September 9, 2011

'Now it's in the back of your mind'

Security and liberty. War and worry. Our world changed forever when terror came to America.

By David Hench dhench@pressherald.com
Staff Writer

The horror, sadness and rage that accompanied the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks has diminished over the past 10 years, and the impacts on Mainers' daily lives have either dissipated or become accepted rituals of business and public safety.

However, the worst terrorist attacks in the nation's history have left their mark on the state's psyche, everything from a resurgence of unabashed patriotism to an uncomfortable sense of vulnerability, from a concerted effort to keep citizens safe to fears of an overreaching government probing the private lives of those citizens.

"I think in a variety of day-to-day ways, our lives remain fairly consistent with what they were 15 years ago," said Ronald Schmidt, chairman of the political science department at the University of Southern Maine. "But Sept. 11 and the reaction to Sept. 11 has transformed the agenda of the United States and in that way it's changed our lives collectively."

Ten years of war, the tension between freedom and security, and a worldview seen largely through the lens of terrorism are just some of the ongoing repercussions spawned by the attacks.

The grief of that day also persists.

"A lot of people have done a lot of healing. The yearly rituals have helped," said Carol Nemeroff, professor of social and behavioral sciences at the University of Southern Maine's Lewiston-Auburn College. "There's likely to be lingering damage among a lot of people, depending on how directly they were impacted or what kind of exposure they had. A lot of people have developed (post-traumatic stress disorder) from this."

Portland has its own personal relationship with Sept. 11 -- the city where the first hijackers boarded planes that morning, a city apparently chosen for no other reason than it was close to Boston and there typically would be no need to be screened again after connecting there.

Mohamed Atta, dubbed the mastermind of the attacks, was one of the two terrorists to embark here.

In the weeks and months after the attacks, Portland residents and workers adjusted to a wave of changes.

Parking spaces around federal buildings disappeared, replaced by routine patrols. A backpack left behind a bush at U.S. District Court in Portland resulted in an hours-long bomb scare, resolved by the deployment of a bomb-disarming robot purchased with federal funds after the attack.

Security screening has become commonplace at many government facilities and is now an accepted part of the landscape.

The most obvious changes in the post-9/11 world are the security precautions around flying, where all checked baggage passes through bomb-detection devices and would-be passengers at the Portland Jetport accept protracted delays as federal screeners inspect carry-on items and shoes.

Air travelers have learned, for the most part, to avoid bringing standard-size containers of shampoo and shaving cream in carry-on luggage, much less pocketknives or the box cutters that authorities have identified as the weapon of choice for the hijackers.

For Mark Usinger, a chandler who helps supply cargo ships plying Portland Harbor, post-9/11 security is pervasive on the waterfront.

"Everywhere I go, it's a constant 'Show ID, show ID, show ID," he said. "It's the same for anybody in the maritime industry. The people on the ships, they're not able to leave the ships a lot of the time."

Many changes are invisible to the public, with police and firefighters working to ward off future attacks and be prepared to respond if one does occur.

"In the terrorism realm, I think officers are taught from the very beginning to keep more of an open mind about scenarios they're in and people they have contact with ... what should we look for and what should we be mindful of in our daily duties," said Acting Portland Police Chief Michael Sauschuck.

The Transportation Security Administration has equipped the Portland Police Department with three bomb-sniffing dogs for use at the jetport and to a lesser extent along the waterfront and at other transportation hubs.

Even terrorism security loses its urgency over time, the same way the effects of community tragedies might fade.

"There tends to be an initial surge of activity, training and education, and at some point it will level off as other emergencies or issues arise," Sauschuck said. "Our awareness will always be high. You don't go through 9/11 and simply move on. But you are forced through necessity to reallocate and reprioritize resources and address issues in your community that are more acute right then."

In the 10 years since the attacks, the most significant changes may be in the way people regard each other, positively and negatively.

Americans pulled together in the aftermath. Flags were everywhere in a way that hadn't been seen in decades.

"The Vietnam situation was a damper on overt patriotism, however with the attack on 9/11, the submerged patriotic fervor burst forth again," said the Rev. William Doughty, a World War II veteran and chaplain for VFW Post 6859. It has subsided some, but it remains strong in the context of honoring those who have died serving the country, he said.

The attacks also have led to ongoing unease, if not fear.

"We recognize we are a nation under threat and it's almost impossible for Americans to think that's going to happen" despite frequent reminders in the news, he said.

Some residents worry that unbridled nationalism coupled with fear has led to intolerance of dissenting views and people who differ from the dominant culture.

"The last 10 years have seen a lot of pressure to conform, that while people may express their love of their country in many different ways, there's this idea that there's really only one way to be patriotic," said Zachary Heiden, legal affairs director for the Maine Civil Liberties Union.

Heiden believes one of the enduring impacts of the Sept. 11 attacks is an erosion of personal freedom that diminishes the overall society. Civil liberties groups across the country, he said, have documented that government agencies have conducted surveillance on peace groups, Muslim groups and environmental groups in recent years.

"That surveillance puts pressure on members of those groups to hide their associations with one another and curtail their activities," he said. "All of that made us all less free."

Most people, however, won't experience it directly, he said.

"I think it's maybe only tangible when it happens to you," he said.

Doughty believes that churches have played an important role in educating congregants that people who are different are a blessing, not necessarily a threat deserving of suspicion.

"Since you don't know who your enemies are, you're kind of suspicious of almost everybody," he said, "You can become intolerant if you don't work at it."

The passage of a decade also means that people entering college or the military today were just children when the towers fell and the Pentagon was attacked. Teenagers may have been aware of the angst swirling around them, but unclear of its historical significance.

For them, this is not a changed world. It's simply their world.

"I feel like things have changed a great deal for people like my son, who will never go through that feeling of comfortableness that we had," said Usinger, referring to his 15-year-old.

"I always had a feeling as an American I was safe. I never felt like somebody wanted to do something like that to us," he said. "Now it's in the back of your mind."

Staff Writer David Hench can be contacted at 791-6327 or at:

dhench@pressherald.com

 

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