Remembering the Sept 11 attacks 22 years later

When I began writing this morning, I didn’t plan to write about today being 9/11. Then as the morning progressed, the spirit began to move me. It didn’t feel right to not write something about the 22nd anniversary of that horrible day.

A generation of young adults has a hazy understanding of Sept. 11, 2001. In the service of national memory, this my attempt to set down what happened on that day and in its aftermath.   

The moment shocked the nation. Two planes, hijacked by Islamic jihadists vowing death to all Americans, plowed into both towers at the World Trade Center in New York. Another plane was flown into the Pentagon in Washington, DC. A fourth plane, presumably headed for the White House or the U.S. Capitol, was heroically diverted by passengers and ended up crashing in an empty field in Pennsylvania. After reports of the first plane hitting the North Tower, millions watched the second plane hit the South Tower on live television.

It was a terrifying, startling, and humbling event for the country. The 9/11 attacks were the deadliest on American soil since the shock attack at Pearl Harbor 60 years before, and the sense of outrage was reminiscent of that moment. The attacks in New York occurred in the country’s busiest city on a busy workday. And the staggered nature of the attacks meant that news footage captured almost everything as it happened, ensuring that millions of Americans saw the events precisely as they unfolded.

There are some things I’ll never forget. Besides the unthinkable terror attacks, the bravery of those who were first responders that day is unforgettable. Many understood they were running toward their deaths, yet they acted. 

A band of fanatical terrorists dealt this, the nation’s largest city, a stiff punch to the gut, murdering almost 3,000 people almost instantly. The World Trade Center attack throttled our economy. It rattled our sense of safety. It bruised our country’s soul.

The United States was forced to reckon with the sudden realization that people crazed by Islamic radicalism, by a cold and backward vision for the planet, marked this republic for death because of our power and our policies and most of all because of what we represent.

From throughout the 50 states, samaritans descended on the place, now called Ground Zero, where physical wreckage and human remains commingled.

On that smoldering pile, in that solemn resting place, those firefighters, police officers, iron workers and volunteers labored tirelessly, rescuing who they could, recovering what could be recovered.

They walked into the rubble to help and emerged as heroes. They also emerged with afflictions that would plague their lives. The total killed slowly by these ailments has now eclipsed the total violently ended on that day of carnage.

In the wake of the mass murders, the country looked as if for the first time at shoring up every vulnerability to stop radical jihadists from harming us again. We did this quickly and imperfectly on our airplanes and in our airports, our police departments, our intelligence agencies.

It was only yesterday. It was so long ago.

Twenty-two years later, the remains of victims are still being recovered. The remains of a man and a woman have been identified, though their identities have not been announced, at the request of the families.

One unsung hero is New York City Chief Medical Examiner Jason Graham. He said he has made a “solemn pledge” to return victims to their loved ones and his work continues. Nearly 3,000 lives were lost in Lower Manhattan. His office uses DNA sequencing techniques to test body fragments recovered in the rubble. So far, 1,649 victims have been identified. About 40% of the victims have not been identified. The last positive identifications were two years ago, in 2021. Before that it was in 2019. Graham calls it “the largest and most complex forensic investigation in the history of our country.”

Mayor Adams released a statement.

“As we prepare to mark the anniversary of September 11, our thoughts turn to those we lost on that terrible morning and their families, who continue to live every day with the pain of missing loved ones,” New York City Mayor Eric Adams said in a press release.

“We hope these new identifications can bring some measure of comfort to the families of these victims, and the ongoing efforts by the Office of Chief Medical Examiner attest to the city’s unwavering commitment to reunite all the World Trade Center victims with their loved ones,” he said.

One memory that endures is how we came together as a country in our grief and disbelief of the events of that day. The New York Times did a stellar job with the obits of the victims. Back then, real newspapers were still delivered to our homes and I read that paper each day for that reason. Regular Americans are living fascinating everyday lives and those obits were proof of that.

Would our country come together again as it did then? I like to think so but the truth is, I’m not so sure. In 2001, we were clearly a divided nation politically. The 2000 election of Bush and Cheney tore us apart. Democrats refused to accept the election results. They were, in fact, election-deniers. Some House Democrats refused to vote to confirm the election results. We forget about that now but it happened.

I remember being grateful that Bush was president and not Al Gore. Gore was a vice president during Bill Clinton’s administration and they ignored the first bombing of the World Trade Center in 1993. Al-Qaeda continued to flourish without consequences. Would Joe Biden be able to bring the country together as Bush did? I don’t think so. He was so eager to have America’s longest war over that he pulled all American troops out of Afghanistan, ignoring advice from the military and intelligence consultants, with disastrous results. Thirteen American service members died that day. He has no leadership skills, he is too divisive.

