Essay: Although a traumatized nation failed to remake itself, it survived and perhaps that is the point.
Five days after the attacks, the World Trade Center was a nightmare landscape: 50-foot hills of smoking rubble, groves of twisted I-beams and skeletal trusses, snowbanks of singed paper.
Nearby businesses testified to the tender banality of life before that morning: coffee cups on smoked-glass tables, day planners open on desks, dust-covered dresses hanging on sale racks, a parking ticket flapping on a crumpled car.
The scale of destruction defied comprehension: seven buildings, 300 stories, 10 million square feet blasted and pancaked onto 16 acres — the equivalent of every bit of retail space in downtown Seattle being burned and dropped onto Safeco Field.
Stoic cops and firefighters sifted “the pile” in bucket brigades. Billeted rescue workers rappelled into fissures and air pockets in a last, desperate search for survivors.
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There would be none. Every survivor — 20 in all — had been rescued in the first 27 hours. All that was left of those 2,750 missing people was remains, pieces mostly, and maddeningly few of those.
Still, every few hours, word would come down the line that some remains had been found and an agonizing ritual would be repeated. The bucket brigades stopped. Machinery was shut off. A flag was produced. Hats came off. The remains were taken away. And the work started up again.
Five days after the terrorist attacks of 2001, Ground Zero was a wrenching place — an incomprehensible mix of graveyard, memorial and construction site.
Ten years later, it still is.
This changes everything.
Remember how everything was going to be different? After 2,977 people died in coordinated suicide attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, and the crash of Flight 93 in Pennsylvania, Americans came together in a near-unanimous moment of unity and shared purpose.
From now on, we would stop being the superficial, America-first consumerists we’d been before 9/11. (Or, depending on your outlook, we’d stop being godless, unpatriotic hedonists.) Either way, this was the call of a generation, the dawn of a new era — one of responsibility, civility and personal sacrifice.
Blood donations and volunteerism spiked, church attendance and military service were expected to follow. Then-President George W. Bush called on every American to donate “4,000 hours, or two years” to charitable work. Senate Republicans and Democrats skipped out onto the Capitol steps to proclaim their bipartisanship, saying, “There is no opposition party.”
But then something happened. We lost our way.
Attacked by lunatics who hoped to destabilize our economy and draw us into endless war in the Middle East, we responded by going to war in the Middle East and destabilizing our own economy.
We went on a seven-year spending spree that sent us into crushing personal and national debt. We fought two wars — one against a country that had no connection to the attacks — without paying for them. We tortured, violated our principles and sacrificed our freedoms all in the name of protecting … our principles and freedoms.
As for unity and bipartisanship — well, here we are 10 years later more divided than ever, with a petulant Congress that would rather drive us all off a cliff than work together.
As late as 2007, 41 percent of Americans still believed Saddam Hussein was behind 9/11. A similar percentage thought it was possible our own government had something to do with the attacks. You’re with us or against us? Freedom fries? The Dixie Chicks? If we don’t (fill in the blank), the terrorists have won?
We can admit it now. We went a little crazy after 9/11.
Time bombs never went off
Our decade of terrorism is a story of what didn’t happen.
There was no great cultural shift, no call of a generation. We didn’t come together, sacrifice, volunteer, go to church. We didn’t go after Osama bin Laden at Tora Bora. We didn’t find weapons of mass destruction in Iraq. The crowds in Baghdad didn’t cheer our invasion. The mission wasn’t accomplished.
But perhaps most significantly, there wasn’t another 9/11.
We were so sure there would be. It’s hard to remember now just how terrified we were back then, how vulnerable; a Gallup Poll at the time suggested that 85 percent of Americans expected another attack in the United States “in the next few weeks.”
In his speech before Congress, President Bush warned of “unprecedented dangers … thousands of dangerous killers spread … through the world like ticking time bombs, set to go off without warning.”
The time bombs never went off — or haven’t yet. Instead, there was the slow drip of smaller plots, most of them averted or thwarted, some of them little more than brash talk.
If we recall those 20 or so near-misses it is vaguely, like we recall the names of old pop stars: There were the shoe bomber, the underwear bomber, the Virginia Jihad Network. Failed attacks against the Brooklyn Bridge, the U.S. Capitol and the Sears Tower; against shopping malls, refineries and skyscrapers in Dallas, Columbus, Ohio, and Springfield, Ill.
Seattle terrorist threats frame the decade. In December 1999, in a prologue to 9/11, an al-Qaida operative was arrested at Port Angeles trying to smuggle bomb-making materials across the border from Canada. In June of this year, a SeaTac man and his friend were arrested in a plot to attack a Seattle military-recruiting station. In between, terrorist chatter occasionally mentioned state landmarks such as the Columbia Center, Grand Coulee Dam and the Space Needle, which showed up on an al-Qaida computer captured in a cave in Afghanistan in 2002.
But without further attacks, the horrors of 9/11 dissipated. We stopped looking around airplanes for suspicious people. We stopped scanning our skylines for targets. Outside New York — where the pain is still visceral — the terrorist attacks became something most of us just saw on TV.
