Midmorning on a recent Tuesday in Washington and life is a-bustling at Union Station, the railroad terminal just a few blocks from the U.S. Capitol. People come and go, sidestepping the Jersey barriers at the entrance, making for the platform gates, some talking on cellphones, others to each other, still others moving in purposeful silence.
Not a soul seems to be paying attention to the security signs or videos.
In the shadows, pushed against the wall with some other placards, are a couple of security warning signs, including an "If You See Something, Say Something" poster. Overhead on a flat screen, a series of security videos loop and loop — highlighting safety features put into place since Sept. 11, 2001, when anti-American pilots crashed two planes into the World Trade Center towers in New York, one plane into the Pentagon in Washington and one plane, headed for the Capitol, into a field in Pennsylvania.
One of the security videos — titled, "Why Should I Feel Safe Riding Amtrak Trains?" — speaks of beefed-up security measures, often unseen, in terminals. It highlights the more than 50 bomb-sniffing dogs trained to protect the 500 Amtrak stations in 46 states. The dogs, one on-camera K-9 trainer says, are "the best technology we have out there."
On this morning, there are no dogs in sight in the station. People are departing like it's 1999.
And why not? There have been no more significant terrorist attacks on U.S. soil since that crystal blue Tuesday morning 10 years ago.
But it is clear from the scene at Union Station that we live in a not-so-brave new world of increased surveillance systems, protective barriers and identity checkpoints.
Of course, it goes far beyond train stations: Security checkpoints at airports have become serious business. A vast amount of closed-circuit TV cameras — monitoring highways, streets and alleys, and the exteriors and interiors of buildings and homes — track our mundane comings and goings. Overhead signs on the expressways warn us to report suspicious behavior. Colleges offer courses in disaster management, and private security firms have blossomed.
Most of these security measures are brought to us by the Department of Homeland Security. Since 2001, DHS has issued $35 billion in preparedness grants.
But despite all of the heightened threat awareness, do the dogs, the cameras, the increased profile of security guards really have any effect on us anymore, or are they just background noise now, like more ads on TV?
Do we really have a greater sense of security? Whether we are more safe or not, do we feel more safe? Or less? What, if anything, has really changed in the past 10 years?
A More Precarious Planet?
Ask some Americans what has essentially changed since Sept. 11, and you get some bleak answers.
Charles S. Faddis is a former CIA operations officer who now runs Orion Strategic Services, a private Maryland-based anti-terrorism company. He says everyday life in the U.S. has changed very little. "It would be inconvenient and unpopular to implement the necessary security," Faddis says.
William Pickle, who also makes his living in the security realm, sounds a similar alarm. Asked how we have changed since Sept. 11, Pickle repeats what he said when he retired in 2007 as Sergeant at Arms of the U.S. Senate: "Little has changed in America."
Pickle, a former deputy assistant director of the Secret Service who now runs The Pickle Group, a Washington-based lobbying firm, says that Osama bin Laden may be dead, but "terrorism remains a worldwide problem, and it continues to grow. The number of Mideast countries in turmoil is growing, and the result is more Islamic fanaticism."
If anything, Pickle says, "the world is more dangerous, and the world's poor economies provide even more fuel to the goals of terrorists and the recruitment of new fanatics."
To hear Pickle tell it: The world around us has changed. It's a more precarious planet than it was on Sept. 10, 2001.
For Better And Worse
Ask other Americans if the world has changed since Sept. 11, and you get more measured responses.
On the day of the attacks, Rabbi Eric H. Yoffie, president of the Union of American Hebrew Congregations — which became the Union for Reform Judaism — issued a statement. "After today, we know that our lives in America will never be the same. In ways large and small, our world has irreparably changed."
Ten years later, Yoffie says, "I look back and feel that I was right. Our world has changed, and in particular America has changed. It has changed in some ways for the better, and in some ways for the worse."
For the better, Yoffie says, because the country's "sense of solidarity — our grief, our anger, our concern for the victims — has not been forgotten, even if it has faded."
The attacks, he says, "reminded us and imprinted on our souls that when disaster and tragedy strike, America comes together — particularly if we have leaders to point us in the direction of unity and solidarity."
Also on the positive side, Yoffie says: "Americans are more grounded, more realistic, and more aware of evil in the world. Americans understand far more than we did before 9/11 that our world is interconnected: We cannot escape what is happening in distant places, and therefore we need sophistication about, and awareness of, what transpires elsewhere."
In the negative column, Yoffie says: "While ties among Muslim Americans on the one hand, and Christian and Jewish Americans on the other, have deepened among some segments of the population, there are some Americans who have demonstrated growing hostility to Muslim religion, culture and practice. It has, shockingly, become respectable in some political circles to attack Muslim citizens of our country."
Anti-Muslim hate groups "are a relatively new phenomenon in the United States," according to the Southern Poverty Law Center, "most of them appearing in the aftermath of the World Trade Center terrorist attacks on Sept. 11, 2001." The center lists a handful of organizations, some of which have websites.
"America has embarked on two wars directly or indirectly related to 9/11, and both have not gone well, exacting a terrible cost in American lives," Yoffie adds. "That these wars continue even now with diminishing support among most Americans is a change that we did not anticipate — and one that many of our fellow citizens deeply regret."
Aching And Snapping
Speaking on Morning Edition the day after the attacks in 2001, NPR reporter Alex Chadwick delivered a short, eloquent essay on the idea that America would never be the same. "We'll all be learning new roles in the new country," Chadwick said, "and discovering what we miss about the old ones, especially this: We were safe, and we are now not."
Speaking from California today, Chadwick — who parted ways with NPR in 2009 and is a freelance journalist — says that since Sept. 11, Americans are "more angry, more sorrowful, as though we've gotten about 20 years older — or even more — in a decade, but without any of the wisdom or grace that comes to some with age. We just ache more, and we snap at each other all the time."
Chadwick doesn't think the attacks caused these personality shifts, so much as they enabled traits that already existed. "I remember thinking a year after the attacks that the country actually seemed more civil," he says. "But I think we've lost that now."
Like Yoffie, Chadwick points to the two ongoing wars — in Afghanistan and Iraq — as evidence of our loss of momentary civility.
"Rationally," Chadwick says, "we are more protected, but I don't think we feel safer. The security measures that are so publicly evident now remind us of our anxiety all the time. It's creepy, and we are regretful for the loss of our earlier innocence — a world where suicidal terrorism was so uncommon that you practically never heard of it."
Rabbi Yoffie says: "On some level, people do feel safer now, and this for the simple reason that there has not been another attack in the last 10 years. Nonetheless, their worldview has changed, and the fears remain."
The world around us has changed — in ways vast and small. And, in many instances, we have reverted to habitual forms.
In the 10 years since the attacks, we have increased our tendency to go to war to solve our problems. We increasingly amp up our political discourse with rancor and partisanship. We live with the growing disparity between rich and poor.
We have also seen, in the past decade, the American propensity for love and charity, and a determination by many to rebuild a nation that includes everyone.
The attacks of Sept. 11 not only toppled two tall towers and left a gaping hole in Manhattan, they left a huge hole in the country's foundation. We are still picking through that rubble, trying to piece together our future.
On one hand, we hope to ward off more evil and thwart those who wish to do us harm. On the other, we demand convenience and openness. The two conflicting tides sweep against each other — creating the churning, frothy society that is America today.