Remembering 9/11


Today is September 11, 2012, eleven years since the day when I woke up in a Seattle hotel room and turned on the TV to an unfolding news story that has impacted not only the United States, but the world.

At first I thought I was watching a promo for some new horror epic, but then the announcer started saying something about a plane accidentally flying into one of the World Trade Towers – it took a few minutes, but I soon knew I was seeing a live event, and I wondered what kind of pilot would fail to see such a large building among so many other large buildings, and what the hell he was doing flying in that area in the first place.

Then, perhaps like millions of other viewers, I watched with horror as that second plane plowed into the second tower.  This was no accident – this was a declaration of war.

The rest of that day went by in somewhat of a blur.  My colleagues and I, who had flown in to Seattle from the other Washington (DC, that is) just the day before on business. We were all anxious to get back to DC, but the skies were empty of all but military jets flying patrol over our major cities.  Even renting a car was out of the question; all the rental cars were gone within the first hour.  So, we waited; waited and watched the television as more information emerged.  What at first had been thought, or reported, as an explosion somewhere in the vicinity of the State Department, had in fact been the jet that plowed into the Pentagon.  We heard later of the crash of another plane in a field in Pennsylvania thanks to the brave sacrifice of a group of passengers.

The massive Pentagon complex, just visible in the background of this shot from Arlington National Cemetery, was one of the targets on September 11, 2001. (Photo by Charles Ray)

As the days went on, we learned that the hijackers, who had commandeered passenger planes and deliberately flown them into occupied buildings, were mostly Saudi Arabians, and that they were associated with a shadowy group that many people outside government knew little about, al-Qaeda.  Those of us who followed such events remembered a previous attempt to bomb the World Trade Center by putting explosives in the underground parking garage.  Why, we wondered, was it not apparent that this iconic structure, representing American wealth and influence, would be a target of groups determined to bring our country to its knees?  Why was it so difficult for policymakers and senior officials to accept that some people are prepared to commit any unspeakable act to achieve their goals?  And, when would we quit using our standards and experience to judge the likely action of others?

Eleven years on now, and I look back;  I look back from the perspective of a private citizen who was in government at the time, and in a small way must shoulder some of the responsibility for what has since transpired.  Our reaction to the events of 9/11 were, unfortunately, all too predictable.  We implemented draconian security measures, making airline travel even more of a hassle than it had been, including in one case when I was on a trip shortly after the attacks; an airport security official massaged both of my feet.  Not sure what she thought I might have inside my foot; didn’t want to ask; airport security officials don’t get issued a sense of humor.

We entered into a war in Afghanistan, a country ruled by a bunch of radical freaks that had given safe haven to al-Qaeda’s leader and mastermind, Osama bin Laden.  No one could really argue with that campaign, but like a kid who gets bored with last week’s toys, we started neglecting Afghanistan for a bigger toy, Iraq.  Using a bogus claim of weapons of mass destruction (WMD), and even occasional attempts to link Saddam Hussein to al-Qaeda, we sent troops into Iraq; a debacle whose full impacts on the military, national security, and our diplomatic image internationally, is yet to be understood.

Things weren’t much better back home. We created the Department of Homeland Security, folding a bunch of agencies under its blanket of control.  The Immigration Service and Customs had to learn to make nice together; for now, they had the same boss, were part of the same outfit, Immigration and Customs Enforcement, or ICE – cool acronym, don’t you think.  New rules started popping up; you had to limit liquid or gelled toiletries in your airplane carryon luggage to two-ounce containers in a sealed one-quart Ziploc™ bag; which actually meant a one-quart plastic bag that had the little zip seal, not necessarily the one from that particular company.  Don’t even try to carry a pair of nail clippers with the little rasp attachment on them onto a plane.  You stood to be strip searched if this item was found in your carryon.

I’m compelled to ask at this point, what have we learned from this tragic incident and its aftermath?  I don’t know about you, but I had validated something my study of history has shown me; America’s image of its invulnerability, with oceans on two borders and ‘friendly’ countries on the other two, has always been a myth.  The British invaded the capital during the War of 1812, and the Japanese were able to fire bomb a west coast forest during the early days of World War II.  Somehow, incidents like these get deleted from our minds.  Another thing I learned is that possessing a great amount of military power, without the maturity to use it wisely, and to put emphasis on being a good neighbor rather than the neighborhood bully or boss, doesn’t provide the protection against attack that people try to make you believe.  Unless you’re willing and able to fight everyone in the world at the same time, all that power is actually a weakness.  As the late Rodney King said, “Can’t we all just get along?”

I’m not sure we’ve learned anything actually. That is, alas, the nature of the human species; the ability to learn absolutely nothing from what is clearing a learning event.  So, on this eleventh anniversary of 9/11, I tip my hat to the brave and dedicated first responders who went into harm’s way to help their fellow humans, many of them giving their lives in the process; I give my condolences to those who lost family or friends that day; and, I salute the American people who, for one brief moment, came together as a nation.