Sept. 11, 2001 started out as a beautiful day, in Wisconsin, New York City and Washington, D.C.
I remember almost everything about the entire day. Sept. 11, 2001 is to my generation what Nov. 22, 1963 was to my parents and Dec. 7, 1941 was to my grandparents.
I had dropped off our oldest son at Ripon Children’s Learning Center. As I was coming out, the mother of one of his group told me to find a good radio station; she had heard as she was getting out with her son that a plane had hit the World Trade Center.
I got in my car and turned it on in time to hear, seemingly live, a plane hit the WTC. But it wasn’t the first plane, it was the second plane hitting the other tower.
As you can imagine, my drive to Fond du Lac took unusually long that day. I tried to call Mrs. Presteblog, who was working at Ripon College, but she didn’t answer because she was in a meeting. I had been at Marian University as their PR director for just a couple months, so I didn’t know for sure who the media might want to talk to, but once I got there I found a couple professors and called KFIZ and WFDL in Fond du Lac and set up live interviews.
The entire day was like reading a novel, except that there was no novel to put down and no nightmare from which to wake up. A third plane hit the Pentagon? A fourth plane crashed somewhere else? The government was grounding every plane in the country and closing every airport?
I had a TV in my office, and later that morning I heard that one of the towers had collapsed. So as I was talking to my wife on the phone, NBC showed a tower collapsing, and I assumed that was video of the first tower collapse. But it wasn’t; it was the second tower collapse, and that was the second time that replay-but-it’s-not thing had happened that day.
Marian’s president and my boss (a native of a Queens neighborhood who grew up with many firefighter and police officer families, and who by the way had a personality similar to Rudy Giuliani) had a brief discussion about whether or not to cancel afternoon or evening classes, but they decided (correctly) to hold classes as scheduled. The obvious reasons were (1) that we had more than 1,000 students on campus, and what were they going to do if they didn’t have classes, and (2) it was certainly more appropriate to have our professors leading a discussion over what had happened than anything else that could have been done.
I was at Marian until after 7 p.m. I’m sure Marian had a memorial service, but I don’t remember it. While I was in Fond du Lac, our church was having a memorial service with our new rector (who hadn’t officially started yet) and our interim priest. I was in a long line at a gas station, getting gas because the yellow low fuel light on my car was on, not because of panic over gas prices, although I recall that one Fond du Lac gas station had increased their prices that day to the ridiculous $2.299 per gallon. (I think my gas was around $1.50 a gallon that day.)
Two things I remember about that specific day: It was an absolutely spectacular day. But when the sun set, it seemed really, really dark, as if there was no light at all outside, from stars, streetlights or anything else.
For the next few days, since our son was at the TV-watching age, we would watch the ongoing 9/11 coverage in our kitchen while Michael was watching the 1-year-old-appropriate stuff or videos in our living room. That Sunday, one of the people who was at church was Adrian Karsten of ESPN. He was supposed to be at a football game working for ESPN, of course, but there was no college football Saturday (though high school football was played that Friday night), and there was no NFL football Sunday. Our organist played “God Bless America” after Mass, and I recall Adrian clapping with tears down his face; I believe he knew some people who had died or been injured.
Later that day was Marian’s Heritage Festival of the Arts. We had record attendance since there was nothing going on, it was another beautiful day, and I’m guessing after five consecutive days of nonstop 9/11 coverage, people wanted to get out of their houses.
In the 20 years since then, a comment of New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani has stuck in my head. He was asked a year or so later whether the U.S. was more or less safe since 9/11, and I believe his answer was that we were more safe because we knew more than on Sept. 10, 2001. That and the fact that we haven’t been subject to another major terrorist attack since then is the good news.
Osama bin Laden (who I hope is enjoying Na’ar, Islam’s hell) and others in Al Qaeda apparently thought that the U.S. (despite the fact that citizens from more than 90 countries died on 9/11) would be intimidated by the 9/11 attacks and cower on this side of the Atlantic Ocean, allowing Al Qaeda to operate with impunity in the Middle East and elsewhere. (Bin Laden is no longer available for comment.) If you asked an American who paid even the slightest attention to world affairs where a terrorist attack would be most likely before 9/11, that American would have replied either “New York,” the world’s financial capital, or “Washington,” the center of the government that dominates the free world. A terrorist attack farther into the U.S., even in a much smaller area than New York or Washington, would have delivered a more chilling message, that nowhere in the U.S. was safe. Al Qaeda didn’t think to do that, or couldn’t do that. The rest of the Middle East also did not turn on the U.S. or on Israel (more so than already is the case with Israel), as bin Laden apparently expected.
