HAWLEY, Pa. – In this one town, in this swing state, in this entire country, three weeks before a deeply divided citizenry elects a president, the pernicious residue of Sept. 11, 2001 (search), echoes in every corner of the national conversation.
For the first time in a generation, foreign policy and its impact at home are the big-ticket commodities of an American presidential campaign. Four years ago, it was still pretty much the economy, stupid. Now, to hear George W. Bush and John Kerry, it's a question of clear and present danger: Who do voters feel can protect them from sarin in the water supply, a dirty bomb in the Wal-Mart, Al Qaeda (search) sleeper cells on Main Street?
Seven times each weekday, a Shortline bus rumbles to a halt outside Fluff's Deli & Sandwich on Main Avenue and disgorges its payload — passengers from the metropolis with the tall buildings, three hours east.
They arrive looking for something, these visitors to the northeastern Pennsylvania hills — for the lunches and conversation at Fluff's, for the waters and fresh air of Lake Wallenpaupack, for the lost-in-time flavor of a borough where a dime still buys an hour's worth of parking.
They are here, many of them, not so much for what Hawley is as for what it isn't: New York City.
"People come into the store right off the bus, and they tell us things. We hear about the fear — about this bridge closing, and that road shutting down," says Bev Beck, whose emporium of joyous miscellany, the Trading Post, sells everything from the weekly newspaper to penny candy. "The idea of 9-11 is never far from people's minds."
The American psyche is scarred, and there's evidence the fear is real no matter where you live — stoked by the findings of the Sept. 11 commission (search), whose report has become the No. 1 nonfiction paperback on The New York Times bestseller list. In late August, an Associated Press-Ipsos poll found 40 percent of Americans surveyed were either a great deal or somewhat concerned that they or their families would fall victim to a terrorist attack. Of those, almost half said it affected to some extent how they lived their lives. Some 75 percent wondered on some level whether they could ever feel safe in America again.
But does the peril feel imminent everywhere? In Hawley, for instance? This town lost one resident to Usama bin Laden's 2001 attacks, and yet people are pulled in two directions: No one forgets, but they're coping and moving forward, too.
How does that translate to voters? In Pennsylvania, with one of the nation's highest populations of elderly people, which fear is greater — the chance of a terrorist attack in Erie or Lancaster or the prospect of not being able to pay both the rent and the prescription-drug bills? With pressing questions about employment and economics, is Islamic extremism a make-or-break issue?
And what about the fact that more than three years have passed — a period in which, though the U.S. military is still embroiled in post-invasion Iraq (search), many people have moved on?
"I don't see a lot of lasting fallout — sea change — from 9-11. A lot of us who follow politics very closely are surprised at how quickly people seem to have forgotten about it," says J. Michael Hogan, a Penn State University communications professor.
"Its effect has waned," he says. "Emotion is a very powerful motivator, but it's not a motivator with a lot of staying power."
But the candidates are banking on its potency. In the first presidential debate, on national security, both Kerry and Bush doled out vehemence by the pound to persuade voters he would protect the nation. "We just have a different set of convictions about how you make America safe," Kerry said.
That the issue was a pivotal one — possibly The Pivotal One — was simply assumed. But is that the case?
U.S. 6 winds across Pennsylvania's northern tier through some of its most intriguing little towns, Hawley among them. Here, Route 6 turns into Main Avenue, where cars stop at crosswalks for pedestrians. Some drivers wave.
In these hills, riotous with autumn foliage, the Bush campaign has deployed billboards everywhere. "Bush/Cheney 2004: A Nation Secure," reads one, outside town. Kerry is scarcely represented.
Memories of 9-11 echo in Hawley, in who is here now and who isn't.
Joseph Calandrillo isn't: At 49, several years after moving here with his family from New York, he perished in the World Trade Center. It is his name, next to the town's, that has linked the community with the attacks on national death rolls and memorials.
