September 11, three years later. It seems like an eternity since the attacks, but for some it feels like just yesterday. The names of the lost were read aloud again at Ground Zero while the architects of the new memorial in their honor bickered over the design. President Bush and Sen. Kerry observed the anniversary with the appropriate solemnity, then went back to rehearsed electioneering jabs and pleas. As important an event that 9/11 has been for America, it must be admitted that slowly, ever so slowly, things are getting back to normal–normal for us, at least.
This may be the last year when 9/11 has a significant impact on our nation. Things are ramped up right now with the upcoming presidential election in full swing. But even then, what to do about Iraq and the economy are tops on the minds of most of the voters, not fear of another terrorist attack. Three years of worrying about attacks–on the Fourth of July, during the interim elections or on some other portentous occasion–have settled into a slowly growing belief that maybe things aren’t quite as dangerous as they once looked.
This is not to say that things are safe, of course. The recent bloodbath at the school in Beslan, Russia, reminds us that terrorists are still looking for targets. There is also the report of a scholarly Sunni Muslim group in Iraq that, when asked by a militant organization whether the kidnapping of foreigners working to rebuild the nation is consistent with Islam, responded that the issue was “not easy” and would require “profound study.” This reminds us about the kind of extremism that still lurks in some quarters of the Middle East. Can you imagine Buddhist or Christian scholars ever thinking that to be a close call?
Yet people are feeling safer. The color-coded security warnings warrant barely a blip on the news. Airport security provides more hassle than peace-of-mind. Consumer security has improved markedly too. After 9/11, an already-engaged downturn worsened greatly as the airline and tourist industries dried up immediately and people preferred to conserve their resources. Now, hearing Kerry on the stump, it’s as if 9/11 didn’t happen at all when he blames Bush for there being fewer jobs today than in 2000. We should be happy that we’ve recovered as well as we have.
According to Federal Reserve Chairman Alan Greenspan, the shock to the economy from 9/11 has largely been shrugged off because of “an extraordinary amount of flexibility in both our financial and product and labor markets.” Especially, he says, because our economy is “based on voluntary actions of people acting largely on bilateral trust.” This means that we made it through not on Bush’s leadership, but because of our way of life–our capitalism,
September 11 will still be political fodder from time to time, of course. Politics always has a knack for thawing out and parading the dead for an advantage. Who could imagine that events in Vietnam would take center stage for a presidential election some thirty years hence? Sure, that war was a bad idea and a bitter pill, but come on! That we’re still squabbling over National Guard records and who got injured by what and how many times proves that debacles never die. But the emotional impact fades. Our reaction becomes clinical, not visceral.
After this election, without another attack on American soil, 9/11 will be a solemn memory rather than an impetus for action like it once was. Aside from the recommendations of the congressional committee looking into the intelligence failures that allowed the attack, the policy push that 9/11 created has largely ended. It is likely that many of the provisions in the PATRIOT Act that are scheduled to sunset at the end of 2005 will be allowed to do so. Some may be reworked and reintroduced on a smaller scale, but the fear that first stoked the need has passed. We will still have increased security and detection measures, just not without the fervor.
If there is any ultimate lesson from 9/11, though, it’s that even when our security fails and all hell breaks loose, we’re still able to pick up the pieces and move on. We can get back on track. That’s better security than any new regulation or agency.
James N. Markels is an attorney and a regular columnist for