Before September 11, 2001, “911” stood for the three numbers you dialed in an emergency.

Now, four years later, it means much more.

At the very least, “9/11” symbolizes the harsh reality of a world where any nutcase with a cause can bring a giant nation to its knees.

For some, it stands as a rallying cry to stand up against those who threaten our way of life.

For too many others, it is a convenient ploy to further a political agenda. President George W. Bush invokes the memory of 9/11 to try and justify many actions, even using it this past week to try and offset criticism of his administration’s lame response to the trail of devastation left by Hurricane Katrina along the Gulf Coast.

The fourth anniversary of the worst terrorist attack on American soil comes as the nation tries to face the harsh realities of death, destruction and disaster in New Orleans and other parts of the Gulf States. Some predict Katrina’s death toll, once the bodies are located and counted, will surpass the 3,000-plus who died four years ago.

Both are tragedies that killed far too many Americans. Both inflicted severe damage to the nation’s economic health. Both showcased the government’s inability to respond quickly yet both proved that individual Americans can, in times of great emergency, respond heroically.

But America has changed dramatically in the four years since 9/11 and the aftermath of Katrina shows, sadly, that the change has not been for the best.

After 9/11, Americans came together, putting their petty differences aside to work as one against a common enemy. Katrina, however, deepened the partisan differences that divide this country. The bickering from the last two weeks reveals an America divided by bitter political rivalries, aggravated by a widening gulf between rich and poor and uncovered a nation-threatening racism that always boils just below the surface.

A divided America always at war with itself cannot expect to defeat racism, poverty, partisanship, terrorism or any of the other enemies that threaten our way of life. A divided America can no longer lay claim to the greatness that, sadly, appears destined to be part of our past and not our future.

The terrorists who attacked America four years ago destroyed a lot more than buildings and killed much more than 3,000 people. They destroyed America’s sense of itself and killed this country’s soul.

The America we find four years later is a distrustful nation ruled by paranoia, unsure of its mission and reviled throughout the world as an arrogant bully far more dangerous than the band of thugs who crashed airliners into the World Trade Center and Pentagon.

Last week, a dying grandmother in a wheelchair in New Orleans looked into a television camera and asked: “How could this happen in America?”

It couldn’t. The sad fact that it did only proves the America she thought she knew no longer exists. It is as dead as the bodies floating in the sewage-filled streets of New Orleans.

And, when the autopsy is performed on the body of the nation called America it will find she died from self-inflicted wounds.