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September 11, 2006

FIVE YEARS AGO TODAY, this space was occupied by what must have been the least-read editorial we've ever published. It was before 6 a.m. Pacific Daylight Time, after all, when the U.S. was attacked by terrorists using airliners as missiles, rendering that morning's newspaper instantly stale, a relic from a more frivolous era.

The only hint of what was to come was a front-page story of an anti-Taliban leader killed in Afghanistan by a suicide bomber posing as a journalist.

9/11 changed everything, Americans earnestly told themselves in the ensuing days, weeks and months. How could it not? A clash of civilizations had brought the apocalypse to ground zero of American capitalism, and the resulting hole in Lower Manhattan and in the nation's heart became Ground Zero of something more. The attack on the Pentagon only reinforced our sense of vulnerability, and that horrible day could have been even more horrible if not for the valor of passengers on United Flight 93.

Five years later, the rawness of that day has dissipated, and Washington's trivializing war-on-terror rhetoric has become tedious background chatter, not unlike the stream of terrorist chatter officials shrugged off before 9/11. Too much chatter elicits shrugs; it's human nature.

We know now that 9/11 did not change everything, at least not permanently. In some ways, that is unfortunate. New York City subway riders can once again be inconsiderate; cable news networks can again feast on such melodramas as the JonBenet Ramsey case; politicians can again question each other's patriotism; Homeland Security funds can be mischievously diverted to Kansas, just another form of pork.

On the whole, the return of petty politics, crass entertainment, satire and celebrity news is all reassuring, almost a tribute to U.S. resilience. We still fly, even if we have to take off our shoes in the process. The Dow Jones industrial average is 1,787 points higher today than it was on that 9/11. Your home has appreciated considerably in value, as one exuberant bubble succeeded another. The Supreme Court still reins in presidents who overreach. America lives on.

What died on 9/11 was the illusion that history had ended. The halcyon Clinton years were a deceptive interlude between the fall of communism and the collapse of the twin towers. Capitalism had triumphed; investors could disregard such details as price-to-earnings ratios, while Republicans could divert their attention from tax cuts to focus on a president's sex life. It was a time of complacency without guilt.

Now we are back to complacency tinged with guilt. In Washington, the war on terror has been institutionalized, like the war on poverty, or cancer: something for politicians to talk about while the rest of us go about our business. The very abstraction of the term -- why not call it a "war on violence" or a "war on hatred"? -- invites people to tune it out.

President Bush can be blamed for much oversimplification and for stretching his "fascism" analogies in recent days. But it has at least been refreshing to hear him refer to Osama bin Laden again, and to remind audiences that it is an ideology (as opposed to a method) that threatens Western values. What distinguishes the United States from its enemies in this battle, after all, isn't mainly the prowess of our military or the resilience of our shoppers. It's the vitality of our society and the openness of our culture. That's a message that needs reinforcing in the years ahead.

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