Years later, a horror so far and yet so close
NEW YORK - It is not a tidy anniversary this year. Seven years between that awful day and this Sept. 11, the terrorist attacks linger somewhere between the immediate, a conscious part of our days, and the comfortable remove of the distant past. No longer yesterday and not yet history.
What happened seven years ago colors American life today. There are the two wars, of course. But in smaller ways, too: We sing "God Bless America" at the ballpark. We weigh "evil" as a campaign issue. We slip off our shoes at airport security, buy the zip-top bag for liquids and gels.
And yet there is an unmistakable distance now. No one speaks of the "new normal" anymore. All of those things are just normal.
This Thursday - Sept. 11, 2008 - will be nothing like the first anniversary, when people were allowed, even encouraged, to take the day off work to reflect, when airports were eerily empty, when silence settled over cities.
But it will also be nothing like what life in America was on Sept. 10, 2001, the day before.
What does 9/11 mean, seven years on? What do we make of it now?
Seven years means we are far enough away that Senator Joe Biden can joke in a Democratic debate that former Mayor Rudy Giuliani of New York mentions only three things in a sentence, "a noun and a verb and 9/11," and bring down the house.
Yet we are close enough that video of the towers' collapse - the actual smoke, the crumbling - is so painful it almost never airs anymore, and when it is shown, as in a montage at the Republican National Convention, it is utterly halting.
No one will forget. But when is it OK to move on?
For the people who were left behind, left without a spouse or a child or a parent or a friend on that day, it is a very real question, something to turn over in their minds every day.
For some, seven years means enough time to pick up, sometimes to pack up, to start anew.
Cathy Faughnan's husband, Christopher, a 37-year-old bond trader, was killed in the trade center. She was 37 then, too, and remembers thinking she was too young to be a widow for the rest of her life. Now she is 44. Within two years after the attacks she moved back to her home state of Colorado, and has since been remarried, to a widower she met in New York shortly after Sept. 11.
She does not like to watch TV coverage of these anniversaries. Her family remembers Christopher in other ways. September also means the start of college football, and they go to cheer his Colorado Buffaloes once a year.
This year, for the first time, she took the three children she had with Christopher - Siena, Juliet, and Liam, who are now 14, 11, and 9 - to ground zero, where steel from the rebuilding now pokes above street level.
At the visitors center across from the pit, they saw the pictures of thousands of people who died when the youngest of them was just 2 years old.
"I think that was the first time it really maybe hit them how many people died," their mother said.
Officials in Somerset County, Pa., where United Flight 93 went down, are trying to figure out how to get the curious visitors who stream in from all over the country to stay awhile.
County commissioners are doing feasibility studies because a national park is coming. Hundreds of thousands of people will visit, and they will need restaurants, hotels, gas stations, shops.
"You're here looking at the memorial. There are other opportunities," said Brian Whipkey, editor of the Somerset Daily American. "You can do whitewater rafting."
Sept. 11 as a segue to recreation. That's how far we have come.