An American businessman, traveling in India when the planes struck the towers, made his way back to the U.S. the following week as quickly as he could. That meant hopscotching across the Middle East, stopping in Athens overnight to change planes. He spent the evening having supper in a local taverna. No one else in the restaurant spoke English, but when the owner realized he had an American in the house just two nights after 9/11, he asked his guest to stand up, face the other diners and listen to a toast.
And indeed, the entire room stood up, raised their glasses and said, as one, "Shoulder to shoulder, until justice is done."
Five years later, after an invasion of Afghanistan and an occupation of Iraq, and amid talk of war with Iran, it is fair to ask:
Would they say it again tonight?
Would we say it to one another?
This has become the loss with no grave, no chance for mourning, because we still live it every day--the loss of that transcendent unity, global goodwill, common purpose born of righteous anger that wrapped us like a bandage those first months after the attacks: a President with a 90% approval rating, a Congress working as one, expressions of sympathy and offers of help from every corner of the planet. WE ARE ALL AMERICANS, said Le Monde.
That unity was never going to last. The world more easily prefers a superpower when it's wounded and weakened than when it rises and growls. But we have not merely returned to the messy family arguments of Sept. 10. We are divided at home, dreaded abroad, in need of a hard conversation about America's vital interests and abiding values but too bitter and suspicious to have it.
All wars, even the noblest, bring a reckoning of means and ends. The war on terrorism has long since lost its crisp moral lines. Who foresaw that the battle would require a national seminar about when it's O.K. for Americans to torture prisoners and whether near drowning counts? Or a debate over which clauses of the Constitution might be expendable? We may agree that terrorism is wicked, but we're still unsure about how to answer it.
Presidents make their hard decisions and then abide forever with their mistakes and regrets. Since the decision to commit soldiers to battle is the most fateful he makes, it is here that a President--his instincts, his judgment, his pride and his purposes--is most exposed. If he succeeds, the errors are footnotes; if he fails, the best intentions are just dust. "I guess not many Presidents have been understood in their own time," Lyndon Johnson said, reflecting on all the good he'd tried to do for people, who despised him nonetheless. George W. Bush swats away the judgments that anniversaries invite. "There's no such thing as short-term history, as far as I'm concerned," he said last week. We can't know how the story ends, but we know that there was a time five years ago when every day was Memorial Day, when we never would have imagined that we'd care what Brad and Angelina's baby looked like, or dread air travel more for its inconvenience than its dangers.