What changed after Sept. 11?

Some things are different, but Americans go on with life after terrorist attacks

Posted: Sunday, March 10, 2002

WASHINGTON -- Americans know anything could happen anywhere at any time.

But it hasn't.

They know Osama bin Laden has not been hunted down.

Maybe tomorrow.

They've seen progress on some fronts, limbo on others, six months after Sept. 11. Americans know there are more wars to be fought and more threats coming their way, as far the eye can see.

But the clarity of their rage is less apparent now. And the fear created that Tuesday in September, and stoked by the deadly anthrax sideshow that followed, no longer has Americans jumping at their shadows.

Overseas, the quick defeat of the Taliban has been replaced by a long slog -- chasing fierce remnants of the terrorist force once based in Afghanistan, figuring out how to thwart its reconstitution in that country and others, stabilizing the new interim leadership.

Some in government, who get up every day with the dangers of terrorism in mind, worry that Americans will get out of bed completely normal, their guard down, attention distracted.

''Sometimes people act as if it's all gone away,'' says Paul Wolfowitz, deputy defense secretary. ''I do fear the country has not absorbed that the conflict is far from over.''

President Bush starts his mornings by reading the daily intelligence analysis of threats made against his country and its people, most bogus or dead ends but you never know for sure.

The anti-terror war will be a long one, he says. ''We're a very patient people.'' That's not an American characteristic as well known as, say, wanting things to be done in a New York minute.

Few in Washington own up to the gnashing frustration of knowing that bin Laden has apparently slipped their grasp and other big ones got away.

As usual, Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld has come closer than most to wearing his mood on his sleeve. In a joke that betrayed his dismay, he said he wakes up every day with his wife asking, ''Where is he?'' Meaning bin Laden.

But when Democratic Senate leader Tom Daschle said the anti-terror campaign will be a failure if prime terrorist leaders are not caught, some Republicans upbraided him for speaking out of school.

The scope of the expanding campaign is coming under questioning by the political opposition now -- tentative questions, yes, but tougher than before.

More than 3,000 people are believed to have died Sept. 11.

The death toll for U.S. forces in the campaign in Afghanistan and elsewhere was pushed over 35 by ferocious fighting in the U.S.-led assault against al-Qaida and Taliban holdouts in the eastern mountains.

HOMEFRONT

For a time, a numbed nation stayed home or close to it, away from airplanes and even malls. Politics ceased. Lawyers held off suing. Much of the world stood in horrified solidarity with the United States.

It was an unnatural state of affairs and, naturally, it didn't last.

In mid-September, a poll found 81 percent of respondents were constantly watching TV news about the attacks and great numbers of them were sad, scared and exhausted.

Last month's obsession was figure skating, at an Olympics pulled off without danger, in a frosted American wonderland guarded by more soldiers and police than the 4,000 U.S. troops in Afghanistan.

''I think you just kind of go on with life,'' said Caren Cannon, who works for Southern California Edison Co. in downtown Washington and is back from the Utah games.

Even so, she keeps handy the backpack issued by her company after Sept. 11, stuffed with emergency lights, first aid supplies, a gas mask and a ''disgusting California mix'' she hopes she never has to eat.

In a few well-known instances and perhaps in additional unseen ways, more terrorism has been averted.

Thanks to quick action over the Atlantic, 197 crew members and passengers of American Airlines Flight 63 are counted today as a manifest of the living, not as still more dead from terrorism. Fast movers on that plane stopped a man from lighting explosives in his shoe.

People's confidence in flying is returning, says David Swierenga of the Air Transport Association, but it's a slow climb. The number of people getting on planes was down 14 percent in January from the same month a year before. The same was true in December, which was an improvement from the autumn.

On Feb. 21, accountant Donovan Cowan, 34, left the hospital in a wheelchair, the last of the World Trade Center victims to be released. He had made it down 84 floors and out, with burns over half his body.

Earth movers are clawing now at the subterranean levels of the vanished towers where, according to the latest count, 2,830 people died in the buildings and the hijacked planes that went into them.

New Yorkers, their skyline forever altered, will shine two huge columns of light into the night sky as a temporary memorial to the dead, starting Monday, the six-month anniversary. They're bickering over compensation to victims' families.