The bad news is all of the other changes that have taken place that are not for the better. Bloomberg Businessweek asks:
So was it worth it? Has the money spent by the U.S. to protect itself from terrorism been a sound investment? If the benchmark is the absence of another attack on the American homeland, then the answer is indisputably yes. For the first few years after Sept. 11, there was political near-unanimity that this was all that mattered. In 2005, after the bombings of the London subway system, President Bush sought to reassure Americans by declaring that “we’re spending unprecedented resources to protect our nation.” Any expenditure in the name of fighting terrorism was justified.
A decade later, though, it’s clear this approach is no longer sustainable. Even if the U.S. is a safer nation than it was on Sept. 11, it’s a stretch to say that it’s a stronger one. And in retrospect, the threat posed by terrorism may have been significantly less daunting than Western publics and policymakers imagined it to be. …
Politicians and pundits frequently said that al Qaeda posed an “existential threat” to the U.S. But governments can’t defend against existential threats—they can only overspend against them. And national intelligence was very late in understanding al Qaeda’s true capabilities. At its peak, al Qaeda’s ranks of hardened operatives numbered in the low hundreds—and that was before the U.S. and its allies launched a global military campaign to dismantle the network. “We made some bad assumptions right after Sept. 11 that shaped how we approached the war on terror,” says Brian Fishman, a counterterrorism research fellow at the New America Foundation. “We thought al Qaeda would run over the Middle East—they were going to take over governments and control armies. In hindsight, it’s clear that was never going to be the case. Al Qaeda was not as good as we gave them credit for.”
Yet for a decade, the government’s approach to counterterrorism has been premised in part on the idea that not only would al Qaeda attack inside the U.S. again, but its next strike would be even bigger—possibly involving unconventional weapons or even a nuclear bomb. Washington has appropriated tens of billions trying to protect against every conceivable kind of attack, no matter the scale or likelihood. To cite one example, the U.S. spends $1 billion a year to defend against domestic attacks involving improvised-explosive devices, the makeshift bombs favored by insurgents in Afghanistan. “In hindsight, the idea that post-Sept. 11 terrorism was different from pre-9/11 terrorism was wrong,” says Brian A. Jackson, a senior physical scientist at RAND. “If you honestly believed the followup to 9/11 would be a nuclear weapon, then for intellectual consistency you had to say, ‘We’ve got to prevent everything.’ We pushed for perfection, and in counterterrorism, that runs up the tab pretty fast.”
Nowhere has that profligacy been more evident than in the area of homeland security. “Things done in haste are not done particularly well,” says Jackson. As Daveed Gartenstein-Ross writes in his new book, Bin Laden’s Legacy, the creation of a homeland security apparatus has been marked by waste, bureaucracy, and cost overruns. Gartenstein-Ross cites the Transportation Security Agency’s rush to hire 60,000 airport screeners after Sept. 11, which was originally budgeted at $104 million; in the end it cost the government $867 million. The homeland security budget has also proved to be a pork barrel bonanza: In perhaps the most egregious example, the Kentucky Charitable Gaming Dept. received $36,000 to prevent terrorists from raising money at bingo halls. “If you look at the past decade and what it’s cost us, I’d say the rate of return on investment has been poor,” Gartenstein-Ross says.
Of course, much of that analysis has the 20/20 vision of hindsight. It is interesting to note as well that, for all the campaign rhetoric from candidate Barack Obama that we needed to change our foreign policy approach, president Obama changed almost nothing, including our Afghanistan and Iraq involvements. It is also interesting to note that the supposed change away from President George W. Bush’s us-or-them foreign policy approach hasn’t changed the world’s view, including particularly the Middle East’s view, of the U.S. Someone years from now will have to determine whether homeland security, military and intelligence improvements prevented Al Qaeda from another 9/11 attack, or if Al Qaeda wasn’t capable of more than just one 9/11-style U.S. attack.
