Andrew Porazzo is 45, but his lungs are decades older, the result of spending a month inhaling fire and brimstone at Ground Zero. He’s not alone – thousands of police officers, firefighters and volunteers who helped out in the days and weeks following Sept. 11, 2001 are experiencing the same symptoms. Porazzo is now taking array of medications, but he’s still unable to work.

Steven Neff
Emily Beam

We told that after Sept. 11, “everything changed” and “no one is the same.” Certainly, things have changed. Certainly, Porazzo’s life is radically different. For our part, we have color-coded terror alerts and war. And any conversation, any concerns about detainee rights, an increasingly powerful executive branch or ballooning budget deficits, can be neatly ended with the reminder that we’re in a post-Sept. 11 world. It could happen again; just shut up and trust your government.

When I went back home to Livonia this weekend, however, I was struck by how little things had changed. Five years later, Livonia’s trees are taller. A few daring homeowners repainted their garages a different color. Some driveways boast a bigger, shinier sports utility vehicle. (New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman’s dream that energy conservation would be Sept. 11’s silver lining may not come to pass).

The effects of Sept. 11 extend across the country and across the world, but Livonia, a nondescript, six-mile-by-six-mile patch of American suburbia, was somehow skipped over. That’s not to say that residents weren’t devastated by the events five years ago, that they didn’t show solidarity with the victims and their families as best they could. They were; they did. But after the images of New York, Washington and Pennsylvania on the front pages of local newspapers were replaced with the annual disaster that is the Detroit Lions, Livonia moved on. There wasn’t much else residents could do.

The changes Sept. 11 has brought – a three-year-long invasion deteriorating into civil war, an endless war against an undefined enemy – don’t, for the most part, have much to do with Livonia. On average, Livonia residents don’t serve in the military; they tend to be a little more insulated than much of the state from the nation’s economic swings. In my high school, a handful of students knew someone who knew someone killed in the attacks. All they have to do is turn off their television sets and shy away from those pesky airport security lines, and it’s as if Sept. 11 never happened.

The city seems part of a different post-Sept. 11 world because it is. Geographically and socially isolated from the direct burden of the attacks, all that’s reached the city is the same polarized discourse that divides the country into those who back Bush and those who are “weak on terror.” If Livonia has moved on, if it hasn’t been touched, it isn’t the fault of residents. With the options they’ve been given, what else are they supposed to do?

No matter how removed we as Americans may be, we will long remember exactly where we were when we saw planes crash into the World Trade Center. But remembering isn’t enough to settle our unease. We want to do something more than listen to politicians exploit the victims to their own gain, more than complacently hand over our protections against unreasonable search and seizure (the Constitution, Bush might argue, was written in a pre-Sept. 11 world). Short of growing terrorist-repellent in our gardens (perhaps terrorists, like vampires, are afraid of garlic?), our options are limited. So our nation improvises. Some pay tribute every anniversary, gathering and reading the names of victims. Some awkwardly throw around words like “tragedy” and “unite,” in hopes they don’t say the wrong thing and come off as insensitive or a terrorist-sympathizer. It appears that Livonia simply moved on.

Five years have passed, and we still feel the wounds of Sept. 11, 2001, some more acutely than others. On Monday, the nation remembered its loss. On Tuesday, it went back to work. But something still isn’t right. Like Porazzo, it doesn’t seem to be getting better and there’s little we can do about it. We are helpless, surrounded by leaders who stretch (or ignore) the Constitution to satisfy their agendas and only shrilly scream “Danger!” to distract us from our skepticism.

Our nation doesn’t have pieces of the World Trade Center in our lungs, but there’s something else lodged in us. We are told that if we stay vigilant, it will pass. Is it any wonder we feel helpless?

Beam can be reached at ebeam@umich.edu.

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