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A year later, have we really learned what it means to be an American?

By
August 2, 2002


A year ago, most Americans lived in blissful ignorance of terrorism.

A year ago, the largest terrorist act ever launched against this country (the federal building in Oklahoma City) came from a home grown fanatic, not a religious zealot from a far-off land.

That changed on the morning of September 11, 2001, when the first of four hijacked jetliners slammed into the World Trade Center. Millions watched live on TV as a second plane struck the twin tower. Then, unbelievably, a third hit the Pentagon. The fourth roared into the ground in Pennsylvania, thwarted in its attempt to hit the White House or the Capitol.

It took days for the smoke to clear and months to clean up the rubble, but it may take a lifetime to heal the emotional scars. The gaping hole in the side of the Pentagon is gone but the hole in the American soul may never be sealed.

Freedoms we used to take for granted are gone. We endure long lines and repeated searches at airports. The Hoyt’s Cinema at a shopping center in Alexandria, Virginia, won’t allow moviegoers to bring shopping bags into the theater. Vehicles entering the parking garage at St. Louis-Lambert International Airport are searched.

Nearly every day, I drive by two Humvees on Virginia Route 110 north of the Pentagon. They sit under camouflaged netting while serious-looking young men from Fort Bragg, North Carolina man machine guns and scan traffic that whisks by. Anyone driving 110 also runs a gauntlet of Virginia State Troopers – six in a mile-and-a-half stretch of road.

Across the river, at the Navy Yard in Washington, sits an official file with my name on it, started by an aggressive young investigator after I was sighted taking pictures near the Yard on September 11, 2001.

My wife is half-Lebanese and every time she flies, she is pulled out of line at the gate for one of the extra “random” security searches. The same thing happens every time every member of her family tries to get on a plane. Yet I travel with multiple pieces of electronic equipment in my carry-on bags and have never had to endure one of those special searches, an advantage I guess of looking like an all-American white male.

As the first anniversary of Sept. 11 approaches, we will be inundated with stories, documentaries and ceremonies marking that terrible day. Scripps Howard News Service today filed more than 20 stories, features and sidebars for use by its clients. In New York, the debate still rages over what to do with the World Trade Center site. Some want to rebuild the towers but others worry if anyone will ever want to work in a tall skyscraper again. Others want a memorial. Still others suggest just leaving the site as it is today, cleared but empty.

Perhaps an empty lot is the best memorial because it exemplifies the emptiness that exists in the American soul. The national unity that emerged after September 11 is all but gone. Partisan bickering has returned to Capitol Hill, angry drivers shake their fists at others on the crowded expressways and fewer cars display American flags. New polls show more Americans are worried about the economy than another attack from terrorists.

For some, a short attention span is the best way to forget the horrors of September 11, the best way to put all this behind us and move on.

That way, we can stop being nice to our neighbors, stop writing checks to the relief funds to aid victims, stop going to church and get back to selfish worrying about the poor condition of our 401-K and whether or not the next season is the last for “Friends.”

After all, the only Americans to die from terrorist acts since that day have been journalists and soldiers in Afghanistan and the Americans who were in the wrong place at the wrong time during one of the almost-daily bombings in Israel early this week.

Yet another attack will come.

It’s not a question of if, but when.

Sadly, it will probably take another attack to remind us, once again, of what it really means to be an American.