ashes. We live in a bittersweet memory of that collective tragedy and collective possibility. It hasn’t been the same since.”