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Monday, 24 December, 2001, 12:32 GMT
America's changing face
They were brash, not beautiful. They were a concrete and steel embodiment of America's global power and ambition.
With one co-ordinated strike of breathtaking cruelty, an unseen enemy issued an extraordinary challenge to the leadership and the people of the world's only superpower.
Osama Bin Laden has long subscribed to the view that the United States is a paper tiger, a corrupt, self-indulgent, faithless society incapable of withstanding the forces of jihad.
But at the end of this momentous, painful year, he may be reconsidering his notion of US vulnerability.
Coping with loss
In the pale, soft light of a recent December morning I watched the firefighters of New York City pay their respects to 30-year-old Robert Lane, a stalwart member of Engine Company 55.
The road to the white, clapboard Moravian church on Staten Island was lined with hundreds of Lane's colleagues, some of whom had attended scores of funerals in the weeks before.
The casket was brought to the church on an antique fire truck, adorned with the stars and stripes and a single helmet. The damp air was filled with a wailing lament from a piper's band.
But there was no body to mourn. This was a memorial service, not a burial.
Lane's remains will probably never be recovered from the one and a half million tons of rubble left behind when the twin towers disintegrated.
Amid the grief of the Lane family and the sombre quiet of the firefighters there was an overwhelming sense of resolve.
Three months on from 'that day' and feelings still run extraordinarily deep.
The dead will be honoured, New York will be rebuilt, and Americans will persist with the war on those the president calls the 'evil doers'.
Good vs evil
From the outset George Bush framed this as an uncomplicated battle between good and evil.
Many beyond America's shores found his language simplistic, jarring, even dangerous, but at home the president successfully articulated the feelings of the vast majority.
He found his voice, and in so doing he transformed his presidency.
Prior to 11 September he seemed tentative, hamstrung by Democratic control of the Senate at home, and discomfited by suspicion of his unilateralist agenda abroad.
But now, both in his handling of domestic politics and the prosecution of the war overseas he appears more focused, surer of himself and his administration.
Of course it does no harm to have an approval rating hovering around 90% or to be able to tap the wealth of experience within the cabinet - Messrs Cheney, Powell and Rumsfeld have seen wars before.
America's new heroes
But something deeper has changed since mid-September.
The public, and this president, have come to appreciate the central importance of the federal government.
Those conservative diatribes against the evils of 'Big Government' have been toned down.
From firefighters to policemen and mailmen - public sector workers are America's new domestic heroes.
The military, of course, is being lauded and showered with tax-payers' money. And Bush's hawkish Attorney-General John Ashcroft has adopted sweeping new powers in the fight against domestic terrorism.
Suddenly government matters again, and even on Capitol Hill the politicians have found it within themselves to curtail the bickering and seek consensus.
So Osama Bin Laden, in his destructive fanaticism, appears to have galvanised a new sense of purpose amongst Americans. It finds expression in rampant, sometimes oppressive patriotism.
Stars and stripes are draped over everything. TV broadcasts, ketchup bottles and grandpa's pyjamas - there is no place the flag cannot reach.
And there are more subtle signs of the changed national mood. Religious observance is way up. Millions of Americans have volunteered their time and money to help with the relief effort since 11 September.
Far from being the decadent, crumbling empire of Bin Laden's imagination, the United States has proved its continued vitality.
Still the plaintive question hangs in the air -'Why do they hate us?.
Bin Laden has become the ultimate comic-strip bad guy. His Taleban hosts play the role of evil henchmen.
Any suggestions that the fires of Islamic extremism have been fuelled by five decades of US policy-making in the Middle East are greeted with howls of protest in wartime Washington.
And there are no indications that the Bush Administration intends to soften its hard-headed, unilateralist approach to world affairs.
Talk of a 'global coalition' against terror will last just as long as it suits America's interests.
President Bush believes his war on terrorism can, and must, ensure that America never again suffers the kind of blow that reduced the World Trade Center to dust.
He has made a decisive start, but it remains just that - a start.
17 Dec 01 | Business
09 Nov 01 | Americas
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