Five years ago, the United States looked beyond the attacks of Sept. 11, seemingly unified in determination. Today, deeply divided and psychologically confused, the country appears adrift.
President Bush insists Iraq is the central focus of the war on terrorism he declared after Sept. 11, and says the U.S. military must remain there until the Iraqi government can defend the country. Polls, though, show the American people are weary of the war, and critics charge Bush has actually aided terrorism by his ill-advised, poorly planned invasion of Iraq.
Those same conflicting sentiments are reflected by Tucsonans. While some stick with the apparent resolve of 2001, others believe the nation has gone radically off course.
Today, Melissa Maraj is a senior airman in the public affairs office at Davis-Monthan Air Force Base. But five years ago, she was a stay-at-home mom in New York City whose now-ex-husband was a police officer.
"I was shocked," Maraj says of the attacks, "but they instilled in me a greater sense of patriotism and (respect) for the rights afforded me. I also saw what Americans are made of as we gathered around, stood proud and did not falter."
Shortly after Sept. 11, Maraj enlisted in the Air Force, determined to provide her daughter the same rights she had. "It's been wonderful that I can contribute my time to my country," she says, "and I'm working toward what I made up my mind to do on Sept. 11."
That dark day in American history also drastically changed Blake Rebling's future. "I was a freshman in high school," says Rebling, president of the UA College Republicans. "I intended to go into computer science, but changed to political science and economics, because I decided to go into politics. I have a strong desire to fight terrorism and stand up for democracy.
"Many Americans woke up and became aware of our international situation," Rebling says. "Our way of life is not guaranteed."
UA history professor Dick Eaton sees the impacts of Sept. 11 completely differently.
"The attacks enabled a rapacious (Bush) administration to implement policies and ideas which they had when they came into office," Eaton argues of what he perceives as restrictions on constitutional rights, along with enormous foreign-policy blunders.
Racheli Gai, an organizer with the group Women in Black, agrees that the country has been led down the wrong road.
After the attacks, which she totally disapproves of, Gai hoped policy makers, the media and the U.S. public would look into the real reasons why people commit such horrendous crimes. These reasons, she believes, include what she terms as the Israeli occupation of Palestine and economic policies which create a huge number of poor, angry people who have no hope.
Instead of that happening, Gai says, Sept. 11 was put to cynical use as a pretext for the United States to commit its own horrendous crimes in Afghanistan, Iraq, and Lebanon.
Gai and Eaton both see a major media role in what has happened over the past five years. "Sept. 11 created such fear in the United States," Gai states, "and that was pushed by the media. It was also used by the government to erode our free speech and other rights. There have been very major changes."
Sitting in downtown's Armory Park, Tom Lewis is somber when he remembers Sept. 11. "I was very depressed about the attacks," he remembers, "and astonished they happened. I think they devastated and depressed the country."
Nearby, Lawrence Parker takes a contrasting viewpoint. "It gave me hate against them more," he says of Sept. 11, without explaining who he is talking about. "We want to kill 'em now, do twice or three times to them (what they did to us). If it was your brother or sister (who died), what would you do?"
While both Maraj and Rebling think the war on terrorism will take many years to win, they are confident of eventual success. "Twenty years from now," Rebling predicts, "people will be glad we took care of the (terrorist) problem."
Maraj adds: "We're in it for the long haul and will not be deterred. I'm very proud to be working hard to support the war on terrorism, and we will be successful. U.S. service members are dedicated to that."
On the other hand, Eaton and Gai think the war on terror is being, or is already, lost.
"Terrorist attacks have gone up since Sept. 11," my friend Eaton points out, "and the war in Iraq created a huge lighting rod for people who want to enlist" to fight us.
The war on terrorism, Gai concurs, is helping to create many more terrorists. "Al-Qaida is more popular now, and they didn't exist in Iraq" before the U.S. invasion.
But Gai also believes some people are better off because of the Iraqi war. "The elite and U.S. contractors there are benefiting tremendously, so for some people, it's working well, but for most, it's terrible."
Five years after Sept. 11, the nation is deeply divided about what has happened since that fateful day. For her part, Maraj declares: "Freedom sometimes comes at a price, but good will always prevail over evil."
On the other hand, by committing violence in Iraq and other places, Gai concludes of the United States today: "We are the major terrorists of all."