But in his absence, many newcomers have arrived because of Sept. 11's ripples, adding to the ranks of the borough's 1,300 people. Longtime residents say a spate of migration here, under way before the attacks, accelerated sharply after them because people wanted out of New York.
Hawley, a 2 1/2-hour drive across New Jersey from Manhattan, has become part of what could be called the outermost-ring suburbs of New York, attracting urbanites willing to sacrifice convenience for a sense of a different kind of place.
"There's been an influx of people, and I think they're happy with our little community," Hawley Mayor Ann Morgan says.
If you want homeland security, this is the place: In 2002, the most recent year for which figures are available, Hawley reported no murders, rapes, robberies, assaults, burglaries or even car thefts.
The area's convenience stores, though, have different stories to tell: Alongside local newspapers, some sell the New York Daily News, a metropolitan paper that trumpets terrorism and crime news in enormous block letters with provocative photos on its tabloid front page.
"The terrorists have done their job better than they ever dreamt they would do. Now we all have a certain amount of fear," Beck says. "You think twice about going into the city for New Year's Eve, a ball game, that stuff."
Yet on a recent day, a sampling of residents in Hawley — Republicans and Democrats alike — suggested that national security in general and the attacks or the Iraq war in particular wouldn't necessarily be deciding factors at the polls.
More people cited the economy and its vagaries — from the affordability of prescription drugs to concern about jobs being outsourced to malpractice-skittish doctors leaving the area — as equivalent to or more important than security concerns in selecting a candidate.
"There's so many retirees here. People are thinking of that stuff they deal with every day," says Phil Hunt, owner of J. Vance Hunt and Son printing. Two benches flank the front door of his shop — one that says "Republican" and another that says "Democrat."
That doesn't mean people aren't concerned about terrorism; several expressed, however, that Bush and Kerry were not all that different when it came to protecting the country.
"Everybody is waiting for the next shoe to drop someplace. That kind of attack is certainly not over," says Dick Teeter, who owns a furniture store and an adjacent funeral home. "But is 9-11 and security the No. 1 issue? No."
In Hawley, just about everyone is only one or two degrees of separation from 9-11. Lisa Aspinall, who works at an antique shop just off Main Avenue, has a husband who lost two uncles — both New York City firefighters — when the towers fell.
She is upset with Bush's handling of the post-Sept. 11 world — she says he waited too long to invade Afghanistan — but she wonders if Kerry could do better. Still, "I want to see change," she says. "They spend all this money fighting overseas and then can't find the money to help our own country."
Still, like security-conscious Americans everywhere, people here watch globally and worry locally. Hawley residents still talk about how the nearest bridge across the Delaware River to New Jersey closed after the attacks, and security was increased along the nearby dam at Wallenpaupack for a while.
A few miles from Hawley, a telecommunications station that guides private-sector satellites was built in the 1970s and immediately became the focus of fears it could be targeted by Soviet missiles. "Now it's a different enemy," says Julie Teeter-Seiler, the funeral director's daughter.
Up the road at the Trading Post, Bev Beck wrestles a bit with her feelings. She says people are more watchful now when they observe visitors arriving from buses outside Fluff's.
"Do you know something? I never thought I was a prejudiced person," she says. "But if you see someone get off that bus who is — what do I want to say — of Pakistan, Iranian color ... You almost wonder if they're one of them. And I don't like feeling like that — that anybody could be one of them."
One cold day not long ago, a man was waiting for the bus, and he and Beck struck up a conversation. It emerged that he was Palestinian.
"He said, 'You know, I came over here to make money to help my family. My kids and my wife still live in Palestine'," Beck recalls. "I said, 'Why don't you bring them over here so you're all together?' He said, 'Oh — I wouldn't put my family over here.'"
"I wanted to say, 'But people are blowing themselves up where you're from!' But he thought we were very dangerous," she says, laughing softly. "Now doesn't that just make you stop and think?"