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An anniversary we didn't want

9/11 Remembered | Are we a different people because of Sept. 11?

Issue: "9/11 remembered," Aug. 17, 2002

They're supposed to be happy occasions, these dates we call anniversaries. We expect cards and gifts. We plan a special dinner. We look back on the big event-wedding vows, usually-and turn reflective, emotional, misty-eyed.

Americans will be all those things on Sept. 11, but not in a good way. Politicians, preachers, and parents will all wrestle with the same question: How do you mark the anniversary of an event that never should have happened? Not just an event that's embarrassing or regrettable; but one that shook an entire nation, that scarred our collective consciousness and made us question our deepest assumptions.

Anniversaries typically get bigger with time. One year of marriage gets you paper. The 25th gets silver, then gold, and eventually diamond. So what do you call the first anniversary of a disaster? Is it the ash anniversary, or smoke perhaps? And as time goes by and wounds start to heal, do disaster anniversaries, like the marriage kind, get bigger and better? If year one is smoke, perhaps year five will be soot and year 10 merely dust.

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We simply don't know how best to remember something at some level we'd rather forget. Already, TV news producers are debating how to use the tape of that awful day. Again and again in those first few hours, we saw the instant replay: death and destruction recorded in slow motion, from multiple camera angles. And then, nothing. For months now we haven't seen the fireball, the collapse, the tidal wave of debris. By common consent, the horrific images disappeared from the airwaves. But what do we do with them a year later? Do we show them again on TV, or just wait for the inevitable rerun inside our heads?

Remembrance is a tricky business. Dwelling on the past is considered bad form, but willfully forgetting it is even worse. So we try to honor our values even as we're forced to reconsider them. Is the idea of an "open society," for example, a sign of America's noble spirit-or its naiveté? Are we the Puritan "City on a Hill" or the isolationist "Fortress America"?

Sept. 11 was supposed to have changed us for the better, yet too much change, we're told, would mean the terrorists had somehow "won." We're supposed to be patriotic without being jingoistic, to be proud without being arrogant. We're supposed to be watchful but not paranoid. We're supposed to pursue our material good while recognizing our spiritual need. We're supposed to appreciate our political system while abhorring "politics as usual."

Given the seemingly contradictory expectations, have we really changed at all since Sept. 11? Some would say there have been no lasting changes, that Americans went back to life as usual literally as soon as the dust had settled. Military enlistments hardly budged, they point out, and the highly touted spiritual revival petered out as early as November, according to Christian pollster George Barna.

But military enlistments may not be the best way to measure patriotism in the wake of the terrorist attacks. Remember, no one ever asked for more recruits. President Bush urged Americans to spend money and travel, not to sign up for the armed forces. During World War II, posters advertised that Uncle Sam wanted you for the U.S. Army. Now, evidently, he just wants you for the U.S. economy.

In an era of smart bombs and shadow wars, patriotism takes more subtle forms. Americans from all walks of life donated staggering amounts of money to relief funds set up for victims of the attacks. From PTA groups to rescue missions, volunteerism jumped across the country. A year later, the "God Bless America" sentiment is inescapable-and not just because folks can't peel the old bumper stickers off their cars. (They still choose to don their "GBA" hats and T-shirts, after all.) And at baseball stadiums this summer, some fans actually sing the words to the national anthem, rather than merely hum along.

Granted, such patriotism is subtle. But one can only wave a flag so long.

As for the short-lived spiritual revival, who's to guess at its long-term impact? There's no direct correlation between church pews and changed hearts, so polls can't accurately gauge spiritual growth. The terrorists raised ultimate questions in the minds of many Americans, even as they razed the World Trade Center. The nagging sense that there must be something more isn't one that goes away completely, even when life returns to some semblance of normal.

So, did Sept. 11 change us socially, politically, or spiritually? It may be too early to say. It's only the ash anniversary, after all.

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