The gaping hole — once a raw wound — has been bandaged by machines. Rain and wind have cleansed the bruised soil. Routine has returned, clad in boots and hardhats rather than suits and briefcases.
At Ground Zero, contrary to cliché, time has not stood still since Sept. 11, 2001. Instead, it moved inexorably.
In the 730 days since, some eight million Americans have been born and nearly five million have died. More than 17 million flights have taken off. Some 1.7 million people have joined the ranks of the unemployed. The United States has invaded two countries and overthrown their rulers.
Even as the towers were collapsing two years ago, commentators foresaw that the impact of the attacks would be felt far from their targets. The evening after the planes hit, President Bush all but assured that would be so, when he told a stunned nation, "We stand together to win the war against terrorism."
First Battle: Afghanistan
In a dramatic address to Congress nine days after the attacks, the president said the evidence gathered pointed "to a collection of loosely affiliated terrorist organizations known as al Qaeda." He demanded that Afghanistan's nominal government, the Taliban, turn al Qaeda's leaders over and open their terrorist training camps.
The Taliban demurred and America struck on Oct. 7. By Nov. 13, Kabul had fallen to forces of the opposition Northern Alliance, who had fought alongside U.S. troops.
But the real fight in Afghanistan began after the capital's capture. Al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden — whom Mr. Bush said was wanted "dead or alive" — was hunted to the remote Tora Bora mountains in December, pursued by U.S. and Afghan troops supported by a massive aerial bombardment.
Some U.S. officials believed bin Laden was killed there. A few months later, though, video and audio messages featuring bin Laden began to emerge, and it was believed he had escaped to the lawless tribal borderland in northwestern Pakistan. It seemed the Americans had missed him, a failure that critics blamed on unwillingness to commit enough troops.
But federal agents have had success nabbing some of bin Laden's key lieutenants. Ramzi bin al-Shibh was captured in Pakistan last year, and Khalid Sheikh Mohammed was busted there in March. Qaed Salim Sinan al-Harethi was assassinated by an unmanned drone in Yemen last November.
In the aftermath of Kabul's collapse, a U.S.-backed interim government was installed with Hamid Karzai at its head. But Karzai's authority rested on a fragile coalition of warlords and it often seemed he had little control outside of the area around Kabul. He narrowly escaped an assassination attempt last September and had to fight this year to get regional leaders to forward their tax revenue to the central government.
With 11,000 foreign troops still in Afghanistan, including about 9,000 Americans, violence has intensified this summer. The Taliban has killed and captured Afghani policemen, and the American death toll in the country has risen to 35. U.S. troops have mounted offensives against the insurgents in which dozens of the enemy were killed.
But for more than a year, that lingering, last chapter of the fight in Afghanistan has been all but forgotten as the United States headed toward war with Iraq.
According to Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz, the possibility of confronting Iraq was raised two days after Sept. 11. Wolfowitz told Vanity Fair that the discussion at Camp David on Sept. 13 "appeared to be about not whether but when."
Slightly more than four months later, in his State of the Union speech, the president named Iraq as part of an "axis of evil, aiming to threaten the peace of the world." His administration began in earnest to make the case for war in the summer that followed.
The day after the first anniversary of the Sept. 11 attacks, Mr. Bush challenged the United Nations to demand Iraq's compliance with resolutions concerning weapons of mass destruction. In November, the U.S. won a new U.N. measure requiring a new round of inspections. But even as the U.N. teams headed in, preparations for war began with the dispatch of U.S. aircraft carriers to the region.
As the inspectors reported halting cooperation by the Iraqis and no discoveries of weapons, the United States insisted Saddam Hussein was withholding information and hiding banned arms. In February, the U.S. and Britain began pushing for a new resolution authorizing war, but opposition from France, Russia and Germany forced Washington to abandon the effort.
Once again, the president delivered an ultimatum: Saddam was to leave or face destruction. The Iraqi leader refused to quit, and war began on March 19 with an airstrike aimed at killing him. American forces swept into Iraq from Kuwait, encountering sporadic resistance, and Baghdad fell by April 9, a moment marked by the tumbling of Saddam's cast iron images.
On May 1, Mr. Bush donned flight gear and landed on the USS Abraham Lincoln off the California coast to declare major combat ended, backed by a banner reading: "Mission Accomplished."
But four months later, the number of Americans killed in Iraq had more than doubled to 287. Conservative estimates of Iraqi civilian deaths hovered around 3,500. The Jordanian embassy, the U.N. headquarters and a key Shiite mosque were wracked by terrorist bombs in a month's time.
Saddam's sons Odai and Qusay were killed in July, but Saddam remained at large and encouraged his followers via taped messages. As troops searched for the Iraqi leader, the weapons he allegedly hoarded failed to turn up. The administration withdrew its prewar claim that Iraq sought uranium in Africa, and some analysts charged the intelligence on Saddam's alleged arsenal had been manipulated.
