The smoke and dust from the ruin of the World Trade Center towers has finally cleared and visitors to the site -- an estimated 3.6 million of them, according to The New York Times -- can now breathe easier as they gaze down into the hulking crater and up at the gap in the skyline that reveals the patch of new sky that came into view when the towers collapsed on Sept. 11, 2001.
Not much is left in that gash in the ground but a skeleton of scaffolding, construction in its earliest stages. What are they looking for, these curious millions? Are they remembering the past or imagining the future? It is safe to say that the future in which we find ourselves is very unlike the one we imagined on that dark day a year ago, the day when everything changed. And things have changed -- just not in the way we expected.
What were you afraid of on Sept. 11? What frightens you today, one year later? Chances are, the two answers are quite different. On that horrifying day, we had a common enemy: the individuals who committed this unspeakable crime. Americans had never been more united.
But today, our fears have largely dissipated, and it is no longer clear who the real enemy is. Despite the efforts of Attorney General John Ashcroft and the Bush administration to keep the public at a fever pitch of paranoia, most of us are afraid of threats that are far more real than lurking terrorists, "dirty" bombs or anthrax.
We are afraid of corrupt corporate executives, afraid of what a crumbling economy and a crashing stock market will mean to our jobs and our retirement savings.
Increasingly, we are afraid of our own government. One year after 9/11, we are finally learning to distinguish real menaces from manufactured hysteria.
New battles each day
On this one-year anniversary, we revisit the pain and loss and disbelief of 9/11. But it is no longer possible to view the act as isolated from the consequences.
New events, in many ways more far reaching, have overtaken it. In fundamental ways, the tragedy of 9/11, which could have brought us wisdom and helped chart a more sane future, has been taken away from us, devoured by our all-enveloping media and twisted by political forces intent upon imposing their wills on the public.
Everyone with an agenda to advance has taken up 9/11 as an explanation, a rationale, a reason for their point of view and way of thinking.
This has provoked new battles each day, as the Bush administration aggressively attempts to use the war on terrorism to justify its policies, from drilling for oil in Alaska and expanding police powers to dramatically increasing the military budget and unilaterally abrogating treaties that were signed years ago.
One reason why our expectations post9/11 were distorted is that the act was falsely framed. A singular and unbelievably "lucky" criminal act carried out by a small group of fanatics acting on behalf of no government was declared an act of war by Bush and Cheney, joined by Democrats and the mainstream media.
Viewed in this lens, 9/11 created an opportunity to initiate the perpetual war against terrorism that we have been fighting ever since.
As John Tirman, program director of the Social Science Research Council, writes, "It is conceivable -- likely, even -- that the atrocities of Sept. 11, 2001, were a one-time catastrophe; if there is a determined network of terrorists ready to strike again, expect them to set forest fires, not to ram a truck into the Lincoln Memorial. ... The plain fact is that not a single, credible threat has been revealed by the U.S. government since that sad day ... The thought that we need to spend $100 billion of tax money annually, and much more in private funds and opportunity costs, to 'protect' against such a threat is, at the least, questionable."
What we gave up
In his first address to the nation after 9/11, President Bush said America had been attacked for being a beacon of freedom and opportunity in the world.
Yet over the past year, with help from Democrats in Congress, Bush's administration has done its best to deprive us of some of those very freedoms. The U.S. PATRIOT Act (passed hastily and with little dissent in October) was the first salvo in a series of new legislations aimed at arming the government with an expansive array of powers, putting our very basic rights, be it due process or privacy, in jeopardy.
In the weeks following, Bush and his administration revoked past directives for openness under America's Freedom of Information Act, advising federal officials to deny public access to information. In addition Bush enacted an order sharply restricting public access to the official papers of former presidents.
One of the most disgraceful consequences of post9/11 hysteria was a rash of hate crimes directed against people from the Middle East and South Asia. Overnight, simply looking Arab created the suspicion of guilt. Anyone wearing a turban or a scarf was a target not just for enraged citizens but also law enforcement.
Nowhere has the Bush administration's agenda found greater expression than in U.S. foreign policy, which shows signs of returning to its Cold War roots.
The modest gains of the past decade have been wiped away within a year: Controls in military spending, declassification of documents, limitations on the drug war, renewed emphasis on human rights and environmental standards, negotiations with Iran and North Korea, are now a distant memory.
The United States has consistently undermined new multilateral human rights agreements, including the creation of an International Criminal Court to try war crimes and the international torture convention.
Since Sept. 11, our government has offered law enforcement or military training to a growing list of new and old allies -- such as Azerbaijan, Ethiopia, Yemen, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, Colombia and Indonesia -- who have shameful records of ongoing human rights violations, including torture and assassination. In June, the president asked for and received from Congress an additional $1 billion for training programs and permission to lift all aid restrictions based on human rights concerns.
The most significant change, which will have both international and domestic consequences, is the skyrocketing increase in military budgets. In February, the president proposed a $2.1 trillion wartime budget over the next five years, which included $396 billion in military spending for fiscal year 2003 as well as a contingency for another $10 billion to pay for the war in Afghanistan.
The Pentagon's total proposed budget will be the biggest since the Cold War. "In combination with the tax cuts," John Tirman writes, "this Pentagon spree is likely to sink the economy with deficit spending."
What is changing
It is uncertain how much longer the Bush administration's preoccupation with the war on terrorism will hold the public's attention, as citizens grapple with real, day-to-day problems.
