Much changed, much remains the same


ONE YEAR AGO Wednesday, I watched on CNN as a gleaming airliner soared across the clear blue sky over Manhattan and slammed into a skyscraper, and I thought the world was coming to an end.

To cover all the bases in the event this proved to be true, I went to Mass that evening.

By now, the full horror of the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon was sinking in, and we knew another airliner hijacked by terrorists lay in smoldering ruins in a muddy field in Shanksville, Pa.

The church was dark and quiet. The priest really didn't know what to say. Who did? He talked about trying to comprehend the incomprehensible and how God was still with us and how, all in all, this would be a real good time to get down on our knees and pray.

At the end of the mass, they sang "God Bless America," and then a few hundred of us walked out into the soft night with tears in our eyes, wondering if life would ever be the same.

One year later, it's clear that so much about our lives has changed, and so much remains the same.

One thing's for sure: We've revised our definition of what a hero is.

We used to hear all this nonsense about heroes being those who dunk basketballs and hit home runs and put out CDs that go platinum, but you don't hear that so much anymore.

We found out that if you wanted to see a real hero, you looked at the nearest cop or fireman, because you remembered all the brave cops and firemen who rushed into the burning twin towers last Sept. 11 while everyone else was screaming and running the other way.

The other day I called my old friend John Morris, a New York City firefighter with Ladder 27 in the Bronx.

For three months after the terrorist attacks, Morris and hundreds of other firefighters pulled long, exhausting shifts searching through the rubble at Ground Zero, first for survivors, then for the bodies of their brother firefighters and anyone else trapped there.

I wanted to see how he was doing as this first anniversary of the attacks rolled around, and when I reached him at his home in Middletown, N.Y., an hour north of the city, he seemed melancholy.

"It was a long year," he said quietly. "Lot of funerals, lot of memorials, lot of tears."

In the collapse of the World Trade Center, 343 firefighters lost their lives. To put that in perspective, in the entire history of the FDNY, only some 700 firefighters had died in the line of duty.

If they lose one firefighter, Morris used to tell me, the fire department is paralyzed with grief. To lose 343 was so horrific, so "mind-boggling" to use Morris' words, as to be beyond comprehension.

Morris himself went to more than 100 firefighter funerals in the weeks and months after Sept. 11. It became the saddest, most heartbreaking, of routines.

They'd put up another notice in the firehouse, and you'd put on your uniform and white gloves and show up at another dreary funeral home somewhere on Staten Island or Queens or Long Island, where another pale widow and her hollow-eyed kids sobbed and held each other as the bagpipes played another mournful version of "Amazing Grace."

"Sometimes it seems like a million years ago," he said of the day the towers came down. "Sometimes it seems like yesterday."

What else has changed about our lives?

Well, we've stopped pretending that terrorism is the rest of the world's problem, not ours.

Terrorism used to be bombs going off in Israel and the 6 o'clock news bringing us footage of wailing mothers and ambulances careening through the streets of Jerusalem and Tel Aviv.

But now it's jetliners slamming into our own buildings and anthrax scares in our own cities, and any sense that the good ol' USA is invulnerable is gone, long gone.

Sept. 11 also showed us how fleeting life is, so supposedly we're spending more time with our families.

We're smelling the roses more now, the experts tell us. But maybe that's because the Dow Jones average keeps dropping like a boulder pushed off a cliff, and the economy's in the tank, and a lot of us are laid off, so we have a lot of time on our hands -- not that the average Joe can afford roses right now.

But some things about our lives haven't changed at all.

We talk constantly these days about security, Homeland Security, security in our skies, but God forbid any of this security inconveniences us.

I turned on one of the cable channels the other day, and they were talking about arming airline pilots and reinforcing cockpit doors and hiring thousands of sharp, energetic, eagle-eyed men and women to monitor the security scanners at airports.

But take a ride out to BWI and look at the huge lines everywhere and listen to the grumbling from the passengers.

Oh, sure, we're all for keeping those damn terrorists at bay. But not if it means missing our connecting flight to L.A. Not if it means someone's going to rummage through our carry-on bag and ask a lot of questions.

Hey, we're all for security. But let's not get fanatical about it.

Otherwise, the terrorists have won.

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