George W. Bush rose to the occasion.

There are a lot of political memories, because I am a political person. I can’t forget that news anchors were so quick to criticize Bush for his calm reaction, trying to keep the rest of the country calm and reassured that he was in charge. Was he supposed to bolt out of that elementary school classroom and scare the children? How would that help anything? He flew on Air Force One to various locations because of security concerns. He was criticized for not rushing right back to D.C. It was all political posturing by Democrats and their mouthpieces in the media. I’ll not forget it.

Some still use 9/11/01 as political talking points. Some blame America for terror attacks against our country. Some concern seems hypocritical today. Some people did something.

Although to many Americans 9/11 seemed like a random act of terror, the roots of the event had been developing for years. A combination of factors that coalesced in the late 1990s led the catastrophic event. These factors included regional conditions in the Middle East that motivated the perpetrators, as well as intelligence lapses and failures that  left the United States vulnerable.

Osama Bin Laden was relatively unknown in the United States before 9/11, even as he was amassing popularity, followers, and fame in the Middle East during the 1990s. In 1988, he was one of the founders of al Qaeda, a militant Islamic terrorist organization that organized and carried out the 9/11 attacks. Bin Laden called for indiscriminate killing of all Americans who, he claimed, were “the worst thieves in the world today” (9/11 Report, page 47). It was the perfect historical moment for that rallying cry.

Throughout the 20th century, a wave of secular, nationalist revolutions swept through the Middle East, taking root in Egypt, Libya, Iraq, Yemen, and other countries. While these movements were awash in promising ideology, the new regimes quickly became autocratic and suppressed dissent. Their critics turned to violent revolution to express their dissatisfaction with the secular governments.

At the same time, social malaise, especially among young men who were struggling to find decent jobs and start their own families in corrupt oil states, provided easy targets for radicalization. Bin Laden’s message that America was the “head of the snake” and the root of all society’s problems resonated well with the discontent.

By the mid-1990s, Bin Laden was the head of al Qaeda, a multifaceted and highly developed terrorist network carrying out attack after attack on Americans in the Middle East. It was a new type of terrorism to which the US intelligence agencies struggled to adapt. Much of the intelligence community had not even imaged the specific type of hijacking and terrorism carried out on 9/11. They were preparing for threats such as the 1993 bombing of the World Trade Center and bombing in 2000 of the USS Cole. 

Much of the intelligence community’s focus was on reactive law enforcement activity rather than proactive countering of terrorism. A telling quote from the 9/11 commission report focuses on the lack of a proactive response: “The process was meant, by its nature, to mark for the public as the events finished – case solved, justice done. It was not designed to ask if the events might be harbingers of worse to come. Nor did it allow for aggregating and analyzing facts to see if they could provide clues to terrorist tactics more generally – methods of entry and finance, and mode of operation inside the United States” (Commission Report, p. 73).

Bin Laden had amassed substantial power due to conditions in the Middle East as well as his charismatic leadership, and the US intelligence community was underprepared for a 9/11 style attack. In the aftermath of 9/11, these two factors continued to affect US policy in the Middle East, particularly in Iraq.

The immediate response to 9/11 was the George W. Bush administration’s War on Terror, which began in Afghanistan as a retaliation against al Qaeda for carrying out the attack. 

There were domestic long-term effects of 9/11 as well. Thousands of people struggle with cancer and lasting chronic health problems relating to the toxicity from Ground Zero, the site where the Twin Towers used to stand. The September 11 attacks also changed American air travel as airlines began to require stringent security checks designed to prevent the types of weapons the hijackers used from slipping through.

Finally, the 9/11 attacks resulted in changes to the federal government and an expansion of executive power. A new cabinet department, the Department of Homeland Security, was created, and the intelligence community was consolidated under the Director of National Intelligence to improve coordination between various agencies and departments. New legislation such as the Patriot Act expanded domestic security and surveillance, disrupted terrorist funding by cracking down on activities such as money laundering, and increased efficiency within the U.S. intelligence community.

The tragedy of September 11, 2001 will never be forgotten, and the aftermath is still continuing to unfold. The 9/11 Memorial and Museum opened on the site of the former World Trade Center on September 11, 2011, and features reflecting pools in the footprints of where the Twin Towers once stood.

We won’t forget.

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