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Reporter's Notebook:  One View of a Changed America - 2001-10-02

As many have noted, life in the United States has been profoundly changed by the horrific events of September 11. VOA's Gary Thomas returned to Washington in the days immediately following the attacks after five years as Southeast Asia correspondent, and says he found a far different city and country than the one he left in 1996.

It is disconcerting enough to come home after five years. But the discomfort is now amplified. The commonplace is no longer common, by virtue of the events of September 11. Words and gestures, as well as actions, have taken on new meanings.

On one day after the attacks, a worker at Washington's Dulles airport, apparently from South Asia, by his name tag, approaches a newsstand near the baggage claim and greets the man behind the counter with a hearty, "Salaam Aleikum" - the traditional greeting of "peace be unto you" between Muslims. The man behind the counter, also from South Asia, quietly but forcefully signals his friend to keep his voice down.

It was not something that would, in all likelihood, have occurred before September 11. But fear has crept into the Islamic community, like a cancer borne on the dust of the World Trade Center and the Pentagon.

Airports are where one sees the most significant changes. Curbside check-in for flights was briefly abolished in the United States, but is now being reinstated on a limited basis at some airports.

At an airport in Florida, the wait at the ticket counter was long, of course, but the questioning of passengers by airline agents was perfunctory. Carry-on bags were subjected to thorough scrutiny. The airport itself, usually abuzz with vacationers headed for the theme parks of central Florida, also seemed to lack its usual bustle of activity. Fear of flying is in the air.

On the aircraft, there is a palpable rise in tension among fellow passengers, as a dark-complexioned, bearded man moves down the aisle. Immediately, all eyes are on him with what is in all probability a common thought: Is he a hijacker?

Even in the monotony of a flight, there is a jarring reminder of the new reality: The meal served on board has a metal fork and spoon, but a plastic knife.

And on the ground, there is a mass display of patriotism not seen since World War II. The U.S. flag can be seen everywhere, fluttering on car antennas, hanging on balconies, implanted on front lawns, plastered in windows, strapped to mailboxes, pinned on clothing. One millinery shop near a relative's home in coastal Florida ran out of red, white, and blue ribbon immediately after the attacks. Patriotism provides a refuge from fear and a cushion against sorrow.

But what can also be seen now is a new civility. It is noticeable how people are saying "hello," or just nodding in greeting to passing strangers on the street now. It may be a camaraderie born of shared sorrow or common purpose. Or, perhaps, it is just a gesture to ward off any fear of being alone.

Perhaps that is all people want right now - to know they are not alone.