Frank Rich has an excellent, elegiac essay in New York Magazine’s “Encyclopedia of 9/11” issue:
It was “the day that changed everything,” until it didn’t. Even in the immediate aftermath, you could see that 9/11 was less momentous for some Americans who were at a safe remove from the carnage and grief. By late September, the ratings at CNN, then 24/7 terror central, had fallen by more than 70 percent. As I traveled across the country that grim fall to fulfill a spectacularly ill-timed book tour, I discovered that the farther west I got, the more my audiences questioned me as though I were a refugee from some flickering evening-news hot spot as distant and exotic as Beirut. When I described the scent of burning flesh wafting through Manhattan, or my sister-in-law’s evacuation by the National Guard from her ash-filled apartment on John Street, I was greeted with polite yet unmistakable expressions of disbelief.
Now, ten years later, it’s remarkable how much our city, like the country, has moved on. Decades are not supposed to come in tidy packages mandated by the calendar’s arbitrary divisions, but this decade did. For most Americans, the cloud of 9/11 has lifted. Which is not to say that a happier national landscape has been unveiled in its wake.
Three red-letter days in 2011 have certified the passing of the 9/11 decade as we had known it. The first, of course, was the killing of Osama bin Laden. We demand that our stories have beginnings, middles, and ends. While bin Laden’s demise wasn’t the final curtain for radical-Islamic terrorism, it was a satisfying resolution of the classic “dead or alive” Western that George W. Bush had dangled so tantalizingly before the nation in 2001, only to let the bad guy get away at Tora Bora. Once bin Laden was gone, he was gone from our politics, too. Terrorism has disappeared as a campaign issue; the old Bush-Cheney fear card can’t be found in the playbook of the GOP presidential contenders. Ron Paul’s isolationism increasingly seems like his party’s mainstream while the neocon orthodoxy of McCain-Palin looks like the cranky fringe.
The other red-letter days were August 5 and 6, with their twin calamities: the downgrading of America by Standard & Poor’s and the downing of a Chinook helicopter by the Taliban, making for the single most fatal day for Americans in Afghanistan. Among the fallen in that bloodbath were 17 Navy Seals, some of them members of the same revered team that had vanquished bin Laden.* Yet their tragic deaths were runners-up in national attention next to our fiscal woes. America may still ostensibly be a country at war with terrorists, but that war is at most a low-grade fever for the vast American majority with no direct connection to the men and women fighting it. The battle consuming our attention and our energies these days is the losing struggle to stay financially afloat. In time, the connection between the ten-year-old war in Afghanistan and our new civil war over America’s three-year-old economic crisis may well prove the most consequential historical fact of the hideous decade they bracket…