It may be one of the quieter stories of the past decade — the success of the intelligence agencies, and the relative security we’ve enjoyed. Or, in the upside-down world of 9/11, it may be the story about how we’ve grown complacent again.
In early 2001, less than 1 percent of Americans identified terrorism as the most critical issue facing the United States. After 9/11, it was 46 percent. Ten years later, that number is again less than 1 percent.
Spend freely, we were told
The day I arrived at Ground Zero on a writing assignment, a reporter asked New York Mayor Rudolph Giuliani what regular Americans could do to help out.
“Come to New York and spend money,” Giuliani said without hesitation. This was less than a week after the attacks; rescue workers were still combing the rubble for survivors. “Go see a play,” suggested the man who would become known as America’s Mayor. “You might even be able to get tickets to ‘The Producers.’ “
What began as a legitimate fear the economy might collapse soon became the ethos of a decade.
Addressing the nation on Sept. 20, 2001, President Bush said, “Americans are asking, ‘What is expected of us? … I ask for your continued participation and confidence in the American economy. Terrorists attacked a symbol of American prosperity; they did not touch its source.”
A few days later, the Travel-Agent-in-Chief suggested we “get down to Disney World … and enjoy life.”
When I got back from New York, I saw a sign in Spokane that summed up this national mood: “God bless America. New furniture arriving every day.”
But it’s overly simplistic to blame our leaders for conflating patriotism and capitalism, for reducing American freedom to free markets.
That current was already running strong in America, trust of public institutions at an all-time low, people urging schools to be run “more like businesses.” And if our spend-first reaction was simply the result of a presidential directive, where are those 4,000 hours of charity work we were each supposed to serve? Where’s the Freedom Corps?
No, we were perfectly eager to get our share of trillions of dollars in make-believe, bubble wealth, to scurry back to that very symbol of security — our houses. Between 2001 and 2007, the average American home price went from $207,000 to $329,000 — a jump of 59 percent.
At the same time, the country was enjoying its first-ever wartime tax cut — while spending at least $1.2 trillion on wars in Afghanistan and Iraq and $700 billion more on homeland security. And those are just the monetary costs.
More than 6,100 Americans have died so far in the wars; 45,000 more have been wounded. The estimates of Iraqi and Afghan casualties during those wars run into the hundreds of thousands.
Then-Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld said after 9/11, “We have a choice, either to change the way we live, which is unacceptable, or to change the way they live.”
But why was it so unacceptable to change the way we live? And who, exactly, were they? Why were we in such a hurry to get back to normal? And what was so great about normal anyway?
Republican or Democrat, liberal or conservative, dove or hawk, member of the tea party or of MoveOn.org — who, exactly, is proud of the past decade?
Back to Ground Zero
After I returned from Ground Zero, I began work on a satirical novel about the American reaction to the attacks. When I showed my wife the beginning, in 2002, she worried I’d be arrested if I tried to publish it, or at the very least, that I’d be “Dixie Chicked.”
That book, “The Zero,” was published in 2006. Every year since then, I have flown back to New York to visit Ground Zero.
When I went this spring, I encountered the only tangible effect most Americans feel from the attacks, at the Spokane airport, where I had to remove my belt and shoes and take from my suitcase a laptop and a Ziploc baggie of contact solution and toothpaste.
In New York, I stayed in a near-empty hotel overlooking Ground Zero. It’s a busy construction site now — cranes on rising skyscrapers, a steady parade of concrete mixers. I went for a walk and saw people laying wreaths on the chain-link fence, taking photos near a place where rescue workers once stacked hundreds of loose shoes.
It’s a horribly tragic place — and a fitting symbol of the American unity that wasn’t. In those early days after the attacks, firefighters, police officers and construction workers got in occasional fistfights over how to look for remains.
Since then, it’s been the site of near-constant squabbles and lawsuits: over who was liable, who should profit, whether victims’ families deserve money, whether sick rescue workers deserve money, what constitutes a suitable memorial, whether a Muslim learning center should be allowed near the site.
And yet, on this trip, especially, I saw signs that things are getting better.
After all that wrangling over what to do at Ground Zero, planners got the blend of rebuilding and memorializing right. The half-finished Freedom Tower is rising at the pace of about a floor a week and should be finished sometime in 2013 — a dramatic, 103-story tower that will rise 1,776 feet and dominate the southern Manhattan skyline. Five smaller towers will follow. In the footprints of the original twin towers will be two tree-lined reflecting pools and a memorial park to those who died. An underground museum is scheduled to open next year.
At the same time, we seem to be getting better, too. A team of Navy SEALs killed Osama bin Laden this year. The wars in Iraq and Afghanistan are winding down. Americans are saving again, too, paying off their debts. The government may even have to follow suit.
Ten years later, it’s still too soon to say if 9/11 was horrific anomaly or harbinger of things to come. It would be nice to say that period is behind us, but history doesn’t pay attention to anniversaries, any more than it conforms itself to four-year election cycles.
So we didn’t come together in the past 10 years to remake our culture. We didn’t learn some great lesson. We didn’t eradicate terrorism. We didn’t spread freedom through the world.
But we came through it. And that might be enough.