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U.S. must regain its optimism

This week we mark the tenth anniversary of the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. In the months that followed those horrific events it was common for Americans to say, 'everything has changed.' In one day we seemed to become a different country.

This anniversary provides an opportunity to consider how 9-11 really changed us.

In the wake of the attacks, Americans were unified in a way not seen in decades. The stars and stripes flew proudly at the homes of those not given to flag waving. Enlistment in the military soared. All sorts of charities saw a surge in volunteers and donors.

In the early days after 9-11 elected leaders pulled together. Military operations in Afghanistan were approved by the Congress on Sept. 14, 2001 with only one dissenter among the 519 members who voted.

Ten years later it's tempting to feel nostalgic about the unity that came out of 9-11. Americans today are sharply divided. Try to imagine today's Congress reaching near unanimity about anything. But it's not only our elected officials. Their disagreements reflect deep divisions among Americans, many of whom embrace rigid ideologies and decry any compromise.

Another effect of 9-11 was an outpouring of respect for the firefighters and police who perished responding to the emergency in the twin towers. This appreciation extended beyond them to other public servants. One of the early changes following the attacks was replacement of the private contractors previously handling airport screening with federal employees. Americans realized that lower cost for that key public service wasn't a good idea.

Ten years later the attitude toward public employees and the services they provide seems to have shifted. Some national politicians speak of government as though it's an affliction imposed by aliens from another planet. Wisconsin came to an impasse over the bargaining rights of public employees. State government in Minnesota shut down when leaders failed to agree on a budget.

While these effects of 9-11 appear to have been only temporary, another has been more enduring. The events of that day damaged our sense of confidence. The new millennium had arrived amidst great optimism about technology, the economy, and social progress. When iconic structures were destroyed by a small band of fanatics with box cutters, we sensed a vulnerability Americans have rarely felt. Since 9-11 we have not regained the momentum of the era that preceded it.

There are lessons to take from 9-11 and its aftermath. We should see the importance of standing together as we did in the days following the attacks. This does not mean we will agree on all major issues - a robust democracy has diverse viewpoints. But we should debate issues without attacking personalities.

We should respect public employees and the services they perform for us. This does not mean tolerating inefficiency. But we can appreciate those who serve us at the same time we make sure they are fairly compensated for work we need them to do.

Most important, we must regain the sense of optimism that pervaded our culture before 9-11. This is a great place. We must let our skills, our energy and our powers of innovation surmount the challenges that face us.

Greg Macpherson is a resident of Lake Oswego and former state representative for District 38.