Many signs point to a growing backlash that may soon reach its tipping point. There is powerful momentum in the activist community as groups organize protests against civil liberties abuses and the ongoing bombing of Afghanistan. Groups like the American Civil Liberties Union have been working tirelessly to protect the rights of immigrants.
And many Americans are waking up to the reality that there is a war to be fought, but it is not in Iraq. As Richard Grasso, chairman of the New York Stock Exchange, said recently, "We've got to wage a war against terrorism in the boardroom, against misleading investors."
It is the public's loss of confidence in business and corporations -- the loss of faith that corporate America could be counted on for our sources of wealth and progress -- that will likely far outweigh the impact of 9/11 in the long run.
"Big business is increasingly viewed as the biggest threat to America's future," writes pollster Ruy Teixeira in The American Prospect.
"Is there any doubt that the chicanery of Enron executives and that of a growing who's who of corporate CEOs has done more long-term damage to the U.S. economy than the efforts of anti-American terrorists?" asked columnist Robert Sheer. "We ought to wake up to the reality that business greed is subverting the American way of life -- and hurting the image of American capitalism and democracy -- more effectively than the ploys of any foreign enemy."
Public support dwindling
It is no surprise that in the face of failed domestic policies, the stock market plunge and tense Congressional contests, the White House has tried hard to put the invasion of Iraq front and center.
Yet public support for attacking Iraq is dwindling and the false consensus built on fear and apathy is finally showing signs of falling apart. An Aug. 23 USA Today poll shows just 53 percent of Americans in favor of sending ground troops to the Persian Gulf, down from 74 percent in November 2001. The same poll found Bush's approval rating at 65 percent -- still healthy, but at its lowest since before 9/11.
Fear of terrorism is now a distant fifth in the list of top issues in the upcoming Congressional races. The economy is the No. 1 issue for voters, followed by Social Security and Medicare, education, and affordable health care.
In a vivid example of how restless the populace is growing with the direction of its leadership, 56 percent of Americans now think the country is headed in the wrong direction, up from 39 percent just one month ago.
One of the most dramatic signs of the backlash are the woes that have lately plagued Attorney General Ashcroft, the main advocate for repressive legislation. In a front-page article in July, The New York Times revealed that several members of the Bush administration have expressed concern that Ashcroft "seems to be overstating the evidence of terrorist threats." Even religious conservatives, typically Ashcroft's most staunch supporters, "have become deeply troubled by his actions," the Times noted. "They cite his antiterrorist positions as enhancing the kind of government power that they instinctively oppose."
On the heels of this revelation came an order by a federal judge demanding that the Justice Department release the names of those detained after 9/11, some 1,200 immigrants of Arab and South Asian descent.
Recently it was made public that the secretive U.S. Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act court, concerned about Ashcroft's aggressive tactics, has ordered him to scale back his spying efforts considerably.
And then there is the downfall of the attorney general's pet project, TIPS (the Terrorist Information and Protection System). After harsh condemnation from across the political spectrum, and efforts (led by Republican Dick Armey) to ban the measure, TIPS is dead in the water.
Maturity in the media
For months after 9/11, the media treated virtually every announcement of an arrest or bomb alert with a feeding frenzy, but little critical analysis.
News coverage was a constant flurry of dramatic events, stripped of their broader context, thereby exacerbating the climate of fear. But the media is finally showing signs of maturity, asking tough questions on a wide range of issues, including civilian deaths in Afghanistan, the suspension of civil liberties and constitutional rights domestically and the rampant corruption in many corporations.
CBS anchorman Dan Rather is a bellwether for the mainstream media's change of heart. Just after 9/11 many highly visible media commentators felt the need to prove their patriotic credentials at the expense of their commitment to their trade. The anchorman, appearing on the David Letterman show, declaring his fealty to George Bush: "Wherever he wants me to line up, just tell me where."
The same Dan Rather recently admitted that many members of the U.S. media were reluctant to ask tough questions about the war on terrorism out of fear of being labeled unpatriotic.
"What we are talking about here -- whether one wants to recognize it or not, or call it by its proper name or not -- is a form of self-censorship. I worry that patriotism run amok will trample the very values that the country seeks to defend."
As the nation reflects on the one-year anniversary of the attacks, Americans struggle to make sense of it all.
We are blanketed by media coverage from every conceivable angle, confused by powerful emotions. In many cases, the lessons and the personal sorrow of 9/11 have been exploited by the media and by politicians: The attacks turned into spectacle and the disaster site reduced to maudlin entertainment.
As Michelle Goldberg writes on Salon, "Some people, perhaps many, visit Ground Zero to pay their respects -- to get a sense of the enormity of what happened. Yet, the atmosphere at Ground Zero is nearly devoid of somber reverence. It feels like just another sentimental landmark, a place for people to get their picture taken so they can tell the folks back home that they were there."
One of our greatest challenges is to treat 9/11 with respect and sensitivity -- to honor those who were lost and the sacrifices they made, and help each other with the necessary work of moving forward.
It has been a difficult year, but we are learning to put the event and its aftermath into perspective. Many Americans now appreciate the profound consequences the tragedy has had on individual lives, but they no longer allow 9/11 to exclusively shape their way of looking at the world.
We are gradually becoming more aware of what is truly important. On this anniversary of the darkest day in American history, we must remind ourselves of what we still have: the power and the means to make a difference.