Some of my overseas readers may wonder why Americans have focused so centrally on this event, Part of the answer is that unlike most of the peoples of the Middle East and Europe, we had come to think of ourselves as invulnerable between our two ocean barriers. In World War II, as armies ravaged Europe, the Soviet Union, and China, we suffered only in the far Pacific. As Abraham Lincoln put it in 1838:
How then shall we perform it?--At what point shall we expect the approach of danger? By what means shall we fortify against it?-- Shall we expect some transatlantic military giant, to step the Ocean, and crush us at a blow? Never!--All the armies of Europe, Asia and Africa combined, with all the treasure of the earth (our own excepted) in their military chest; with a Buonaparte for a commander, could not by force, take a drink from the Ohio, or make a track on the Blue Ridge, in a trial of a thousand years.
Lincoln was making the point that the only threat to the United States came from within. But on September 11 the United States learned that a globalized world meant our imagined invulnerabilities were no more: foreign terrorists could strike at the financial heart of our largest city, and at the Pentagon itself, without warning. The world had changed.
The wars in Afghanistan and Iraq (the latter at least clearly a "war of choice" for the US, also still go on a decade later. The effect of the events of 9/11 on the US image in the world, and particularly the Middle East, is profound; the attitude towards American Muslims in the decade since 9/11 has emphasized one of the darker strains of America's national attitudes.
On that beautiful fall morning a decade ago, I had watched the first plane hit the first tower, and as I was leaving for work watched the second. I noted that there might also be attempts on Washington, and started driving to work. As I was driving on US 50 in Northern Virginia, approaching Fort Myer, I saw a large billowing plume of black smoke, directly ahead of me. The all-news radio was still focused on New York, but I knew the plume was from the direction of the Pentagon, a building I knew well from an earlier incarnation as a writer on defense. Trying to reach my wife by cell phone, I discovered there was no signal (everyone was doing what I was doing), so I turned the car around and headed home. I spent the day with my wife and then-year-old daughter, whom we'd adopted in July of 2001.
When I saw that black plume of smoke — and it was visible for a long while — it reminded me that I had actually seen black smoke rise above Washington, DC once before: on April 5, 1968, when the city was rocked by riots following the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. the night before. I was an undergrad then, and flying out for Easter I had a view of the rising plumes of smoke from National Airport. It's odd that I bracket 1968, a year of profound divisions in the US, with 9/11 in my mind, but I hope I never see another black cloud rising above DC.