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USA

An America Commensurate to the Capacity for Wonder

Another perfect day, not a cloud in the September sky, as if to elide time and compress 18 years into a moment.

The prow of Manhattan extends below me. The Statue of Liberty and the Verrazzano-Narrows Bridge lure my gaze over land and water to the horizon. This is what they saw before the planes hit, as powerful an image of American possibility as exists — the gateway to a new land, a place, to quote Fitzgerald, where “man must have held his breath” at the sight of a place “commensurate to his capacity for wonder.”

At this anniversary of 9/11, I found myself on the 50th floor of One World Trade Center, in the 1776-foot Freedom Tower, which rises at the site where the Twin Towers stood. “Leaping from here,” says Lu Maheda, the acting deputy assistant secretary of media operations for the Department of Homeland Security. “Think about that.”

Think about that, the choice of people caught, on a clear New York morning, in the early promise of the 21st century, between inferno and vortex. Try as you might, you cannot quite place yourself in that death trap. It is beyond our imaginations, as the attack itself was.

I look down. The sunlight glints on the Memorial Pools. The eddying shapes of people gathered in grief are like the shadows of clouds on a plain. I recall with a shudder Richard Drew’s photograph of the “Falling Man” and other images of people who jumped. But the vertigo I feel is not from this or the void beneath me.

It stems from the enormity of what that moment wrought — America’s forever wars, the creeping encroachment of fear, the fracture between those who fought and those who shopped, the loss of life and of treasure, the disorientation of a nation no longer a sanctuary, the collapse of middle ground, the frustration and anger and dislocation that would, in time, produce a president who rages, in his evident smallness, about the restoration of American greatness.

“And when a man feels small, he’s gonna do things to make himself feel big,” Dill observes in Aaron Sorkin’s adaptation of “To Kill a Mockingbird.”

Another perfect day, not a cloud in the sky, it was my youngest child’s fourth birthday, Sept. 11, 2001. Beside me on perhaps the last subway that ran from Clark Street, in Brooklyn, to Times Square was a woman in tears. She believed her brother was in the towers.

I arrived at my desk — a new desk, in that I had been named acting foreign editor the previous day — in time to see the South Tower collapse. Late that night, Times Square was empty, as if New York’s heart had stopped beating. I worked until I broke down a couple of days later. The trigger was an ultrasound image tacked to a wall with the words: “Looking for the father of this child.” I sobbed. Then worked again.

Journalists, so reviled, are human, subsuming emotion, or harnessing it, in the quest for lucidity. “It is generally overlooked,” Max Weber wrote, “that a journalist’s actual responsibility is far greater than the scholar’s.” Certainly, this actual responsibility, even before the unthinkable, is overlooked in this White House.

My life changed in small ways and large, as did all Americans’. The oxygen was sucked out of a new century’s élan. Something crimped took its place. Kevin McAleenan, the acting secretary of Homeland Security, tells me he was practicing law in California when the attack happened. That day he decided he wanted to go into public service. He sent an application to the F.B.I. and soon found his way to a job at what was then the United States Customs Service. “This is why I was called to serve,” he says.

McAleenan is a candid, no-nonsense, energetic guy who is trying, I believe, to bring some order at the southern border consistent with America’s spirit as a nation of immigrants and its foundation as a nation of laws. Least-bad solutions are out of favor in a country of howling politicized factions, but there is no other kind for the mess at the border. The antidote to the brutality and xenophobia that have stained America’s conscience is not throwing America’s doors wide open.

In the five months since his appointment, McAleenan has traveled several times to Central America, where the root of the problem lies. Apprehensions at the southwest border have fallen steeply since May. Children are no longer being ripped from their parents. McAleenan is a welcome restraint on the worst anti-immigrant instincts of the Trump Administration.

Of course, he’s still “acting.” Every Homeland Security business card I received from the secretary’s aides had the word “acting” on it. The president likes to instill fear, change course. Acting is Trump’s thing.

There is the man, and then there is the country. Myriad people still come to the United States, seeking work, dignity, possibility, education and the protection of the law. Something endures that is commensurate to their “capacity for wonder.” To underestimate that America, even if the country is unhealed, would be a mistake.

The Times is committed to publishing a diversity of letters to the editor. We’d like to hear what you think about this or any of our articles. Here are some tips. And here’s our email: letters@nytimes.com.

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