Addressing the nation as the second anniversary of Sept. 11 approached, the president asked Congress for $87 billion for the efforts in Iraq and Afghanistan and declared Iraq the "central front" in the war on terror.
The other front in the war — the one at home — was the scene of a massive reorganization of the federal government to meet the terror threat.
The Transportation Security Administration took over airport security, dispatching an initial army of 60,000 screeners and imposing a strengthened regime of passenger checks, including a controversial list of people who were considered security risks.
A national terror alert system was created. Fixed on yellow or "elevated" most of the time, it rose to "high" or orange alert four times since March, 2002 — the last time during the Iraq war.
The Department of Homeland Security — originally a Democratic idea that the president eventually made his own — was created in late 2002 to combine 22 federal departments in the biggest reshuffling of government power in decades. Analysts say history might look on DHS as the most significant outgrowth of the attacks.
"It's a pretty big bear on the block; its care and feeding is going to demand the care and attentions of the president and the Congress year in and year out," said James Carafano, a fellow at the Heritage Foundation.
In the 24 months since Sept. 11, federal authorities charged dozens of people with terrorist offenses: six men from Buffalo who attended Afghan training camps, a trucker from Ohio who plotted to cut the cables of the Brooklyn Bridge, a Florida professor accused of aiding Islamic Jihad, and 11 people accused of ties to militants in Kashmir.
The arrests have been held up as successes of the terror war. But almost everyone admits there have been glitches, too.
Government investigators have found that airport screeners sometimes miss weapons carried by passengers. State and local governments have complained of getting little federal help to meet their new security obligations. The president's plan for smallpox vaccination has failed to get as many volunteers as hoped. No one has been arrested for the 2001 anthrax killings. And the sheer number of terror alerts — covering everything from nuclear plants to gas tankers and apartment buildings — has left many people confused.
The harshest critics of the federal response to terrorism, however, are those who believe civil liberties have been a secondary victim of the 9/11 attacks.
Civil Liberties Vs. Security
The balance between security and civil liberties was tested almost immediately after the attacks when federal agents began rounding up some 700 Middle Eastern and Muslim men for questioning, without charging them. A federal report has faulted the way they were treated.
The tension has only mounted since. Less than six weeks after the attacks, the president signed the Uniting and Strengthening America by Providing Appropriate Tools Required to Intercept and Obstruct Terrorism, or USA PATRIOT Act.
Supporters said the law was needed to update law enforcement tactics for the war on terror. But critics said the measure is an unprecedented assault on civil liberties, allowing the government to get access to library records without a subject's permission, and limiting judicial review on wiretaps and other surveillance.
More than 100 communities have passed resolutions opposing the Patriot Act. Some in Congress have also criticized the law as too broad. But Attorney General John Ashcroft says it is an essential tool against terror and has mounted a national campaign to drum up support the law and lay the groundwork for another bill further expanding federal power.
Many of the clashes between civil libertarian and federal authorities involved people who aren't native to the United States. Immigration judges closed deportation hearings to the public and press, citing security concerns. Hundreds of men have been imprisoned at Guantanamo Bay, without access to counsel, rights as POWs or charges against them. Military tribunals — conducted largely in secret with limited appeals — are being prepared.
Thousands of mostly Middle Eastern and Muslim men have been forced to register with the federal government. Some who had applied for visa extensions, but were technically in violation, have been shuttled into deportation hearings, according to advocates.
One man in federal custody, suspected Sept. 11 accomplice Zacarias Moussaoui, has forced a confrontation between a U.S. judge and federal prosecutors over whether he has the right to question an al Qaeda detainee he claims can clear his name.
Americans have also been swept up in the changes. Two U.S. citizens have been removed from the criminal court system and declared enemy combatants, a novel legal classification that the government says permits the indefinite detention of a person without charge or access to counsel. A third man, not an American, has been similarly designated.
That policy "turns on its head the presumption of innocence and allows the government to yank someone out of the criminal justice system and put them in a legal limbo," says American Civil Liberties Union legislative counsel Timothy Edgar.
The Cost Of Terror
Meanwhile, millions of Americans have suffered from the economy's sluggish recovery. According to analysts, a mild recession ended only two months after the Sept. 11 attacks, but the slow growth since then has yet to generate a sustained rise in employment levels.
The unemployment level has swung from 5 percent before the attacks to 6.4 percent, before retreating to 6.1 percent last month. Some 1.7 million more people are unemployed now than were out of work before the planes hit.
As it has fought to kill and capture terrorists, the government has also strained to force the economy into producing more jobs. The Federal Reserve slashed interest rates six times to their lowest point in decades. Congress passed a tax cut worth at least $350 billion.
When combined, the costs of operations in Iraq and Afghanistan, the 2001 tax cut and this year's tax bill will swell the federal deficit to nearly $500 billion next year, according to some estimates. That debt will be another, less visible legacy of the attacks, due with interest in decades' time.