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WE'LL NEVER FORGET - BUT WHAT, EXACTLY?

You know where you were when you learned of 9/11. Like the Kennedy assassination, the explosion of the space shuttle Challenger or the attack on Pearl Harbor, it was one of those searing moments in which everything changed in an instant. And after which, it seemed, nothing would ever be quite the same.

Yet, eight years on, how different is the world from the one we woke up to on Tuesday, Sept. 11, 2001, before the first hijacked airliner hit one of the twin towers?

As a nation, of course, we are escalating our military presence in Afghanistan, whose Taliban gave succor and safe harbor to al-Qaida and its hijackers, even as we are winding down our operations in Iraq.

As individuals, we have reminders of 9/11 every time we pass through tighter security at the airport. As citizens, we owe a debt to those who served and the thousands who died for our country. And as taxpayers, we will be paying the price of the wars for years to come.

But did 9/11 fundamentally reweave the fabric of America? Did it, in a hopeful way, enable the "better angels of our nature" as Abraham Lincoln once phrased it, to bring out what is best and quintessentially, admirably, American?

World War II most certainly did, but not at first. It is easy to forget that the war started 70 years ago last week, not with Pearl Harbor, but with Hitler's invasion of Poland. The United States did not enter for more than two years. It stood on the sidelines as France fell, when Britain nearly collapsed, and after German tanks were rolling through the outskirts of Moscow.

The Japanese attack dragged a reluctant America into war, but once in the fight, it joined with full fury and with its entire industrial might. Nearly every family was affected, as millions upon millions were called up to serve. The America that emerged victorious was a fundamentally different place, secure as the undisputed leader of the Free World.

Now, eight years after 9/11, where are we? Kids who were entering high school as freshmen then are out of college now and looking for adult jobs. The first iPod came out in the month after 9/11. More than 170 million of them have been sold since.

Eight years is a long time. Eight years after Pearl Harbor, not only had World War II been over for more than four years, the Berlin Airlift had already come and gone, the Cold War was heating up, and the Korean War was just around the corner. The month after 9/11, American forces went into Afghanistan. They are still there and are trying to figure out what success would look like.

Al-Qaida has failed to strike on U.S. soil since, but regular citizens can only guess at whether that is because security measures have worked or if there are other reasons. There are a few certainties. Reinforced doors, closed cockpits and passengers armed with the knowledge of that day will keep an airliner from being hijacked and used as a suicide bomb again.

Before 9/11, it would have been hard to imagine that Americans would ever debate whether torture - call it what you will, but the Geneva Convention and the United Nations are both pretty clear on it - is ever acceptable. Those who believe in American exceptionalism - that we are a people, a nation, set apart - must realize that we will be judged by our actions, not our words. And that what we do unto others will be done unto us.

A global poll, based on 2008 data, showed that more than half of Americans oppose torture in all instances, a far smaller percentage than other Western democracies such as Britain, France and Spain - even smaller than China, where two-thirds rejected torture. But a majority nonetheless.

A poll from this summer shows a rise in American repulsion at torture, with six in 10 now opposing it in all cases, no matter what, though those numbers preceded the Washington Post story on the terrorist Khalid Sheik Mohammed published in Perspective today.

After World War II, after Kennedy's assassination, the Challenger disaster and, indeed, after 9/11, the world turned to us in empathy and hope. If we have changed as a people because of 9/11, it is not because we take off our shoes at the airport. If we are better, it is because we have rekindled a shared sense of what it means to be an American, to try to honor the high ideals of the world's leading democracy. And a majority don't include torture in that definition.

Just as the horrific bloodbath of the Civil War was nearing its redemptive end, Lincoln delivered his Second Inaugural, arguably the best speech in American political history. He spoke of a war that was initially fought to save the union, but which finished as an ennobled battle to end slavery. He hinted that a new country, worthy of its highest founding ideals, must rise up from the ashes and detritus of a devastating war.

As we close in on eight years after 9/11, it's worth remembering the high notions that Lincoln set forth in this address, a mere month before he would be killed, martyred for his unswerving beliefs. These words, delivered at the death rattle of the gravest existential threat the nation ever faced, mean as much now as then.

"With malice toward none, with charity for all, with firmness in the right as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in, to bind up the nation's wounds, to care for him who shall have borne the battle and for his widow and his orphan, to do all which may achieve and cherish a just and lasting peace among ourselves and with all nations."

Those are ideals worth living by and dying for. That is the America we should strive to build today, eight years after the worst terrorist attack on U.S. soil. We all know exactly where we were eight years ago when we heard the news. Do we know where we are today? We should, because where we stand is up to us.

Jim Verhulst is the Perspective editor of the St. Petersburg Times. He can be reached at jverhulst@sptimes.com.

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