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In Perspective: Where does 9/11 stand as a turning point in U.S. history?

And so it has been a decade — quite a long one, when you think about it. You know the story — how the attacks of September 11, 2001, led to two long, expensive, hot wars and an endless cold one in the shadows; how the George W. Bush administration reacted, was re-elected, and saw much of its counter-terror program not repealed, but ratified by President Obama.

With the perspective afforded by the passage of time, where does 9/11 rank as a turning point in our national history? For the victims and their families, innocents going about their lives, suddenly and brutally murdered, no other day can ever matter as much. It was the morning that took away mothers and fathers and wives and husbands and daughters and sons — took them away on what President Bush called a “day of fire.”

What about for the rest of us? It has gone in and out of fashion to act as though America overreacted to the attacks, that we somehow lack the European or the Middle Eastern capacity to get on with things amid the death and the debris. But if a failure to grow accustomed to terrorism is a vice, it is a vice worth having.

I believe history will come to view 9/11 as an event on par with November 22, 1963, the date on which John F. Kennedy was murdered, cutting short a presidency that was growing ever more promising. Dreams died that day in Dallas; it is easy to imagine the 1960s turning out rather differently had President Kennedy lived. Would America have grown so cynical so fast about the role of government had the more politically appealing JFK presided over Washington? Would the Vietnam War have been fought the way it was had he survived, or would he have found a better way forward than Lyndon Johnson did? Unknowable, of course, but intriguing.

We remember Dallas because it was an act of unspeakable violence captured on film that ended a life and changed our lives. So it is with 9/11. Thousands more died that day than on November 22, 1963, but the implications in terms of politics and culture have much in common. A surge of faith and patriotism followed by disillusionment; grief that turned to disappointment; a particular tragedy whose universal waves are felt long afterward, far away.

In that sense, that profound sense, November 22 has never ended. And neither, truth be told, has September 11, no matter how many years have passed.

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