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ESSAY: 10 years after Sept. 11, Americans are moving past an era defined by fear and fighting
WASHINGTON (AP) ' In the crucible of Sept. 11, no one could imagine things would ever be the same again.
Seems they pretty much are.
The attacks that spawned two wars and will shout forever from history books are well receded from daily life for most Americans.
Not so for the soldiers who have fought or for those in government who know there will be hell to pay if the nation is ever caught so off guard again.
For the rest?
The "new normalcy," as life under threat was called 10 years ago and many times since, is resembling the old one. Airport security shakedowns excepted.
This, after an epoch shaped by fear and fighting, the onset of the Patriot Act and all its new powers and the cobbling together of a homeland security superstructure meant to see over everything and is itself overseen by more than 100 committees in Congress.
In the aftermath of the terrorist attacks, the United States was host to all sorts of un-American activities.
Perpetually bickering politicians hugged. Americans stopped shopping. Lawyers even ceased suing.
Almost everyone was on the same page.
On the radio, home of shock jocks and other crudities, they stopped playing sad songs and got ultra-sensitive. Even "Leaving on a Jet Plane" was nixed from playlists.
An in-your-face people feared their own shadows. Pollsters asked a weird question: How are you sleeping?
It was an unnatural state of affairs, and it is largely gone.
Handing off the wars and the swollen anti-terrorism apparatus to his successor, President George W. Bush said in his final White House address in 2009 that "most Americans were able to return to life much as it had been before 9/11." He quickly added: "I never did."
He waged a war thrust upon him, in Afghanistan, and one of his own choosing, in Iraq. Both started fading from public attention even before President Barack Obama inherited them, upped the effort in Afghanistan, then began winding both down. Economic woes came roaring in as the public's chief concern.
Now only 15 percent of respondents in a poll by The Associated Press and the National Opinion Research Center at the University of Chicago see a high risk of being attacked where they live. Most said the cost of fighting terrorism might be too high. Trust of other people is up from the darkest days, though most still agree "you can't be too careful" with strangers.
"I do think about it very often," Ken Kreitner, 64, a Vietnam veteran from St. Louis, said of Sept. 11, 2001. "Oh, yes. Almost every day."
But now, he added, "I do feel safe."
Lee Hamilton, a leader of the Sept. 11 commission that exposed pre-attack intelligence flaws, never stops believing the government can't be too careful and that people might be letting their guard down a bit too much.
"We better not be complacent," he told the AP. "That's what worries me.
"I've always felt in the homeland security business, the sense of urgency has declined. There's a frame of mind that is business as usual."
Leaders warned that the time ahead would be like none before it, a war without the usual rules of engagement or surrender against an enemy that can be crushed here and there, only to regenerate over time.
Americans were asked to be patient, yet persistently vigilant, yet to get on with their lives, shopping included.
Two presidents and both parties in Congress asked plenty from service members, their families and National Guard citizen-soldiers taken from their jobs. The surge of patriotism after Sept. 11 settled into a more normal love of country and exasperation with its direction.
Abnormal valentines from abroad eventually vanished. After the attacks, Iranians waved candles on the streets for America. They were back to "death to America" after Bush labeled their government evil and prepared to invade Iraq.
Le Monde newspaper in Paris asserted "We are all Americans today" after 9/11, then declared Europeans "have a different truth to proclaim" as unity frayed.
The killing of Osama bin Laden on May 1 was a celebratory moment across the country but just that, a moment. Ten years from now, most are not likely to remember where they were and what they were doing on 5/1.
Ten years after 9/11, everyone old enough remembers almost everything.
"Everything came to a halt, whole store, everybody was in shock" recalls Candice Parker, 39, meat manager of a retail store in Anchorage, Alaska.
She couldn't help then but to think "Muslims are out to get us" and was nervous taking taxis because the driver might be one of them.
Now, she says, "I feel very safe." She does not think about 9/11 every day and "after a while, you're not so aware of the behaviors that changed."
But Parker does not feel completely the same as she did before the attacks that unfolded more than 4,000 miles away.
"I'm trying to make sure that I live life with really strong morals and live every day to its fullest," she said. "I think 9/11 has really validated that for me.
"Life's short. Take advantage of your day."
EDITOR'S NOTE: Cal Woodward writes about the U.S. government from the Washington bureau of The Associated Press. Tomorrow: American unity ' or lack thereof ' after Sept. 11, 2001.
Associated Press writers Jennifer C. Kerr and Nancy Benac contributed to this report.