Twelve years ago, hijackers carried out the worst terrorist attack in American history. But 12 years is a long time for a busy, future-oriented society like ours, and the 9/11 anniversary is slowly taking on the faded aura of the historical past.
Memorial ceremonies were held Wednesday in New York, Washington and Shanksville, Pa., but they probably were comparatively small affairs. Last year, after the big 10th anniversary in 2011, many ceremonies were scaled down and fewer people attended them.
Middletown, N.J., which lost 37 residents, held a small wreath-laying. For the first time, Glen Rock, N.J, home to 11 victims, had no observance.
Kids entering high school today have no memory of the attacks, and even this year’s college freshmen were too young then to have much understanding of what had occurred. It may seem likely that before long, Sept. 11 will be noted purely as a historic moment, much like the Dec. 7 anniversary of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor.
There’s great reason to resist that impulse: We live with the repercussions of 9/11 every day.
American troops went into Afghanistan just weeks after the attack in pursuit of al-Qaida operatives and the Taliban rulers who harbored them. American troops are still there, 56,000 strong, with the ultimate outcome of the war still in doubt.
Osama bin Laden is dead, but his organization has survived — and even spread to new countries, including Iraq, Libya and Yemen. In Syria, the United States finds itself in the awkward position of assisting an insurgency that includes fighters affiliated with al-Qaida.
At home, the reminders of 9/11 are even more numerous. The public has adapted, unhappily, to airport security screenings that are far more intrusive and time-consuming than they used to be. Government buildings now feature metal detectors, and they are shielded by concrete barriers. Even the National Football League has changed: Starting this season, fans attending games may no longer bring backpacks, fanny packs, coolers or purses larger than a clutch bag.
Americans find themselves under unprecedented surveillance, with the National Security Agency collecting vast stores of data about their phone calls, emails and Internet traffic. To a large extent, the FBI, CIA and other government agencies have revamped their missions to focus on preventing terrorism by any practical means. The Pentagon still holds more than 160 captives at Guantanamo, with their fate undetermined.
In many ways, of course, ordinary life has gone on with little visible disruption. Americans expected that 9/11 was merely the first of many major terrorist attacks at home, but that fear proved largely unfounded. In the decade before, the United States averaged 41 terrorist attacks a year. In the decade after, the number was 16 per year.
Even the horrific Boston Marathon bombing in April was not enough to bring back the chronic anxiety that gripped the national psyche in the weeks and months after 9/11. It was, however, a stark reminder that we live in a world different from the one we knew.
The starkest difference between Dec. 7, 1941, and Sept. 11, 2001: The Second World War had a conclusion. Our enemies became our allies, trading partners, visitors to our shores and hosts to our tourists.
There will be no V-E Day, no Potsdam Conference, no V-J Day in the battle against terrorism. Americans may give less thought than before to the fall of the World Trade Center buildings. But they have not forgotten the threat they face, and they have not lost their determination to defeat it.