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Expectations of change eclipsed by nation's resilience after 9/11

| Sunday, Sept. 11, 2011

On that day, the common refrain was that everything changed.

Televised images replayed relentlessly: rolling fire and black smoke, crews in yellow hazmat suits picking through a smoldering crater, the doomed leaping from towers, shocked faces covered in gray powder staring at a patch of sky that should not be empty.

Something seemingly impossible happened, and it was difficult to see how anything could survive as it had been.

Yet much of who we were on Sept. 10, 2001, proved to be too resilient or too stubborn to disappear with the smoke that rose over Lower Manhattan, the Pentagon and Somerset County.

"In the immediate aftermath, there was substantial sentiment in some quarters that all legal bets were off, that it's a new world and the United States has to respond to a new set of threats in a new set of ways," said Seth Kreimer, law professor at the University of Pennsylvania.

"The Supreme Court has taken a clear stand that all bets are not off, that the Constitution applies to the pursuit of terrorism," Kreimer said.

Leaders pushed against legal definitions of torture and detention but abandoned neither the Constitution nor the courts when they pushed back.

"There's a little more perspective of the fact that the United States has weathered crises before and can weather crises again," Kreimer said. "We have learned that we don't have to abandon our ideals and our system to survive in a world that is uncertain and dangerous."

Since 9/11, the economy plunged into recession and the government into deficit spending. Events shook Wall Street, but free enterprise remains the cornerstone of America's economic system.

"If you look historically, things have to get really, really bad before disasters have large repercussions for an economy," said Werner Troesken, professor of economics and history at the University of Pittsburgh.

Even global calamities such as the influenza pandemic of 1918, which killed as many as 50 million people, didn't overturn stable national economies, he said.

"They testify to the resilience of human society," Troesken said.

The terrorist attacks claimed nearly 3,000 lives here, but the most dramatic transformations afterward occurred overseas. The wars launched in response reached into Afghanistan's valleys, Iraq's streets, Yemen's deserts and the cities of Pakistan, where more than nine years of hunting culminated in this year's daring Navy SEALs raid and the death of Osama bin Laden. Popular uprisings across the Middle East and North Africa deposed dictators and unsettled long-standing power structures.

With no military draft in the United States, a relative few who answered have borne the sacrifices. Deployments increased in frequency and duration, and their tasks adapted from hunting al-Qaida to supporting foreign governments in hostile lands. Life back home has continued with little interruption. Tens of millions have not joined the military, as men and women did after Pearl Harbor. We have not swept aside gender barriers to ensure our factories continue to produce.

"Nobody's giving up their shoes. Nobody's rationing gas. There are no war bonds," Goldstein said.

Goldstein remembers watching World War II-era newsreels before movies, and seeing everyone in the darkened theater rise to their feet and applaud when President Franklin Delano Roosevelt appeared on the screen.

"Now, it's 'Obama sucks,' and 'Republicans are terrible,'" Goldstein said.

The wars added more than $1.4 trillion to the federal deficit. The late U.S. Rep. John Murtha of Johnstown warned in January 2010, during his last interview with the Tribune-Review before he died Feb. 8, 2010, that debt threatened to undermine the country's role in the world, possibly leading to rising inflation and constricting the country's capabilities.

In past conflicts, from world wars to the Cold War, "it was the threats that tended to move us and keep us on target," said David Abshire, former U.S. ambassador to NATO and president of the Center for the Study of the Presidency and Congress.

"Now the threats are diverse. The deficit is a threat," Abshire said. "It's not as easy to put it in one package and unite everybody on it."

In the decade before 9/11, the country adapted to the idea of being the world's lone superpower. Then it was confronted with the limits of American might.

"The danger is that one jerk can go out in Times Square and do a lot of damage," Abshire said. "We are exposed."

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