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It is what came after his men had finished their job that has come to define this year. The first page of a new century had unfolded neat as a legal pad, a few scribbles in the margins, but nothing worth underlining. We had our worries. There were fears that cell phones would cause brain cancer. Fears that we were overprescribing antibiotics. Drinking too much arsenic. That sharks were stalking us. The lights went out in California. There was the fight over stem cells, the fear about clones. Do we drill in the Arctic? On Sept. 10, Congress was debating another tax cut, schools were debating dress codes: Are spaghetti straps too risque? There was news of a suicide bombing in Istanbul. That seemed very far away.
The next day, history rose up and growled. And with that the testing began. Sometimes the greater the tragedy, the easier it is to learn wrong lessons from it: truth turns into myth, mortals into heroes, luck into fate, scars into badges. It is hard for the fire fighters, brave as they are, to be greeted as heroes everywhere they go, proposed to in bars, showered with gifts, when in private they know that many of them cannot sleep and cannot think and cannot find words longer than two syllables, and on the days they don't wake up feeling terrible they feel guilty that they don't. And so their fight goes on.
It is hard for mothers to wrestle the Christmas tree into the living room and answer their three-year-old when he asks for the hundredth time, Will Daddy be home soon? Getting out of bed can take an act of courage. One widow, a breast-cancer survivor, pretty much stopped eating after Sept. 11. She shot herself a couple of weeks ago. She lost her fight, but others go on.
It was hard for a President who began his term on a rainy, windy Inauguration Day last January and addressed a citizenry with differences so deep that sometimes, he said, "it seems we share a continent but not a country." George W. Bush's promise to restore honor to the office could not be kept just by wearing his tie every day or learning a crisp salute. A leap of faith is not something that can be faked or borrowed or bought. A man who always said he trusted his team would have to trust himself even more; a man with no use for alliances would have to build the biggest, unlikeliest one ever. And when the enemy honors no borders and knows no rules, that fight is certain to go on.
And therein lies the answer to people who wonder whether any of the changes of this dark autumn will stick, or whether they pass like a fad, more honorable than most but no more lasting. No one has got it perfectly right. This is not a Disney cartoon. But every time we fail or fall short, we admire just a little more the ones who manage to keep going. And we do our best to catch up.