Ten years on, the rubble from the terrorist onslaught has been removed - replaced, as such things always seems to be, by opportunistic tourist stalls as well as genuine tributes.
The smoke from smoldering ruins of great American landmarks has lifted - but little, if anything, is clear.
No one event has challenged or changed our very civilization like the hate-fueled hijackings of Sept. 11, 2001, and some effects are still being felt while others are only now being discovered.
Before 9/11, we could meet loved ones at the airport gate as they raced down the boarding ramp and into our arms. The terrorists took that away.
After 9/11, we still have our cherished freedom of movement, but it has been tarnished by knee-jerk attempts to impose a sense of security on a weary population. The very young and the very old are humiliated by intense screenings at the hands of an agency that has yet to prove its worth, while those who would actually harm our country can get as far as boarding an airplane with explosives tucked into their shoes and underwear.
Before 9/11, it would be unthinkable that torture abroad and a widespread invasion of privacy at home would be official policy of the United States government.
After 9/11, we are forced to concede that our present existence may rely on those very decisions - but we'll never really know for sure.
Before 9/11, wars were fought for reasons both noble and crude.
After 9/11, that hasn't changed, but the reaction to 9/11 has added a monstrously complex shadow government and secret businesses that flourish even as the rest of us labor in the light and wallow in the aftermath of recession - with another looming. Politicians insist that it's not the role of government to create jobs, but untold thousands are profiting from a culture of private warfare.
The terrorists are the ones who put us in this position, but our leaders have much to answer for.
Before 9/11, we could question our leaders about these things and demand the answers they didn't want to give us.
After 9/11, the terrorists have not taken this away - the rise of the vocal and influential tea party movement is evidence of that - but they have given the people we put into power new layers of excuses to hide behind vague notions of national security, eluding the accountability they owe us.
Before 9/11, we didn't really know our Muslim neighbors, nor the very different Sikh community that suffered the loss of one of its own in misguided retribution when Mesa gas station owner Balbir Singh Sodhi was gunned down simply because he wore a turban.
After 9/11, Singh Sodhi's survivors still live and work in the community where he died, fighting the ignorance that killed him. And the Valley's peaceful Muslim population is more visible and engaged than ever - a vibrant example of America's rich diversity and an unbowed spirit we need to see more often.
Before 9/11, the United States of America was the greatest country in the world - militarily, economically and culturally.
After 9/11, the one thing that's clear is those promises remain - and that we must fight if we want to keep them.