The tragedy of Sept. 11 brought the nation unimaginable shock and grief, but also a sense of connectedness that united a diverse and contentious people together in a way that hasn't been seen since Pearl Harbor.
Ever since, Americans have tried to get past the pain while holding onto the spirit of the time when racial barriers lowered, men and women from all over America trekked to New York City to volunteer their help in binding the gaping wound that would become known as Ground Zero, when Americans went on an unprecedented binge of charitable giving – just because they couldn't think of anything else to do.
But in the months that followed, the flags were slowly put away, members of Congress who gathered on the steps of the Capitol to sing "God Bless America" resumed partisan scheming, and a parade of missing-little-girl stories often crowded out news of the war on terrorism. To some, the spirit of Sept. 11 has been forever extinguished, becoming merely another commodity in a consumer society.
"9/11 has become a T-shirt to wear. We haven't changed any of our fundamental social policies or attitude as a nation," said Dalton Conley, a sociologist at New York University.
Nevertheless, the nation is not giving up so easily. Hundreds of ceremonies around the country will mark the first anniversary of the disaster. These gatherings will honor the dead, but they can also be seen as an effort to rekindle at least a part of the magical spirit that brought the country so closely together in the days, weeks and months following the attacks.
Even the shock of what happened can be hard to recapture. The images of the crashing planes and falling buildings have become so familiar, they can begin to seem like a grisly action movie, replayed one too many times. In Washington, the blasted section of the Pentagon is now so restored that its very back-to-normalness seems like an affront to some of the victims families.
New Yorkers do live with the continual reminder that what happened really happened. For those who don't walk or drive through Lower Manhattan every day, the sight of the gaping skyline can still evoke feelings of shock and loss.
Almost half the people in the city knew someone who died in the attack. In most cases, it was not a loved one but a friend of a friend, a person who lived in the same apartment building, a member of the local softball team. Their absence is a source of regret, but the fact that they ceased to exist so swiftly, that they were, in many cases, literally vaporized in a matter of minutes, is a continuing, permanent shock.
A year after the World Trade Center fell, New York City has, in many ways, made a remarkable comeback.
Except for a few buildings next to Ground Zero, Lower Manhattan is back in business.
Streets that seemed permanently extinguished of all life a year ago, covered in dust, crowded with stacks of flattened emergency vehicles, knee deep in debris and broken glass, are restored, scrubbed clean, full of people.
The health clubs are crowded with financial district workers, back to war with the treadmills.
Landlords say they've been thrilled by the influx of new families looking for living space. Battery Park City, the community along the Hudson River at the tip of Manhattan, is a thriving neighborhood, and there are thousands of other apartment-dwellers stitched in among the office buildings. (This came as a shock to Senate Republican leader Trent Lott of Mississippi, who couldn't believe anybody actually lived in an area so devoid of single-family dwellings.)
The subways are almost back to normal – whatever disruptions in service that still exist merge pretty seamlessly into the perpetual short-term shifts and shutdowns that occur when you're trying to keep a century-old system of underground railroads in operation. "The subways are … the subways," says a Lower Manhattan resident, emphasizing the return to the normalcy of marginal reliability.
That sort of defensiveness is common among people who've chosen to stick. There's much retelling of the story of the woman who moved from Battery Park City to her summer home in Long Island after the disaster, and then was killed in a car crash.
There is a myth in the farther suburbs of New York that the current surge of house-building is not simply part of the national real estate boom, but a result of city dwellers trying to flee to places that terrorists have never heard of, like Fishkill, or Mamaroneck.
In fact, there isn't much evidence that Sept. 11 had much to do with it. Only 17 percent of New Yorkers told a Pew Research Center poll that they even thought about moving, and the ever-rising cost of housing in the city seems to suggest that for every family that left, there was at least one and a quarter who decided to come in.
Yet there's no denying that many people, particularly those with children, are jittery. Like all Americans, New Yorkers don't think the terrorists are through. And although there's constant talk about how next time, they will probably target a mall or a national monument, there's a fear that terrorists, too, are enamored of the song that suggests that nothing you do quite counts unless you do it in New York.
If the country is having a hard time holding onto the saving grace of the Sept. 11 spirit it may be because there's not much encouragement from the top. "It's hard to mobilize the country by telling people to go shopping and accept more tax cuts," said Tom Mann, a political analyst with the Brookings Institution.
The spirit of Sept.11 somehow seemed to get mixed into the spirit of Enron and WorldCom and Global Crossing. Al Qaeda had attacked the center of American capitalism. "In a sense, Osama bin Laden hit us right in the soul," said Randall Balmer, a professor of American religion at Columbia University. But in the end, crooked American accountants had done more of the economic damage.
The spirit of giving in the people as a whole was muted by all that evidence of the spirit of taking in the nation's corporate headquarters. It was easier to bear the relapse of the economy when it seemed as if the victims were hard-hit airlines and insurance companies, and to concentrate on helping New York where the attack may wind up costing the city economy $95 billion and tens of thousands of jobs. But it was hard to mobilize the proper kind of can-do spirit for economic wounds that seemed so self-inflicted.
The political system, too, could handle only so much good feeling. In the first few months after Sept. 11, patriotism and unity were the order of the day. Members of Congress gathered on the steps of the Capitol to sing "God Bless America."
President Bush received warm praise and support from ardent Democrats. And Mr. Bush, to the annoyance of some Republicans, refrained from active politicking for the GOP in order to remain "presidential."
Those days are done and gone. The parties are again helping themselves to heaping portions of partisan scheming and political posturing. Democrats are launching increasingly harsh attacks on Mr. Bush and the president has become a veritable ATM machine for the GOP with a series of fund-raising jaunts around the country.
"I think we're quickly returning to where we were a year ago, with the president having overwhelming support from Republicans and growing opposition from Democrats," said Tom Mann of the Brookings Institution.