Twenty years ago, life changed for Americans, likely never to return.
The immediate severity of the defensive responses to the airborne attacks that collapsed the World Trade Center towers and put a hole in the Pentagon – and the flight that was deflected into a Pennsylvania field – were draconian for good reason. After such a surprise attack, with such magnitude, nothing seemed impossible.
Airspace was shut down, no commercial flights were allowed for days, and barricades were installed at the entrances to the smallest airports terminals. The stock market was closed.
Thinking that there might be further attacks on government buildings, visiting was eliminated and staff members were closely checked.
The Transportation Safety Administration came into being, its queue the preliminary step in every airline flight. NORAD, the eyes and ears of which had only looked beyond the boundaries of the U.S., created an internal-focused center.
What might terrorists consider to be a worthwhile target? At the eastern portal of the Roberts Tunnel, which carries water from the Western Slope to the Front Range, the large, informative sign that included a map of the sources of water was removed. It has not been placed back. Still better not to suggest a target?
Muslims were lumped together to be targeted with suspicion, disdain and sometimes violence. A subsequent president would say that Islam hates us, and block immigrants from several Muslim countries.
Expanding that religious divide made it easier for some to single out in words and actions other races and ethnicities for contempt.
With the Patriot Act, passed almost unanimously by Congress just weeks after Sept. 11, Americans could come under secret government surveillance. The origins and destinations of telephone calls to outside the country became a source of information.
Law enforcement warrants received mostly favorable approval by the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court, a court that operated so secretly in initial years that it was illegal to even talk about its work.
The Patriot Act identified a few limited terrorist cells and activities, but at the cost of violating the Fourth Amendment, which protects against search without probable cause, and the Fifth, which requires due process. Islamic centers were also harassed, which the First Amendment forbids.
The Sept. 11 hijackers did immense harm to this country and our way of life, weakening the civil rights and the foundations of democracy that Americans shaped through the years and causing too many Americans to consider skin color and country of origin rather than the individual.
Will we have moved beyond the fear of attack and the divisions it created by the 30th anniversary of Sept. 11, or the 40th, or will they be with us for the indefinite future?