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After 9/11, a new normal

07/11/2011 -   TSA Officer Stephen Therrien, 41, pets "Zadie", a two year-old Labrado. The pair searched for explosive inside Swissport Cargo Services at Miami International Airport in Miami, Florida on Monday, July 11, 2011.
07/11/2011 - TSA Officer Stephen Therrien, 41, pets "Zadie", a two year-old Labrado. The pair searched for explosive inside Swissport Cargo Services at Miami International Airport in Miami, Florida on Monday, July 11, 2011. MIAMI HERALD STAFF

K-9 inspector Stephen Therrien and his partner Zadie, a black lab, spend their days sniffing for bombs bound for passenger planes. So when he took his wife to the U2 concert this summer, it was with a certain satisfaction that he watched security workers dig through her handbag.

Ten years after 9/11, preparations have taught us that big gatherings such as stadium events could be terror targets. But once inside, it was all about the concert.

"It was awesome," said the 41-year-old father of two. "I don't believe that you can make decisions in fear. You've got to live your life."

If there is a lingering legacy of Sept. 11, 2001, this is it:

Americans fear terrorist attacks, but they've come to live with it. They let workers dig through bags at Disney. They take off shoes, submit to scans and frisks and walk through metal detectors.

They then set fear aside. And move on.

Disaster trauma expert Andrea Allen likens it to the way Floridians prepare for hurricanes 19 years after Andrew's wallop. Studies have found most people simply don't bother to stock up on emergency supplies. They expect government to take care of it.

"We're afraid of terrorism," Allen said, "but we habituate it. I don't think we're made to live in a state of fear."

Air travel is a case-in-point. An entire generation of Americans has grown up shuffling in socks at the airport, pulling an IPod from a pocket and popping it into a plastic tray. It's what Allen calls "the new normal."

"Going to the airport for most kids is just a strange habit," says Allen, a behavioral scientist at Barry University.

Kids today, especially those growing up in a post-9/11 world, don't fear terrorism any more than rape, drive-by shootings and getting a girl pregnant, she says. "It is one of their fears, but not the fear."

In fact, a decade later, the experience may inspire complex feelings -- both positive as well as scary ones. There is memory of that dark day mixed with pride in our soldiers and firefighters, a sense of nationalism and resilience.

"I don't think 9/11 nowadays is just about fear, or just about safety," says Allen. "It is about our identifications as Americans now. Something bad happened. But we survived and came through."

Yet, for many Muslim-Americans, it has meant a decade of suspicion -- if not outright fear of being singled out.

"I know people are looking at me. I know people are thinking things," says Karen Shah, 51, a Davie mom who has donned a headscarf since making a pilgrimage to Mecca two years ago.

Her Trinidad-born husband, a Muslim-American banker, flies business class -- and frequently finds a U.S. Air Marshall sitting beside him. How does he know? When the marshal's a man, he never takes off his jacket. When it's a woman, she keeps her purse on her lap. "Nobody does that in business class," he said.

"I'm not afraid to fly," said Wayne Shah, 46, who has lived in Florida for 35 years. "Trust me, if someone is going to do something weird on a flight, I'll jump on them because I have a wife and kids to go home to.

"What scares me is the level of intolerance -- and that people do crazy things."

His wife says it hurts to be feared just because she wears the symbol of her conversion to Islam. She was born in Indiana and straddles both cultures. "But you know I understand that. Terrible things have happened,'' she said. "But it has hurt Muslims, too."

On a recent Friday during the holy month of Ramadan, South Floridians in traditional Muslim garb streamed into the Darul Uloom mosque in Pembroke Pines. Women with their hair covered as a sign of modesty, kids in tow. Men in robes.

A brawny policeman in shorts had parked his squad car outside the storefront mosque of mostly West Indian, South Asian and African-American Muslims. Sometimes, he wandered in -- a Friday security ritual meant to reassure both the public and worshipers that they have nothing to fear.

Ten years on, social norms haven't yet gelled on how to manage our fears. Pockets of society still are loath to discuss terror as a threat, or reality. Others have made it a punch line.

Prime time TV lampoons airport security as well as Americans' crude profiling in reruns of Harold and Kumar Escape from Guantanamo Bay.

Disney in Orlando reluctantly acknowledged that it checks bags at park entrances because of the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks. U.S. intelligence assessments have warned that public gathering spots are potential targets for al Qaeda dirty bombs or other fiendish plots.

The theme park thinks its imprudent to discuss what it's doing to protect the place "so as to not compromise these efforts," says media relations manager Zoraya Suarez. "Our guiding principle is to provide a positive experience and a safe and secure environment for all our guests."

Therrien, the K-9 inspector with the federal Transportation Security Administration, describes himself as a safety-conscious seatbelt-wearing guy. He's not allowed to say whether he has ever found a real bomb -- only that he aspires to close out his security career having never once found one.

He knows it's a deadly serious subject. But he injects a bit of levity as he says his post 9/11 career suits him.

"You have a partner that actually licks you," he says.

The Department of Homeland Security spent years trying to manage fear with color-coded alerts. In January, it abandoned the system that had provided fodder for late-night TV comedy because it lacked "credibility and clarity."

In other words, the system "taught Americans to be scared, not prepared," said Democratic Rep. Bennie Thompson, former chair of the House Homeland Security Committee.

At Miami International Airport, 35,000 workers have gone through a class that instills awareness by stoking fear.

Four times a week, twice in English and twice in Spanish, a Miami-Dade police officer screens a series of bus and suicide bombings -- real and staged -- with a sobering message: If the firebomb doesn't get you, the shock wave could turn your internal organs "into gelatin-like mush."

It's graphic, grisly and on a recent Monday unfamiliar to most of the 30 new airport employees in the audience. Five have prior U.S. military service. They range from flight attendants and freight handlers to construction workers and concessionaires.

"We're not talking about being paranoid. We're talking about changing the way you think," advised Miami-Dade officer Gene Lopez, the instructor on this day in the program that has become a model for the nation.

As Security Director Lauren Stover puts it, the airport implemented the "behavior pattern training program" in tandem with the county cops after the Sept. 11 attacks "to identify those who want to do us harm."

In some ways, it's a bit reminiscent of the old Cold War-era civil defense "duck and cover" training that taught generations of school kids how to prepare for a nuclear attack.

But this is New Millennium training.

So ordinary airport workers are drafted to scout their surroundings and report unusual behavior -- such as someone wearing a heavy jacket in tropical Miami, sweating, fidgeting or whispering to himself what may be a suicide bomber's prayers. "They're willing to sacrifice their lives and the lives of their children," Lopez advises.

At one point, the screen shows the corpse of a female suicide bombing victim, her leg shredded by shrapnel.

"Folks, this is not to scare you," says Lopez, doing just that. "If an attack happens at this airport, what are the chances of you being here? We really need to work together and take care of each other."

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