In Washington, Louise Kurtz, 49, got back home in mid-December, after 30 surgeries, the last to be discharged from the capital's main burn center. The attacks killed 189 people from the Pentagon and the airliner that hit it.

Republicans and Democrats who hugged each other in the aftermath are back to bickering. Bush's popularity remains high but it has not yet handed him policy achievements on matters other than war and security.

''Let's roll,'' the president likes to say, appropriating a passenger's cry rallying others to try to defeat the hijackers on the plane that crashed into a Pennsylvania field. That crash claimed 44 lives. Six months later, warfare and terrorist risks are constant realities for some Americans, vicarious pursuits for others, and they touch on people's lives in unexpected ways.

At sea, fishermen are disappointed by the Coast Guard's drop in anti-poaching patrols as many cutters and aircraft have been redeployed to guard harbors and coastal waters in defense against terrorists. They also fear the Coast Guard won't be there if they get caught in a storm.

At Georgetown University Hospital, emergency procedures honed after the attack on Washington by hijackers and anthrax are the stuff of constant drills.

''We need to prepare for everything and anything,'' says Dr. Eric Glasser, chairman of the hospital's emergency response system.

''The more you drill, the more you talk about it, the less chance of anxiety.''

Most Americans are many steps removed from all that.

They are flocking to war movies that were rushed to screens to take advantage of a ripe patriotic moment. Volumes on Islam and al-Qaida line bookstores.

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WHERE NEXT?

Bin Laden has not been seen since October, when he dined with friends in a videotaped encounter shown two months later. U.S. officials assume he is alive because they do not know him to be dead.

Where next for the campaign is the question of the day. So far the footprints -- in the Philippines, Yemen, Somalia, among other places -- are light. But it is well understood that another shoe will drop.

In the Philippines, more than 600 U.S. soldiers are involved in the hunt for an extremist group linked to al-Qaida.

Stormy talk of other evil regimes comes from Bush but is not meant, necessarily, to be a prelude to attacking anyone. Oddly, in the case of North Korea, it preceded an invitation to reopen dialogue.

Meantime, the world is moving on.

Flash back to the first week after the attacks:

''We are all Americans today,'' declared Le Monde newspaper in Paris. Worldwide, U.S. embassies were showered with flowers and tears.

''We are here tonight to tell the American people that we are with you,'' declared a student who came to a spontaneous candlelight vigil by 4,000 in Iran.

''No distance exists between us and the United States now,'' said the Italian newspaper Corriere della Sera.

That's changed.

''The heat is rising between the two shores of the Atlantic,'' Le Monde says now. Europeans ''have a different truth to proclaim.''

Corriere della Sera, which lost reporter Maria Grazia Cutuli in a roadside murder of four journalists in Afghanistan, worries about the ''incalculable human cost'' of taking the war to Iraq.

And in February, hundreds of thousands of Iranians lapsed into the familiar chant, ''Death to America,'' recoiling at Bush's labeling of their government as evil.

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DARK AMBITIONS

The government's secretive roundup of suspects brought more than 1,000 foreigners into U.S. custody; fewer than 350 remain in detention. One, Zacarias Moussouai, has been charged directly in the attacks.

Back from the other side of the Afghan front, American John Walker Lindh faces trial for fighting with the Taliban.

In addition, the United States holds nearly 500 prisoners from the Afghan war, 300 of them at the Guantanamo base in Cuba.

For those lulled by the absence of more terrorist attacks despite the four extraordinary alerts issued by the government, a seized terrorist manual comes as a reminder that things can happen anywhere, any time.

So does the revelation that up to 150 senior officials have been working from secret underground sites outside Washington to ensure the executive branch of government stays in operation if the capital is attacked.

The manual contains a long wish-list that goes well beyond the ultimate goal, Islamic regimes replacing ''godless regimes.''

The killing of foreign tourists and destruction of bridges and embassies are on the list. ''Blasting and destroying the places of amusement, immorality, and sin'' are also sought, although that's ''not a vital target.''

The manual also outlines a modus operandi that helps explain why the hammer of war that staggered al-Qaida has not crushed all of its parts.

The organization ''should be composed of many cells whose members do not know one another, so that if a cell member is caught the other cells would not be affected, and work would proceed normally.''

Authorities in more than a dozen countries claim to have discovered plots against the United States or terrorist cells. These are hardly normal times for al-Qaida, either.



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