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9/11 trauma persists five years later

By Manav Tanneeru
CNN
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NEW YORK (CNN) -- As his cab wound through the narrow streets toward Ground Zero, Henry Pitkin recalled the day his city was attacked.

"There's a hole in my soul," the longtime cabbie said, his New York accent slightly cracking as he stared at the street dead ahead. "I knew people who lost people. ... I've never recovered."

Five years after the terror attacks of September 11, 2001, killed 2,973 in Shanksville, Pennsylvania, Washington D.C., and New York, the country's mood is awash in emotions, balancing resolve with vulnerability, a need to remember with a desire to move on. (Watch one man's special tribute to his lost brother -- 6:07)

The nation appears united in acknowledging the threat it faces yet divided in how to best combat it. Consumers say they are not confident of the direction of the economy in this unsettled era yet economists say they spend beyond their means.

There is wide agreement of the trauma the attacks caused, yet there is disagreement over the symbolism of the event and how it should be used, according to historians.

Signs of 9/11's effect are part of everyday life -- long lines at airport checkpoints, bomb-sniffing dogs at tunnels, the steady stream of images from terror attacks around the world -- making emotional and psychological distance from the trauma almost impossible.

"People still talk about 9/11 as they did the first few months," said the Rev. Dr. Stuart Hoke of New York's Trinity Church. "It is one of the conversation topics at every event we attend -- every dinner party, every church gathering, it's still talked about with a great deal of intensity."

St. Paul's Chapel, part of the Parish of Trinity Church, stands directly across from the World Trade Center site and has become part of the Ground Zero pilgrimage. Erected in 1766 and the church where George Washington said his prayers after his inauguration, it has withstood the tumult of history, including the carnage yards away on September 11.

"Thanks to a huge sycamore tree in the back of the property which absorbed the intensity of the impact, St. Paul's was left unscathed except for one cracked pane of glass and four overturned tombstones in the churchyard," Hoke said.

In the immediate aftermath, St. Paul's served as a hub for firefighters and police officers, relief workers, clergy, counselors, food servers and mourners. Its walls and fences became a repository for cards and banners from around the world. Open 24/7, the exhausted slept in the pews, their snores echoing through the church halls, Hoke said.

"It was kind of the best of humanity at work right in the darkest place there was," he said.

Tourists, curiosity seekers and some who describe themselves as pilgrims still make their way to the church. Some 30,000 to 35,000 people visit the chapel a week, he said, up from the 300 to 500 who would stop by before the attacks.

"[They] are primarily people who are coming in to sit down and express the grief over the loss associated with 9/11, the loss of security, the loss of landscape, the loss of the way things were," he said. "You can't imagine how much Kleenex we use there."

The politics of national security

There has not been a terror attack on U.S. soil since 9/11, although there have been a number of attacks across the globe -- from Madrid and London to Casablanca and Bali -- killing hundreds and wounding thousands.

The Bush administration claims it has killed or captured more than three-fourths of the terrorist organization that plotted and carried out the September 11 attacks, and that at least 10 plots have been foiled since then.

However, al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden and his top deputy, Ayman al Zawahiri, are still on the loose and regularly appear on videotapes, audio tapes and Web postings, commenting on everything from Iraq to Mideast politics.

"They are releasing tapes quicker than the rock group U2," former 9/11 Commission member Tim Roemer told CNN.

Al Qaeda may have lost its Afghan sanctuary, but its ideals have spawned franchises around the world.

"They are regrouping on the Internet, experimenting with technologies. They are re-energizing in homegrown types of terrorist movements in Great Britain and getting some training in Pakistan," Roemer said.

Most Americans expect another attack on American interests. More than half -- 54 percent of those surveyed in a recent poll conducted for CNN -- said they think it is "very likely" or "somewhat likely" an act of terrorism will occur in the United States within the next several weeks.

An almost equal amount -- 55 percent -- said they believe the federal government is unprepared for a terrorist attack. A Pew Research Center poll from early August had similar findings.

"The notion of preventing all future attacks ... [is] one of the few views on this issue that is not divided by partisanship," said Michael Dimock, associate director of research at Pew.

Partisanship, however, has played a role in the debate over the Iraq war and over methods used in the fight against terror, including warrantless wiretaps and allegations of torture and secret renditions and prisons, Dimock said.

