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A distant pain that still feels so close

It isn't a tidy anniversary. Seven years between that awful day and this Sept. 11, the terrorist attacks linger somewhere between the immediate, a conscious part of our days, and the comfortable remove of the distant past. No longer yesterday and not yet history.

What happened seven years ago colors American life today. There are the two wars, of course. But in smaller ways, too: We sing “God Bless America” at the ballpark. We weigh “evil” as a campaign issue. We slip off our shoes at airport security, buy the zip-top bag for liquids and gels.

And yet there is an unmistakable distance now. No one speaks of the “new normal” anymore. All of those things are just normal.

Today – Sept. 11, 2008 – will be nothing like the first anniversary, when people were allowed, even encouraged, to take the day off work to reflect, when airports were eerily empty, when silence settled over cities.

But it will also be nothing like what life in America was on Sept. 10, 2001, the day before.

What does 9-11 mean, seven years on? What do we make of it now?

Seven years means we are far enough away that Sen. Joe Biden can joke in a Democratic debate that former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani only mentions three things in a sentence, “a noun and a verb and 9-11,” and bring down the house.

Yet we are close enough that video of the towers' collapse – the smoke, the crumbling – is so painful it almost never airs anymore, and when it is shown, as in a montage at the Republican National Convention, it is utterly halting.

No one will forget. But when is it OK to move on?

For the people who were left behind, left without a spouse or a child or a parent or a friend on that day, it is a very real question, something to turn over in their minds every day.

For some, seven years means enough time to pick up, sometimes to pack up, to start anew.

Cathy Faughnan's husband, Christopher, a 37-year-old bond trader, was killed in the trade center. She was 37 then, too, and remembers thinking she was too young to be a widow for the rest of her life.

Now she is 44. Within two years after the attacks she moved back to her home state of Colorado and has since been remarried, to a widower she met in New York shortly after Sept. 11.

This year, for the first time, she took the children she had with Christopher – Siena, Juliet and Liam, who are now 14 and 11 and 9 – to ground zero, where steel from the rebuilding now pokes above street level.

At the visitors center across from the pit, they saw the pictures of thousands of people who died.

“I think that was the first time it really maybe hit them how many people died,” their mother says. “I saw them with their mouths open.”

Seven years means Kathy Agarth, who in 2001 lived in a Washington suburb and today teaches second grade at a private school in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., must find a way to explain the attacks to children with no memory of it and little understanding.

She says her students know the term “9-11” and they pray for the soldiers and may write letters to them this year. She does not teach it as a separate lesson. But they do ask her about it from time to time, and she chooses her words carefully:

“Some men were angry at the United States. They crashed their planes into some buildings. Their actions were evil.”

Evil. That the word resonates in American life, and particularly in politics, is a sign we are not too far removed from that day. It came up as a specific campaign issue just last month.

Rick Warren, pastor of Saddleback Church in California, asked: “Does evil exist? And if it does, do we ignore it? Do we negotiate with it? Do we contain it? Do we defeat it?”

Sen. John McCain answered simply, “Defeat it.” Sen. Barack Obama said it exists in many places, citing Darfur and child abuse, and that it is “God's task” to erase it from the world.

Think back to flying after Sept. 11. Right after. Think about the sheer will it took to board an airplane, what it felt like to eye the other passengers, to startle at the slightest turbulence.

“People were mortified,” recalls Jewel Van Valin, a flight attendant for Delta Air Lines. “They were all hoping, ‘We're not going down, are we?'”

The months after the attacks were not kind to the airline industry, and about a year later, Delta opted to save a little money by replacing its linens in first class with paper trays. Van Valin decided to pass out crayons.

She did this because she thought the paper trays were tacky. But after 9-11, flight attendants were also there for emotional comfort – Van Valin actually held sobbing fliers in her arms – and the crayons provided a means of release.

Back then they drew firefighters and flags, police officers with tears in their eyes, the skyline of New York. They drew airplanes and they wrote, “In God We Trust.”

Now they draw palm trees and hammocks, tropical drinks, Disney characters. They draw destinations. They draw moving on.

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