On Dec. 8, 1951, the day after the 10th anniversary of Pearl Harbor, the New York Times’ front page made a one-paragraph mention of commemorations the day before, when the paper’s page had not mentioned the anniversary. The Dec. 8 Washington Post’s front page noted no commemorations the previous day. On Dec. 7, the page had featured a familiar 10-year-old photograph of the burning battleships. It seems to have been published because a new process made possible printing it for the first time in color. At the bottom of the page, a six-paragraph story began: “Greater Washington today will mark the tenth anniversary of the Pearl Harbor attack by testing its air raid defenses.” The story explained that “the sirens are part of a ‘paper bombing’ of Washington” that would include “mock attacks by atom bombs and high explosives.”

The most interesting question is not how America in 2011 is unlike America in 2001 but how it is unlike what it was in 1951. The intensity of today’s focus on the 10th anniversary of Sept. 11 testifies to more than the multiplication of media ravenous for content, and to more than today’s unhistorical and self-dramatizing tendency to think that eruptions of evil are violations of a natural entitlement to happiness. It also represents the search for refuge from a decade defined by unsatisfactory responses to Sept. 11.

In 1951, the war that Pearl Harbor had propelled America into had been over for more than two years longer than it had raged. And it had been won. Besides, the Dec. 8 Post’s front page reported on negotiations to end a subsequent war, in Korea, then in its 18th month.

The 10th anniversary of Sept. 11 coincides with concerns about whether, after more than eight years of war, just 3,000 American troops can be left in Iraq without jeopardizing U.S. gains. Which, whatever they are, have nothing to do with the stated primary reason for the war — eliminating weapons of mass destruction. Ten years after Sept. 11 lit the fuse that led in 18 months to the invasion of Iraq, what may now count as success there may depend on Iraq finding its John Adams: When, after losing the bitterly contested 1800 election, he peacefully transferred power to Thomas Jefferson, America’s democracy was well-launched.

As the war in Afghanistan — the most important immediate consequence of 9/11 — enters its second decade, success there, too, is fragile. And it is defined with reference to a nation-building objective not articulated at the outset.

Pearl Harbor clearly began something — U.S. participation in a world war that was already raging — whereas Sept. 11 was the fifth significant attack by radical Islamists on American targets. It followed those on the USS Cole in 2000, the East African embassies in 1998 and the Khobar Towers in 1996, and the 1993 attempt to topple the World Trade Center with a truck bomb. So what Sept. 11 actually began was the U.S. reaction, as muscular as it was belated, to the challenge of terrorism.

The depleted armed forces that have been fighting these wars for a nation not conscripted into any notable inconvenience will eventually recuperate. For mostly oblivious civilians, the only recurring and most visible reminder of the post-Sept. 11 world is shoeless participation in the security theater at airports. It thus seems wildly incongruous that some Americans rushed to proclaim that 9/11 “changed everything.”

The dozen years between the fall of the Berlin Wall and that of the twin towers featured complacent, self-congratulatory speculation about “the end of history.” The end, that is, of a grand politics of clashes about fundamental questions of social organization. By the time 9/11 awakened the nation from such reveries, some Americans seemed to be suffering “1930s envy,” a longing for the vast drama of global conflict with a huge ideological enemy.

Ten years on from Sept. 11, national unity, usually a compensation for the rigors of war, has been a casualty of wars of dubious choices. Ten years after 1941, and in more recent decades, the nation, having lost 400,000 in the unavoidable war that Pearl Harbor announced, preferred to remember more inspiriting dates, such as D-Day.

Today, for reasons having little to do with 9/11 and policy responses to it, the nation is more demoralized than at any time since the late 1970s, when, as now, feelings of impotence, vulnerability and decline were pervasive. Of all the sadness surrounding this anniversary, the most aching is the palpable and futile hope that commemoration can somehow help heal self-inflicted wounds.