It is not a tidy anniversary this year. Seven years between that awful day and this Sept. 11, the terrorist attacks linger somewhere between the immediate, a conscious part of our days, and the comfortable remove of the distant past. No longer yesterday. Not yet history.
What happened seven years ago colors American life today. There are the two wars, of course. But in smaller ways, too: We sing “God Bless America” at the ballpark. We weigh “evil” as a campaign issue. We slip off our shoes at airport security.
And yet there is an unmistakable distance now. No one speaks of the “new normal” anymore. All of those things are just normal.
This Thursday — Sept. 11, 2008 — will be nothing like the first anniversary, when people were allowed, even encouraged, to take the day off work to reflect, when airports were eerily empty, when silence settled over cities.
But it will also be nothing like what life was on Sept. 10, 2001.
What does 9/11 mean, seven years on? What do we make of it now?
Seven years means we are far enough away that Sen. Joe Biden can joke in a Democratic debate that former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani only mentions three things in a sentence, “a noun and a verb and 9/11,” and it brings down the house.
Yet we are close enough that video of the collapse of the Twin Towers — the actual smoke, the crumbling — is so painful it is almost never aired. When it is, as it was in a montage at the Republican National Convention, it is halting.
When is it OK to move on?
For the people who were left behind, left without a spouse or a child or a parent or a friend, it is a very real question, something to turn over in their minds every day.
For some, seven years means enough time to pick up, sometimes to pack up, to start anew.
Cathy Faughnan’s husband, Christopher, a 37-year-old bond trader, was killed in the World Trade Center. She was 37 then, too, and remembers thinking she was too young to be a widow for the rest of her life.
Now she is 44. Within two years after the attacks she moved back to her home state of Colorado, and has since been remarried, to a widower she met in New York shortly after Sept. 11.
This year, for the first time, she took the three children she had with Christopher — Siena, Juliet and Liam, who are now 14, 11 and 9 — to Ground Zero. At the visitors center across from the pit, they saw the pictures of thousands who died when the youngest of them was just 2 years old.
“I think that was the first time it really maybe hit them how many people died,” their mother says. “I saw them with their mouths open.”
For others, seven years is an instant.
Last month, Diane Horning was watching a webcast of the federal government’s briefing on the mechanics of the collapse of Building 7 at the trade center complex.
A half-hour later, she saw a television report speculating on the vice presidential prospects for Giuliani and was outraged: “He can’t put two words together without talking about my son’s death.”
Her son was Matthew Horning, 26, killed in the north tower. Bits of his remains were recovered from the site and from the Staten Island landfill where a million tons of debris and human remains were taken.
The years have not lessened her anger. She is appealing the dismissal this summer of a lawsuit that would require the city to move the material at the landfill to a separate burial plot.
“I just can’t stop,” she says. “I need my son to be treated with dignity. He has been treated like garbage, and I can’t imagine a mother sitting back and saying, ‘You know, it’s OK.’”
Exactly how much the nation has changed since Sept. 11, 2001 is a matter of perspective.
“There were economic changes, psychological effects,” says Alfred Goldberg, who retired last year as the Pentagon’s chief historian.
He says he believes the tragedy of Sept. 11 was compounded by the national response, and perhaps by an exaggeration of the threat posed by al-Qaida.
“We are in many ways a very changed nation because of those attacks,” he says.
And while that is indisputable in a broad sense, it is a point bitterly contested by some of the people most directly affected.
For Sarah Arnold of Orlando, Fla., this will not be an anniversary she cares much about. It will be one year and 21 days since her only child, a son named Britt, was killed by an improvised explosive device in Iraq.(p2)
The site — a collaborative effort of the American Social History Project at the City University of New York Graduate Center and the Center for History and New Media at George Mason University — contributes to the ongoing efforts to preserve the records of Sept. 11, 2001. Its archives include first-person accounts, e-mails, images, official documents, audio, video and more. More »
New York City's tributes were the focal point of remembrances across the country as the nation marked the anniversary of the attacks that killed nearly 3,000 people in the nation’s capital, its largest city and in a remote Pennsylvania field. More »
The event, "Healing in Life," paid tribute to the minority firefighters and police who perished on 9/11 by celebrating those who serve the community today. More »