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State of Nation on Sept. 11: How Things Have Changed

September 11, 2003|Doyle McManus | Times Staff Writer

WASHINGTON — Four Thursdays ago, without warning, a potentially disastrous event struck the northeastern United States: The electrical power grid abruptly failed.

Within moments, millions of Americans shared a single grim thought: Was this a terrorist attack -- another Sept. 11?

In Manhattan, the question flashed across the mind of Dr. Susan Blank, a physician in the New York City Department of Health who worked in an emergency unit near the collapsing World Trade Center two years ago. "These days, when something unexpected happens, you think about the unthinkable really early," she said.

In Washington, the same thought flashed across the mind of Matthew E. Broderick, director of the Homeland Security Department's command center, who triggered the agency's crisis plan -- the first full-scale alert in its eight-month history.

And at Tyndall Air Force Base in Florida, the thought flashed across the mind of Maj. Gen. Craig R. McKinley, the air defense commander for the continental United States, who sent two F-16 fighter jets into the air near the nation's capital -- just in case.

In a strange coincidence, one of the pilots, Maj. Dean Eckman, was also one of the two who flew over Washington on Sept. 11, 2001, with orders to shoot down any passenger jet that approached the capital.

Two years after terrorists attacked the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, life in America has seemingly returned to normal in most respects. The economy has largely recovered from the shock of the attacks; the public has taken new security measures in stride; even the White House is letting tourists in again.

At the airports, some seem to have forgotten Sept. 11 entirely; from June through August, the Transportation Security Administration seized a record 1.8 million "prohibited items" from passengers -- including 6,140 box cutters, the weapon used by the hijackers.

But underneath, in more subtle ways, the painful knowledge of Sept. 11 is still imprinted on the nation's psyche. Polls show that most Americans expect terrorists to attack U.S. territory again; many are worried about their own safety.

Some, especially in New York and Washington, have taken measures to prepare for the next emergency. Marisa Mohan, an office manager in a Manhattan skyscraper, doesn't wear high heels to work anymore; she wears running shoes, to get out of the building quicker. Bevi Chagnon, a graphics designer who lives just outside Washington, keeps a suitcase packed by her front door in case the region is evacuated.

"The threat of terrorism is now part of the fabric of American life," said Andrew Kohut, director of the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press. "People are still worried, and that fear never really goes away.... It's an important element in public opinion now. It's a quiet fear rather than the active fear of two years ago."

That elevated fear level, even if intangible most of the time, has real consequences. It affects economic behavior: Air travel and overseas tourism are still down, but spending on home improvements is up. It affects political attitudes: President Bush is still riding the wave of increased prestige he won after Sept. 11, and Democratic candidates for president must prove their mettle as potential commanders in chief.

And it affects the way New Yorkers and other Americans deal with adversity -- and with each other. America's new nervousness went through a real-world test Aug. 14, the steamy afternoon when the power went out in the Northeast. The electrical system didn't pass, but the citizenry mostly did.

Blank was in her office in Lower Manhattan when the lights went out -- just as she had been on the day of the attacks.

"Before 9/11, if there was an event, if the subway ground to a halt, you'd sort of hang with it," she said. "But now, when the lights go out, you jump straight to 'This is terrible,' rather than 'This is just a power failure.' I was surprised at the number of people who completely lost their wits because of the memory of 9/11. Some of my staff broke down crying."

For medical professionals, she said, "9/11 was easy; there were people in front of us who needed medical attention. We knew what to do. This time, we didn't know what to do at first. We didn't even have a radio that worked on batteries."

But by day's end, she said, anxiety had given way to an almost giddy sense of escape. She remembers driving home to Queens with her husband -- and a back seat full of colleagues -- through streets that seemed strangely happy.

"Once we knew it wasn't terrorism, it was borderline festive," she said. "There was a palpable sense of relief: This is just a blackout! It's a pain in the ass, but we're not going to die!"

Others had much the same reaction. "One of the things we learned on 9/11 was that people in New York look after each other," Mohan said. "We all have emergency backup plans now ... but we also know that we will probably survive."

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