By Richard Nilsen
The Arizona Republic
The collapse of the World Trade Center towers is still fresh in our minds as the second anniversary comes upon us. But the feelings surrounding the day everyone calls 9-11 have changed, subtly but irrevocably.
The shock we felt two years ago has mutated into other emotions: resolve, patriotism, anxiety, fault-finding and even the inevitable politics as a new presidential race cranks up.
That doesn't mean we no longer care about Sept.11 as a day commemorating a catastrophe. We do. But the nature of our care continues to evolve.
"Look at the past few months," says Robert Butterworth, a Los Angeles trauma psychologist who has written extensively on 9-11. "A CNN-Time magazine poll about what Americans are concerned about found that the No. 1 concern is the economy. No. 2 is jobs. Terrorism has fallen to the point that only 15 percent of Americans list it as their primary concern."
You can even see the effect of 9-11 on New York during the recent blackout, Butterworth says.
"This blackout happened at the same time as the previous one (in July 1977). It was summer; it was hot. But this time, there was no looting. It was as if we were so relieved that it wasn't terrorism, we said we can handle it.
"When you've been through hell, purgatory is a breeze."
Such changes are inevitable as an experience turns into a memory.
"It was clear in our minds two years ago that we were needlessly and viciously attacked. Like Pearl Harbor, a day of infamy," says Bryan Le Beau, dean of the College of Arts and Sciences at the University of Missouri in Kansas City.
"Now, we are a little more qualified," he says.
Not that we no longer see the event as a horror, but the course of the world since then has cast a different meaning on the day. The wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, the continuing violence in the Mideast, the establishment of a color-coded terror-alert status, even the failing economy have changed the context in which we see the original attack.
The experience on that Tuesday morning was immediate: We didn't know what was happening, but we sensed its impact. Those who watched TV early, before the second plane struck the World Trade Center, were witness to that crash as it happened. No explanation, no commentator, no historian providing context. It was raw and unprocessed. We felt it like a sock in the gut.
But immediately the talking heads took over, providing meaning, spinning the event into a narrative that digested the experience and tried to make sense of it.
"Almost the moment an event is over, it has changed," says Char Miller, a history professor at Trinity University in San Antonio.
"I was in Pennsylvania on September 11, 2001, and had to drive back to San Antonio. The first day on the road, all the cars I passed on I-40 had homemade signs plastered on them, writing with soap on the windows, handwritten notes in the rear window. People were weeping emblematically through their automobiles.
"By the time I got to San Antonio a day and a half later, there were commercial bumper stickers people could buy. It took less than two days to move from memory to commercialization."
The cycle of civic memory is simple but direct. An experience transforms into a personal memory, and together, our memories fuse into a group memory that is useful for its symbolism. The image of the World Trade Center collapsing becomes a symbol for terrorism and America's reaction to it.
Ultimately, though, it will no longer be memory; it will become history.
We can see how this happened after Dec. 7, 1941, when the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor. This is the event most often evoked in parallel to 9-11.
Yet, today, there are few remaining who lived through that day. It is for most Americans something they read about in history books. The passion of the time is drained. It is words on a page.
"We would have thought that the 'Day of Infamy' would last beyond 10 years," Miller says, "but it didn't."
It never became an official holiday, and increasingly it becomes an event noted at the bottom of the page in newspapers each anniversary.
Consider, too, the history of Memorial Day.
It began as a day to remember those who died in the Civil War. It was a day when veterans of that war got together to trade their memories and commemorate the Northern victory.
The purpose of Memorial Day was later broadened to include all our war dead. It has become generic.
Americans, as Europeans like to remind us, have little sense of history.
"We not only don't have history," Miller says, "we don't even know we don't have it."
So, when will we no longer remember 9-11?
Miller gives it perhaps 30 years. Butterworth gives it 10.
"But if something else happens like this in the next 10 years, it will renew the meaning of the day," he says. "But then, the events will have to be telescoped into a single day of commemoration."
That is what happened to Armistice Day as it became Veterans Day.
"You can't have a holiday for every war or every attack," Butterworth says. "You have to lump it together, which dilutes the original purpose."
As Sept.11 changes meaning and takes its place in what people think of as the narrative of America, it will assume its ultimate position. We cannot know what that is yet, but there are some early clues.
There are several national organizations that want to turn Sept.11 into a "national day of service."
"Americans want to pay special tribute on that day," says David Paine, president of One Day's Pay, a New York-based nonprofit promoting the idea of marking the anniversary of the attacks with charity and service.
"We cannot think of a better expression than to rekindle and sustain the spirit of generosity, humanity and concern that turned strangers into neighbors and unified our entire nation during a very tragic time in our history," he says.
Cincinnati remembers in solemn prayers, reflective moments
Schedule of local events
Updates on today's memorials across the country
Emotional impact of 9-11 blunts as world changes
PULFER: Still grieving? Blame the media
9-11 aftermath stays with Loveland man
How Greater Cincinnati marked the first anniversary
Profiles of area victims in the 2001 attacks
3-D graphic of plans for the World Trade Center site
Photos of the attacks on the World Trade Center
Photos of the attacks on the Pentagon
Photos of Flight 73
Special multimedia coverage from Gannett News Service
SPECIAL REPORT: VOLUNTEERISM SINCE 9-11
Strong at first, volunteer spirit has waned
Here's how to get involved
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Helping others helps heal
Math tutor gets lesson
When disaster hits, he responds
Mentors ease the teen years
Variety is the spice of giving
EDITORIALS ON 9-11
Two years later, we must not forget
Other voices on the lessons of 9/11
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