But it did - with the benefit of three decades of hindsight - mark a tipping point in the national mood, when the Americans began once again to believe that great things were possible after a decade-long beatdown.
And maybe that's why so many people were wondering something similar in those electric midnight moments when President Obama announced that 9/11 mass murderer Osama bin Laden had finally been killed, in Pakistan:
Is America back?
Or at least finally headed again in the right direction - 3,519 long days after the terrorist attacks that so rattled the nation?
There are so many questions about what comes next after the killing of bin Laden - regarding Pakistan, Afghanistan, the Middle East, al Qaeda and the 2012 election here at home - but arguably none looms larger than this:
What's next for the American psyche?
It was just last month that record numbers of Americans - at many as 70 percent, in one survey - told pollsters they believed that the nation was on "the wrong track." Who could blame them - given persistent high unemployment, $4-a-gallon gas and the political bickering that comes with it?
The last time U.S. citizens felt so down for so long was the end of the tumultuous 1970s. Maybe that's why people thought again of the unifying joy over the 1980 hockey miracle, especially as they watched the big crowds that spontaneously erupted at the White House and New York's Ground Zero on Sunday night, chanting "U-S-A!" and singing "God Bless America."
"This could be a turnaround moment - the crowds outside the White House were reminiscent of the 'U-S-A! U-S-A!' shouters after the 'Miracle on Ice,' " said Gil Troy, history professor at McGill University, in Montreal, and author of Morning in America: How Ronald Reagan Created the 1980s.
Still, Troy said, it took the arrival of Reagan's upbeat style - sunny optimism, the pundits all called it - to hammer home the right-track momentum of the hockey upset and the hostage release. With Obama in 2011, he added, the president will have to continue to build upon these good feelings from the end of the bin Laden saga.
"It shows American competence - and that leads to confidence," agreed G. Terry Madonna, a political scientist and pollster from Franklin & Marshall College in Lancaster, noting the speedy and clinical precision with which the raid was carried out, with no U.S. or civilian casualties.
But Madonna agreed that neither Obama nor the nation can hang everything on what happened Sunday in Abbottabad; for example, unlike winning a hockey game, killing a terrorist leader creates the risk of deadly reprisals against America or its allies.
What's next for Obama and the 2012 election?
Bin Laden's body had barely slid into the Indian Ocean before the political-punditry crowd began speculating on how this would affect Obama's 2012 re-election campaign, and the question seemed to be not whether it would help the incumbent but rather by how much.
After all, despite the disadvantages of high joblessness and oil prices and that 70 percent "wrong track" number, experts already were predicting that the Democratic chief executive would be hard to beat with an expected $1 billion war chest and a surprisingly tepid GOP field - and that was before the popular killing of the 9/11 architect.
No new polls were available last night, but history all but guarantees that the president's approval rating - mired in the mid-to-upper 40 percent range - will spike upward; then-President George W. Bush saw an 8 percent rise when Saddam Hussein was captured in December 2003.
But Madonna and other experts say that Obama shouldn't begin work on his second inaugural address yet. "He's got to be very careful about Libya and oil," the Franklin & Marshall professor said, pointing to trouble spots that could cause the presidential feel-good moment to fade.
What's next for Pakistan?
Are you wondering how the world's most-wanted terrorist could build a $1 million walled compound in the center of a highly populated city, 35 miles from the Pakistani capital of Islamabad, in a city larded with both active-duty and retired military - without the nation's intelligence agents or higher-ups knowing about it?
Join the club.
"I think that the Pakistani army and intelligence have a lot of questions to answer, given the location, the length of time and the apparent fact that this facility was built for bin Laden, and its closeness to the central location to the Pakistani army," Michigan Sen. Carl Levin told reporters yesterday.
But despite the growing criticism of the nuclear-armed South Asian nation, it's not clear whether America - a longtime ally that has funneled billions in aid dollars to Pakistan - can shift policy without creating new problems.
Still, local foreign-policy expertEdward Turzanski, of La Salle University, insists that a new hard line toward Pakistan has to be on the table. "It does lay bare the fact that the [Pakistani intelligence agency] ISI and the military has been problematic for many years," he said.
What's next for Afghanistan?
Public support for the U.S. military effort in Afghanistan was high early on, when the goal was seen as the hunt for bin Laden and other al Qaeda terrorists based there at the time of the 2001 attacks - but that faded as the mission crept into protecting the corrupt Karzai regime.
With bin Laden dead, many leading pols - both liberals and conservatives - are already aggressively questioning why about 100,000 U.S. troops are still there a decade later. That will increase pressure on the White House to speed its troop withdrawal, now slated to take three years.
One of the most conservative members of the House, Jason Chaffetz, of Utah, told the Huffington Post that bin Laden's killing showed the value of intelligence over large-scale warfare. "For me, that means you don't necessarily need 100,000 people on the ground in Afghanistan," he said.
Especially when it turned out that bin Laden was in Pakistan.
What's next for al Qaeda?
That's a difficult question, because the Islamic-fundamentalist terrorist movement seemed to be severely splintered even before bin Laden's death. Most experts think that the longtime No. 2 of the bin Laden-founded main al Qaeda wing - Egyptian-born doctor Ayman al-Zawahiri - is nominally in charge, but experts doubt that he'll have the same level of appeal to Muslim extremists as bin Laden.
Ian Lustick, University of Pennsylvania political scientist and Middle East expert, said that the al Qaeda "franchises" - offshoots that have sprung up in poor Muslim nations such as Yemen or Somalia - may prove more important to watch.
But Lustick also said he hopes that bin Laden's killing may speed America in a direction it seemed already to be heading: fighting terrorism through law enforcement rather than warfare. "The fact that the arch mastermind of 9/11 is no longer among the living will help move the country toward that," he predicted.
What's next for social media?
Just as many experts see Sept. 11, 2001, as the date when the Internet surpassed traditional media as a breaking-news source, May 1, 2011, may be remembered as the day when social media - especially the bursts-of-140-characters site Twitter - established information dominance.
Some Twitter users learned 45 minutes before the rest of the world Sunday night that Obama was giving a surprise speech, and then that bin Laden had been killed. In a poll on the technology news site Mashable, 40 percent said that Twitter was their main source of info on the story.
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