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Sept. 11: US Life Changed Forever - 2001-12-26

When Americans look back on 2001, they will no doubt break it into two parts, before and after the September 11 terrorist attacks. Commentators and historians are already trying to determine what will be the lasting impact of the events of September 11.

It is sure to become one of those defining moments in history, an event that will be forever burned into public memory. Who could ever forget the image of a jetliner dissolving into a fireball as it crashed into the south tower of the World Trade Center?

In an instant, how Americans viewed their country and their own lives changed.

For those directly affected by the tragedy, like Trudy Calendrillo searching for her brother in New York, their lives will never be the same.

"I have to see my brother. I want to see him," she said. "If it's a dead body at this point, it doesn't matter. If it's a dead body, I know he's o.k now. I know he is up there. I know he is o.k. I have to find him. I want to know that he is o.k."

But for even those Americans not directly affected by the attacks, there was a sense of foreboding and sadness not experienced on a national scale for many years.

Senator Joseph Lieberman of Connecticut put it this way, "in the last century, I think of two tragedies that seem comparable in some senses in their affect on the collective American psyche and on our sense of security, the [1941] attack on Pearl Harbor and the [1963] assassination of President [John] Kennedy."

But as devastating as the terrorist attacks were on the national psyche, they also pulled the country together in a show of patriotism not seen since perhaps World War II.

American flags popped up everywhere, even amid the destruction of the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. Attendance at religious services soared and many Americans said they were focusing anew on family and friends.

"Americans see how small and petty most of the differences are between and among individuals and groups in the United States and probably also in our politics," said Larry Sabato, political scientist at the University of Virginia and a close observer of American society. "So much of what we thought mattered, did not matter."

For a time, patriotic fervor even brought political rivals together in Washington, climaxed by members of Congress singing a stirring rendition of God Bless America on the steps of the U.S. Capitol.

"The change that will have the most lasting value is a sense of proportion and a bringing together of Americans across racial boundaries and party lines and philosophical and ideological perspectives," said Mr. Sabato. "That is probably to the good."

But even as Americans celebrated their democracy and their patriotism, there were promises to never forget what happened on September 11, nor the gallant police, firefighters and other rescuers who answered the call when the terrorists struck.

A few months after the attacks, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld urged Americans to always remember the heroes of September 11.

"Not all that long ago, there were those who asked, Where are our heroes? They said there was no unifying spirit in America," he said. "Today, all can see that the spirit of our nation is strong. And the heroes? We don't have to look far to find them."

The damaged part of the Pentagon is being rebuilt and should be finished early in 2002. Rebuilding the American spirit could take a bit longer.

Part of VOA's Year End Series for 2001