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West: 11 September -- Terror Fears Largely Ease Throughout U.S., Europe (Part 7)

By Robert McMahon/Andrew F. Tully/Kathleen Knox

The terrorist attacks of 11 September stirred in Americans a mixture of patriotic fervor, civic pride, and a heightened awareness of foreign affairs. There was a darker side, as well -- lingering fears of future attacks and a perceived clampdown on civil liberties. A few Americans expressed their frustration in indiscriminate reprisals against Muslims and Arab-Americans. In Europe, where anti-immigrant sentiment also runs strong, there was a rare feeling of solidarity with the United States. As one French newspaper put it on 12 September, "We Are All Americans Now." In the final story in our series on the one-year anniversary of the 11 September attacks, RFE/RL looks at whether life really has changed in the past year in the U.S. and Europe. Despite predictions that the world would never be the same, it seems that life, indeed, appears to have returned to normal, and that economic concerns have largely supplanted terrorist fears in the minds of many.

New York/Prague, 6 September 2002 (RFE/RL) -- By the third day after the attacks on the World Trade Center, New York City's Union Square had become a rallying point for people confused, frightened, and angry about the terror that had visited a few kilometers to the south.

New Yorkers came to the square to sing or talk or to maintain candlelight vigils on behalf of the terror victims. They also lined up outside hospitals to donate blood, overwhelmed relief agencies with offers of assistance, and showered affection on fire and police departments, which suffered big losses in the attacks.

Jackie, a 42-year-old court stenographer from Manhattan, witnessed the collapse of the World Trade Center towers. In an interview with RFE/RL this week, she said the sense of unity among New Yorkers is still evident: "Everyone has been very helpful to everybody else because we all know what we went through down here, and we were all in the same position because everybody started to flee. So I think a lot of people extended themselves more than normal."

A similar spark of unity was ignited across the nation. American flags appeared on vehicles, buildings, and shirt collars. The hymn "God Bless America" echoed through sports stadiums and political chambers.

U.S. President George W. Bush told reporters that week that he saw the spirit of the country aroused amid the grief: "Through the tears of sadness, I see an opportunity. Make no mistake about it, this nation is sad. But we're also tough and resolute, and now's an opportunity to do generations a favor by coming together and whipping terrorism -- hunting it down, finding it and holding [the attackers] accountable."

The Bush administration, after declaring its war on terrorism, initially enjoyed the highest public confidence levels seen in more than 30 years of polling, said Carroll Doherty, editor of the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press.

And as U.S. forces moved against Al-Qaeda and the Taliban in Afghanistan, Americans were exhibiting a strong interest in foreign affairs, Islam, and public health threats like anthrax, according to polling data compiled by Pew.

That interest has now waned amid the relative success of the antiterrorism battle. A new Pew poll found that fewer than four in 10 Americans said the 11 September attacks were the most important thing to occur in their lives in the past year. Patriotism in the U.S. is much more muted as corporate scandals and economic anxieties preoccupy Americans.

Kristina, a 16-year-old high-school student from the Bronx wonders why Americans seem so fickle with their emotions: "Right after 11 September, I felt like people were starting to be more caring and more giving. But about three months after that, everyone was back to being mean to one another and not caring at all. And [11] September is coming around again, and I see the same action coming back -- everyone wants to care again. I don't understand why it has to take a [bad] situation to make us care about one another. That's what baffles me."

Psychiatrists interviewed by RFE/RL say the fear and dread that dominated life in the U.S. the first few weeks after the attacks -- exacerbated by a rash of mysterious deaths caused by anthrax-laced mail that have yet to be solved -- have subsided. Washington psychiatrist James Griffith provided counseling at George Washington University Hospital for people injured in the attack on the Pentagon, as well as the loved ones of those killed.

At the time, he said, many people expected more attacks and believed Washington was the most likely target. But Griffith now says Americans appear to have lost their daily preoccupation with terrorism: "People are concerned about the decline in the economy. They are aware of and concerned about possible war in Iraq. But in many ways, I think, terrorism seems more distant. It's very, very different a year later."

One adjustment for Americans, Griffith says, is coming to grips with the fact that an act of war was committed on their homeland. "The innocent sense of safety and security we've had in the U.S. is a remarkable exception. I mean, most people in the world live under an ongoing sense of threat of some sort."

And in losing that innocence, Americans, at least initially, appeared to be more willing to advocate assertive security measures than before 11 September. The Pew Center's Doherty says this was seen in public support for military action against Iraq -- at one time as high as 65 percent but now just over 50 percent.

The American public's paramount concerns should become evident in the November elections, in which all members of the House of Representatives and some members of the Senate are up for election. Voters have recently indicated that domestic concerns such as health care, education and the economy matter just as much as the war on terrorism.

Another adjustment Americans have had to make since 11 September is coming to terms with the prejudice exhibited against members of the country's Muslim community. In the wake of 11 September, many Muslims and Arab-Americans were the victims of sporadic reprisals in cities large and small across the U.S.

But every ugly reaction seemed to be counterbalanced by a report of support or kindness. The secretary-general of the Islamic Society of North America, Sayyid Muhammed Syeed, says that on the day of the attacks, a stream of visitors came to his group's Indiana headquarters to show solidarity. Syeed still speaks with surprise about those visits: "Many of them were coming with flower bouquets. And this did not happen here in Plainfield, Indiana, only. We got calls from our people from coast to coast. This was a general trend and, in fact, this is what makes America different from other societies."

Muslims in Europe also felt the aftershocks of 11 September. A report earlier this year by the European Union's racism watchdog organization documented a rise in anti-Muslim attacks in the months immediately after 11 September, particularly in Britain, Sweden, Holland, and Denmark.

As in the U.S., the number of these attacks in Europe has now gone down, says Bent Sorensen. He's head of communication at the European Monitoring Centre on Racism and Xenophobia, which published the report.

Sorensen says the simple passage of time has cooled much of the misdirected anger. He also credits efforts by European political and religious leaders to distinguish between the terrorists and the peaceful Muslims living in Europe and elsewhere.

But he says hostility linked to 11 September is still making it difficult for Europe's Muslims, particularly new immigrants, to find jobs.