A land fit for heroes

9/11 six months on: America
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The Independent US

How long does it take a nation's wounds to heal? America today is still mourning its dead of 11 September and in doing so, it is becoming a different country. In Manhattan, just a few blocks from the World Trade Centre, there are shutters down and businesses closed. September 11 still makes its mark on people's lives, each and every day. Customers have gone elsewhere, moved away or even died in the disaster.

At Ground Zero itself people not only cannot forget, they want to keep remembering. Each day onlookers arrive to look and make their personal digital video recordings. Nearly six months after the attack, these visitors want views over the borders that protect the site. They argue with police officers about tickets to the viewing platform, from where you can look down and watch the workforce busy with their clean-up.

They are still finding human remains, the DNA of thousands. "You have to wait five hours to stand for three minutes on a platform where you can't see anything," said a sightseer. "I didn't write the rules," answered a cop. He and the other police officers around the site weren't thinking about the best view.

"The disaster is still a burden for policemen and firemen. The cops involved in this are going to counselling," said Mike Gonzalez, a police officer, who worked this beat before the disaster. "Yet I think we are doing better now," he added, pointing at the new layer of tar on Church Street. "They've even repaved the street."

In so many other ways, six months on from the most shocking terrorist incident of all time, America has been transformed to a degree that suggests things will not so easily return to how they once were. "We are stronger, kinder, more united, gentler," said Mary Kiehl, one of several volunteers that tend the memorial site at Stony Creek township in Pennsylvania, the place where one of the hijacked planes of 11 September crashed after passengers struggled with the terrorists to stop them crashing the plane into a city building. Until that day, Stony Creek was an ordinary town in a very ordinary part of America. Now, like the World Trade Centre, it is where visitors come daily to leave messages and prayers. They gaze down towards the birch wood where United Airlines flight 93 crashed into an isolated hillside, killing all 45 people onboard. The scars dug out of the soil by the jet have been smoothed over, the fires that sent clouds of reeking smoke into the skies have been put out. But then, a wound in the landscape can be easily fixed.

The emotional damage goes deeper. It is true that America is more united, President George Bush has enjoyed unparalleled, bipartisan support, and there has been a surge in patriotism. Almost everywhere you go, the Stars and Stripes confront you.

But that is only part of the picture. America is also more intolerant, less understanding, more self-righteous, more zealous in its view that the American way is right. They believe that they were targeted by people jealous of their democracy and freedoms.

And yet that too is not everything. America is now also more internationally curious, more inquisitive about the wider world. Forget the hackneyed old jokes about Yanks doing Europe in a weekend, Americans now receive a daily diet of Afghanistan, Wahhabism and Islamic fundamentalists. Books on central Asia and the Taliban are best-sellers.

"You know, I think in a way that this might be the best thing that ever happened to America," a young postgraduate student said one evening, just a fortnight after 11 September. She hurriedly explained that she believed insular Americans would be forced to think more about the wider world, consider the impact of their country's foreign policy.

Mary Ann Holby, 37, visiting the Pennsylvania memorial, partly agreed. "I think that we have always known there were countries out there that did not like us. If you went there that was a risk," she said. "But now they have come to us."

Are Americans kinder, more considerate? Perhaps. The President claims the horror of 11 September has taught people what is really important; parents are told to hug their children more, individuals are asked to volunteer for charities, schoolchildren to bring in a dollar for their counterparts in Afghanistan. One woman organised a national scarf day in support of American Muslim women.

America is certainly more sober. People talk of a wake-up call, of the sense of invulernability having been destroyed. People are more nervous, more edgy, less inclined to travel by aircraft, yet determined not to give up flying altogether. Doctors report an increase in requests for sedatives, counsellors report an upturn in people seeking guidance. Churches – and mosques – have been more crowded.

Because of this angst, America is now desperate for heroes – policemen, firefighters, even Rudolph Giuliani. There is no bigger hero than Todd Beamer who led other passengers on Flight 93 with the nation's new battle cry – "Let's Roll" – to tackle the hijackers and force down the plane, scuppering its intended attack on Washington. Mr Beamer's name is included on a small, black granite memorial stone at the crash site.

And yet for all its heroes, America is scared. It can hang its flags, it can support the President, it can sing the national anthem but none of this hides the fact that America is frightened that 11 September was not the end of it. "I think people are wondering whether the other shoe is going to fall," said Joanne Buratty, another Pennsylvania resident, whose house shook that terrible morning when flight 93 crashed just a few miles from her home. Here, at least, the wounds have been covered over. The worry is, they could easily be reopened.

Additional reporting by Alissa Quart