By DAVID USBORNE in NEW YORK
It is two years this week since the terror attacks on the Twin Towers and the Pentagon.
A repeat of those awful incidents has so far not materialised and President George W. Bush is crowing that both the Taleban in Afghanistan and Saddam Hussein in Iraq have been removed from power.
Have Americans regained their old optimism, therefore? Hardly.
That is the conclusion of a survey just released by Euro RSCG Worldwide, an international advertising group. The survey and a second poll published by the New York Times depict a country that remains unsure of its own future, jittery about the terrorists striking again and worried at the same time about its economy.
"It is not just that the anxiety remains; perhaps it is even greater now," said Marian Salzman, global chief strategist for RSCG and a respected futurologist.
"In some ways, Americans are waiting for the other shoe to drop."
Her findings are based on a pair of surveys, one conducted six months after the September 11 atrocities and the second completed last month.
Together, the reports provide a picture of a nation that has hardly moved on since the aftermath of the original attacks. The shock, in other words, has barely receded.
Very little, it seems, is what it used to be before September 11. Attitudes towards foreign countries have changed fundamentally. The latest report shows a hardening of negative feelings towards France and, to a slightly less extent, Saudi Arabia.
Yet, Americans seem to be engaged in a full-blown love affair with the British. Never mind that anti-Americanism is seen to run far higher in the UK than in France.
And while feelings of patriotism towards their own country seem to be stronger than ever in the United States, there is a waning sense of pride in the nation and its standing. The latest survey shows a decrease in positive attitudes among Americans about their country compared to just after September 11. On the other hand, distrust towards all Muslim nations seems to have moderated.
Salzman suggests, somewhat cynically, that it has simply taken longer for the events of that terrible day to sink into the American psyche than might have been expected.
In a related observation, she argues that most Americans are "terribly naive", thus ensuring that the pace of understanding of what occurred has been surprisingly slow.
"We are cowboys, like our President, and our first reaction was go get the evil ones. Now, two years later, we are starting to ask, what caused it, how did it happen, how come we didn't know in advance.
"It has taken us two years to get serious about what all this means. That is a fundamental shift."
Her conclusion that Americans are still waiting for the next terrorist outrage was borne out by the New York Times survey released yesterday showing that two-thirds of New Yorkers, at least, are more concerned about another attack than they were on the first anniversary of the atrocities.
That report suggested that while residents of New York might be talking and thinking less about that dark day than they were this time last year, they remain wary of what might happen next. Nearly one-third of those questioned said their lives had not returned to normal. Meanwhile, 60 per cent said that the attacks would have an enduring impact on the life of the city.
Flora Muca, a Brooklyn resident who does the bookkeeping for her family plumbing business, said she basically functions fine, but the fear won't lift. "Honestly, I think it's going to happen again," she told the New York Times. "My idea is they wait until it slows down and everyone falls asleep again."
Her 14-year-old daughter has just started taking the subway alone to school, and that alarms her mother.
"Every time I pass a bridge, I still panic," she said. "A tunnel? That's worse. Get me out of there."
Piled on top of all the security worries are the economic anxieties.
"At the end of the day it is the economic uncertainties that are most unsettling," Salzman said. "Americans are asking, will my kids be employable, will I be able to live my life as well as I did five years ago?"
The report highlights enduring distrust of corporate America in the wake of the Enron, Tyco and WorldCom scandals.
"A core part of American mythology," it notes, "has always been that anything is possible ... But in the shadow of 9/11 and the corporate fraud scandals, people are realising that 'anything is possible' doesn't just mean good things. Any bad thing is possible, too."
The RSCG survey shows 55 per cent of the sample admire Britain more than they did before September 11. By contrast, 73 per cent said they admired France less, and 57 per cent expressed a diminished view of Saudi Arabia.
The sample covered 1009 Americans, half men and half women, with a median age of 43.
The report is not all good news for the White House. Asked if they agree with the statement, "I support Bush's decision to attack Iraq as an 'axis of evil' nation", almost a quarter of the respondents disagreed.
Meanwhile, there was a clear softening of support for the assertion, "I support the decision of US President George W. Bush to route out terrorists throughout the 'axis of evil"', compared to immediately after the attacks. Moreover, one-third of those questioned supported the notion that the US is using the events of September 11 "to do whatever it wants around the world".
The New York Times concluded that two years after the terror attacks, there remains little confidence in the security measures meant to protect the city's infrastructure.
Most New Yorkers feel the city is unprepared for a biological or chemical attack that might contaminate the air or the water. They feel the city is as vulnerable as ever.
The lag in getting to grips with the implications of September 11 also has to do with the ignorance of Americans about world affairs, Salzman concludes.
"Your average American doesn't know that al Qaeda and Saddam Hussein are not the same. There is mass confusion. For us, there are just a hell of a lot of evil-doers out there."
There is evidence in the survey at least that Americans are watching, reading and listening to more news in the media. Much of it, however, may be partisan talking-head material, rather than anything objectively informative.
What is it that most scares Americans when it comes to the threat of terror? The clear answer, according to the RSCG survey, is weapons of mass destruction.
This may explain why the White House was so emphatic about the risk of such weapons in justifying the war on Iraq.
Asked to rate a range of perceived threats to US security, 84 per cent of those questioned cited weapons of mass destruction. Next came the list of so-called "rogue nations", such as North Korea and Iran.
"The American way was always to save and plan and look into the future," Salzman said.
"Now they are having to live much more for the moment. It is hard for people, because they don't really know how to do that.
"It is a very manic time in the US."
September 11 toll:
At the World Trade Centre : 2645 died on the ground; 87 passengers and crew members died on board American Airlines Flight 11; 60 passengers and crew members died on board United Airlines Flight 175. Ten hijackers (five on each plane) also died.
At the Pentagon: 125 died in the building; 59 passengers and crew members died on board American Airlines Flight 77. Five hijackers also died on board the plane.
In Shanksville, Pennsylvania: 40 passengers and crew members died on board United Flight 93. Four hijackers also died on board the plane.
Herald Feature: The Sept 11 attacks
By DAVID USBORNE in NEW YORK