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FIVE YEARS LATER | Moving Ahead, Guardedly

9/11 Has Changed Few Lives

Surprisingly, the mind-sets of most Americans haven't been greatly altered.

September 11, 2006|Stephanie Simon | Times Staff Writer

Airport trash cans overflow with toothpaste and deodorant.

Thousands of college students bend their heads over Arabic texts.

In Minneapolis, networks of sensors continually sample air for anthrax, smallpox and bubonic plague. In Nebraska, Gov. Dave Heineman is alerted when cars with out-of-state license plates are spotted cruising cattle feedlots.

On a gravel road in rural Indiana, the Amish Country Popcorn factory makes the federal list of potential terrorist targets -- a list of 77,069.

Five years after Sept. 11, this is the new normal.

Nearly 3,000 Americans died when terrorists hijacked four planes, crashing two into the World Trade Center's twin towers, one into the Pentagon and another into a field in Pennsylvania.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Thursday September 14, 2006 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 1 inches; 38 words Type of Material: Correction
Sept. 11 anniversary: An article in Monday's Section A about how the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks changed the United States said nearly 3,000 Americans were killed. About 500 of the nearly 3,000 killed were born outside the U.S.

Documentary filmmaker Ric Burns calls the attack "as seismic as an event can be .... Rarely does the future announce itself so vividly and horrifyingly."

Residents of New York and Washington remain edgy. And those who lost loved ones, or have relatives or friends serving in the military abroad, can't help but be reminded all too often of Sept. 11.

Remarkably, though, the day-to-day lives of most Americans have changed very little. We have found it easy, perhaps startlingly easy, to stick to routines and habits and mind-sets forged before we could have conceived of planes as missiles. Last month, the Pew Research Center polled about 1,500 adults across the country. More than 40% said the terrorist attacks had not changed their personal lives at all. And 36% said their lives had been altered "only a little bit."

Sept. 11 is often compared to another day of infamy, Japan's bombing of Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941. Historians, however, see no comparison. World War II demanded personal sacrifice from every American family. The global war on terrorism has touched only a few directly, even as the threat level bounces from orange to yellow to orange to red.

"Many of the predictions made five years ago by cultural pundits about positive long-term changes on our behavior, on our attitudes, even on the art we make, have proved largely untrue," says novelist Julia Glass, who won a National Book Award for "Three Junes."

She finds the lack of transformation depressing, a moment missed. "You could say it's because human beings are so good at adapting," Glass suggests. "Or because we tend toward a certain set point of selfishness and complacency."

That capacity for moving on, for getting back to normal, infuriated Army Staff Sgt. Jay White when he was home last summer between tours of duty in Iraq. "It used to drive him nuts when we were standing in line and somebody was complaining about their Frappuccino," recalls his wife, Jessica.

Jessica feels that same frustration at the high school in Cromwell, Conn., where she teaches history.

"It's a feeling of isolation and loneliness and confusion," she says. Her husband left on his most recent deployment less than three weeks after their wedding. "You hear about the dramas of the 16-year-old girls all the time, and I want to go: 'You don't even know what people are going through. What your own teacher's going through,' " she says.

Though most Americans have seen little change in their lives, many do recognize the effect Sept. 11 had on their neighbors and on society as a whole. In the Pew poll, 51% said their country had changed "in a major way."

Those changes are not exactly what the pundits predicted in the days after Sept. 11.

Back then, President Bush publicly wrapped the top Democrat in the Senate, Tom Daschle, in a bear hug; unity in the face of adversity seemed the only possible course. But fighting terrorism proved a sharply partisan issue -- and all too susceptible to fear-mongering.

"National security has become just another political weapon to beat each other up with," says Leon E. Panetta, White House chief of staff under President Clinton.

It has also become a top priority for many voters, a noted change from decades past.

"Generally speaking, you could almost [always] gauge the outcome of elections by the economy," says Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), a likely candidate for the Republican presidential nomination in 2008. "Now that issue has been trumped by the war on terror ... and understandably. We received a national shock on 9/11."

Immediately after the terrorist strikes, 64% of Americans said they trusted their government to do the right thing all or most of the time. By the summer of 2002, the figure had dropped to 39%.

These days, the paradigm has shifted so dramatically that 36% of Americans say it's at least somewhat likely the federal government was complicit in the attacks, according to a recent Scripps-Howard poll.

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