Hindsight makes one realize how much of the 9/11 attacks could have been prevented or at least their worst effects lessened. One year after 9/11, the New York Times book 102 Minutes: The Untold Story of the Fight to Survive Inside the Twin Towers points out that eight years after the 1993 World Trade Center bombing, New York City firefighters and police officers still could not communicate with each other, which led to most of the police and fire deaths in the WTC collapses. Even worse, the book revealed that the buildings did not meet New York City fire codes when they were designed because they didn’t have to, since they were under the jurisdiction of the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey. And more than one account shows that, had certain people at the FBI and elsewhere been listened to by their bosses, the 9/11 attacks wouldn’t have caught our intelligence community dumbfounded. (It does not speak well of our government to note that no one appears to have paid any kind of political price for the 9/11 attacks.)
I think, as Bloomberg BusinessWeek argued, our approach to homeland security (a term I loathe) has overdone much and missed other threats. Our approach to airline security — which really seems like the old error of generals’ fighting the previous war — has made air travel worse but not safer. (Unless you truly believe that 84-year-old women and babies are terrorist threats.) The incontrovertible fact is that every 9/11 hijacker fit into one gender, one ethnic group and a similar age range. Only two reasons exist to not profile airline travelers — political correctness and the assumption that anyone is capable of hijacking an airplane, killing the pilots and flying it into a skyscraper or important national building. Meanwhile, while the U.S. spends about $1 billion each year trying to prevent Improvised Explosive Device attacks, what is this country doing about something that would be even more disruptive, yet potentially easier to do — an Electromagnetic Pulse attack, which would fry every computer within the range of the device?
We have at least started to take steps like drilling our own continent’s oil and developing every potential source of electric power, ecofriendly or not, to make us less dependent on Middle East oil. (The Middle East, by the way, supplies only one-fourth of our imported oil. We can become less dependent on Middle East oil; we cannot become less dependent on energy.) But the government’s response to 9/11 has followed like B follows A the approach our culture has taken to risk of any sort, as if covering ourselves in bubblewrap, or even better cowering in our homes, will make the bogeyman go away. Are we really safer because of the Patriot Act?
American politics was quite nasty in the 1990s. For a brief while after 9/11, we had impossible-to-imagine moments like this:
And then within the following year, the political beatings resumed. Bush’s statement, “I ask your continued participation and confidence in the American economy,” was deliberately misconstrued as Bush saying that Americans should go out and shop. Americans were exhorted to sacrifice for a war unlike any war we’ve ever faced by those who wouldn’t have to deal with the sacrifices of, for instance, gas prices far beyond $5 per gallon, or mandatory national service (a bad idea that rears its ugly head in times of anything approaching national crisis), or substantially higher taxes.
Then again, none of this should be a surprise. Other parts of the world hate Americans because we are more economically and politically free than most of the world. We have graduated from using those of different skin color from the majority as slaves, and we have progressed beyond assigning different societal rights to each gender. We tolerate different political views and religions. To the extent the 9/11 masterminds could be considered Muslims at all, they supported — and radical Muslims support — none of the values that are based on our certain inalienable rights. The war between our world, flawed though it is, and a world based on sharia law is a war we had better win.
And winning that war does not include withdrawal. Whether or not Donald Trump was right about leaving Afghanistan, Joe Biden screwed up the withdrawal so badly that everyone with memory compared it to our withdrawing from South Vietnam. The obviously incomplete vetting of Afghan refugees, who are now at Fort McCoy, and our leaving billions of dollars of our military equipment in Afghanistan, guarantees will be back, and more American soldiers, and perhaps non-soldiers, will die.
In one important sense, 9/11 changed us less than it revealed us. America can be both deeply flawed and a special place, because human beings are both deeply flawed and nonetheless special in God’s eyes. Jesus Christ is quoted in Luke 12:48 as saying that “to whomsoever much is given, of him shall be much required.” As much as Americans don’t want to be the policeman of the world, or the nation most responsible for protecting freedom worldwide, there it is.