"In the immediate aftermath of 9/11 ... the public was willing to allow the government a lot of leeway," he said. "That's something that has slowly shifted back, with more people expressing an interest in protecting civil liberties."

Americans are also split over whether the war in Iraq is part of the war on terror and whether it's worth the cost.

So far, the government has appropriated $432 billion on the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and the fight against terror; $290 billion of that is for fighting the war in Iraq, according to recent Congressional Budget Office figures.

How secure is the country?

Americans' confidence in how safe they were was shattered by the news that suspected terrorists were plotting to use liquid explosives to blow up airliners bound for the United States from Great Britain.

The alleged plot raised questions over how much security had improved in the years since 9/11.

Bush administration officials say the nation has become more secure because the intelligence apparatus has been revamped, states and cities have received more funding for homeland security, and security has been bolstered at targets like airports.

Yet questions persist over how much cargo is inspected at the nation's ports, how secure the borders are and how adaptable the country is in keeping up with innovative terrorists.

"We made some incremental progress right initially after 9/11. We have not made enough progress since," said the 9/11 Commission's Roemer, a former Democratic congressman.

Former New Jersey Governor Thomas Kean, who chaired the 9/11 Commission, also expressed frustration that many of the panel's recommendations have not been adopted.

Roemer said the government needs to focus on what terrorists are going to do next instead of "just putting our money into what did they do last time."

"How do we have the strategy set forward so we're investing in ... the likely targets by al Qaeda, whether they be airlines ... soft targets like trains like they hit in Europe, or the next kind of target ... [like] a shopping mall?" he said.

In addition to increasing government spending after 9/11, Bush asked Americans to go shopping, and they did -- bringing an economy shattered by the attacks back to full speed within a few years.

The Federal Reserve lowered interest rates and the Bush administration cut taxes, helping the country's productivity to rebound by 2004, said Beth Ann Bovino, a senior economist at Standard and Poor's.

But in the last year, rising oil prices, conflict in the Middle East and general insecurity over terrorism has rattled consumers, she said. The University of Michigan's consumer sentiment index fell from 96.5 percent in July 2005 to 84.7 in July 2006.

Still, Americans continue to spend well beyond their means, Bovino said. Bolstered by generous credit and a booming housing market, they sent the nation's personal savings rate into the negatives last year.

Who owns 9/11?

The images of two planes in a clear blue sky crashing into skyscrapers are as searing and incomprehensible today as they were five years ago.

Many, like cab driver Pitkin and the Rev. Hoke, can relate every single detail of their lives that day. As they tell their stories, there is a sense of a society grasping for meaning.

"Narrative is an attempt to make chaos comprehensible and coherent," said Mary Marshall Clark of the Oral History Research Office at Columbia University.

Clark and Peter Bearman, a sociologist at Columbia, have interviewed hundreds of people affected by 9/11 over the past five years as part of their September 11 oral history project.

"I was shocked by how present the past was, how so little of it was the past," Clark said. "The trauma is still so real for those who lived through it."

The question of who owned the event and who had the legitimacy to speak about it emerged as a focus during the interviews, Bearman said.

In the weeks and month after 9/11, only those who directly suffered or endured the attacks were seen as having that right. But as time went on, that sentiment lessened, Bearman said. That may explain why society in general has seemed more comfortable discussing the attacks.

Two movies about September 11 were released in recent months -- "United 93" and Oliver Stone's "World Trade Center" -- and novels, plays and TV episodes addressing the topic have begun to surface.

Yet there was also a feeling among those interviewed that the event had been made into a political and cultural commodity, Bearman said.

"I think a lot of people in the interviews expressed a deep frustration at the perception that their loss and their experience was stripped of actual meaning and deployed in ways they would not like it to have been deployed," he said.

For the Rev. Hoke, the events of 9/11 and the "notion of terrorism and violence ... is something that's constantly being discussed."

"Time has certainly healed some of the raw emotions, but it takes much more time to deal with a blow of this enormity," Hoke said. "There is no way to suddenly just get back to business."


story.wtc.bulldozer.jpg

Ground Zero is littered with heavy equipment as construction takes place at the WTC site in August.

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