“United we Stand”. I still have the shirt. Do you remember where you were when the first plane hit? A common question that most of us can answer but a whole new generation can’t. They were not born yet. September 11, 2001, unfolded from the normal and mundane to the surreal. Those stationed overseas with the military, Germany to be exact, it wasn’t until the afternoon that we got to know what happened half a world away. In a blink of an eye, we were thrown into war-like conditions that sealed installations and put all active duty and civilians on high alert. Conditions that remained for months in preparation for the pending deployments that followed.
The country was united, and the western world was united with us. Congress stood on the steps of the Capitol waiving American flags and singing God Bless America. Nobody kneeled in protest. Those killed in the terrorist attacks came in all colors, ethnicities, faiths, and languages. Retaliation was inevitable. For a short time, there was no partisanship, only pain and anger. Washington represents our nation, but New York City represents the heartbeat of what is American. The Big Apple, the city that “never sleeps”, the symbol of freedom for so many immigrants that took a journey across the ocean eager to catch the first glimpse of Lady Liberty. New York City is the world’s symbol of hope. The attacks were meant to crush that hope, that thought, that mindset of freedom.
Standing across Ground Zero on a cold day in December 2003, I watched the “clean-up” that never ceased. Surrounding buildings protected by netting still flew the American flag as if in defiance. Photos, drawings, messages, and flowers, still hung on fences, walls, and on any available space that relatives and friends of victims found compelled to display in case we forgot. Not that we could ever forget. But so great was the pain. The gaping hole in the ground was unbearable to fathom. Through the noise of the machinery below, we could still hear the voices of the dead. Their echoes hung in the air like smoke. Walking through the streets of downtown Manhattan, fire stations had closed their doors permanently because most had lost all personnel in the aftermath of the attacks. They were the heroes who climbed toward the fire and who remained until they perished with the collapsing buildings. Always hoping that they could save somebody. Police precincts listed names of cops killed while assisting first responders. Quiet and mute sacrifices made by those we take for granted and often disparage in current political narrative.
I personally know many Gold Star families who lost loved ones in Iraq between the 2003-2006 back-to-back deployments. Most tell of their sons joining the military because of and after 9/11. They felt compelled to serve and protect. They were strong in faith and love of country. I knew most of these men personally. They were from all walks of life and political upbringing. They served in the same brigade but in separate units. Diverse in ethnicity and age, they were united in their love of G-d, country, and family. In that order they served. In that order they died. For most, the catalyst was 9/11. An attack on their American way of life they could not tolerate.
The 9/11 Memorial in New York City is a combination of museum and park. I visited the area in various stages of construction. Every time I visit, the enormity of the destruction hits me like a fist in my stomach. Two large square pools stand adjacent, representing the two towers. Rows of names are etched in memory of victims of the Twin Towers, Pentagon, and Flight 93. Included are victims of the first attack on the Twin Towers in February 1996. A precursor to 9/11. Six people were killed in that attack and 1000 injured. As I slowly run my hands across the 3,000 + names, eleven names stand out: women identified as with “unborn child”. Myriad of tourists taking “selfies” leaning against the black granite etched with names and unconscious of the fact that each name went to work one morning and never returned to his wife, her husband, children, parents, or friends. Not intentionally disrespectful just unconsciously ignorant. A product of an egocentric narcissistic world conditioned to self-gratification. A perspective and opinion that normally lands me on the opposite side of those who think that disrespect is overstated by traditionalism rather than reality. An excuse for the proliferation of bad behavior.
Twenty years later and we are hardly united or non-partisan. Visceral rhetoric from both sides has rendered us weary of politics and politicians. We can squabble between ourselves on the virtues or evils of one side or another, but at the end of the day, it is us, the American people who loose out. We have numbed ourselves into submission to a media that is so disingenuous one can hardly tell what is truth, opinion, or just made up. A media divided by party and party donations. A legislature that was united in flag waving patriotism is now a caricature of its former self.
An interesting reminder to the current US House of Representatives; on September 14, 2001, the House of Representatives voted 420-1 to give the President (Bush) the authority to “…use all necessary and appropriate force against those nations, organizations, or persons he determines planned, authorized, committed, or aided the terrorist attacks that occurred on September 11, 2001, or harbored such organizations or persons.” (The Intercept. September 2016) Only one held out. Congresswoman Barbara Lee (D) from California. She had an issue with the broadness of the authorization without an end date. In an op-ed publication she stated that the authorization “…was a blank check to the president to attack anyone involved in the Sept. 11 events — anywhere, in any country, without regard to our nation’s long-term foreign policy, economic and national security interests, and without time limit.” (The Intercept. September 2016) Her observation was spot on. The US went from obliterating Al Qaida, the Taliban and finding and killing Bin Laden, to getting into Iraq looking for weapons of mass destruction. We remained embroiled in war lord and faction wars on two fronts that cost us treasure, lives, and eventually reputation.
In September 2, 2021, a podcast by Andrew Bacevich, Pardee School of Global Studies professor emeritus of international relations and history, answered the Question of the Week on Boston Today, a Boston University news and opinion site. The question asked: 20 years after 9/11 is the US more of less vulnerable to a massive terrorist attack? Mr. Bacevich’s answer: the US is less vulnerable to terrorism but more vulnerable to threats. After 9/11, the US went into a reactive mode that engulfed it on two fronts, Iraq, and Afghanistan, and which eventually distracted it from other threats. The 9/11 attacks were devastating because they contradicted the “victorious” US emergence from the Cold War barely ten years prior. The Cold War defined US and international politics for more than 40 years. In the early 90’s the US was euphoric that it had “defeated” the Soviet Union and came out as the “indispensable nation”, an appropriate remark attributed to former Secretary of State Madeline Albright. The 9/11 attacks didn’t just surprise the US, it shocked it into redefining its role. The country implemented anti-terrorism measures that would make it less vulnerable to terrorism and deter another 9/11 attack. But Iraq and Afghanistan cost the US lives and treasure. Of the two, Afghanistan was the biggest political failure because the primary goal of installing an effective government, effective army, and effective security failed miserably. Andrew Bacevich concluded that all our political leaders should be reflecting on that failure not to repeat it. Right now there is a lot of finger pointing but little reflection.
What do we expect to see and hear on the 20th anniversary of 9/11? According to Selome Hailu of Variety, “…networks will air content unpacking the politics of the event, commemorating the victims, speaking with survivors and more…” Families will gather at the Memorial & Museum in lower Manhattan to read out names of victims of 9/11 and 1996. A caveat: on August 6, 2021, approximately 2000 families of the deceased requested that President Biden need not attend any ceremonies unless “…he released classified material pertinent to Saudi Arabia possible complicity with the 19 airplane hijackers…” (George Will. Stars and Stripes, Opinion, September 7, 2021) 15 of the hijackers were Saudis. The families have been trying to sue the Saudi government since 2001 but couldn’t. Then in 2016 when Congress (over President Obama’s veto) amended the Foreign Sovereign Immunities Act, lawyers for the families could subpoena the FBI for material concerning the attacks. The FBI however was not very conciliatory. We fast forward to September 3, 2021. President Biden signed an execute order to declassify “certain” documents related to 9/11. The order tasks the Justice Department and other executive branch agencies to start the process of declassifying documents and to make them available within the next six months. Although in 2004 the 9/11 Commission’s report allegedly “found no evidence” of Saudi involvement as “an institution”, there is enough suspicion that the Saudi government’s sponsorship of some charities was in fact a front for funding Al Qaida. President Biden’s support to the families might seem politically motivated to some, but it is definitely a step in the right direction and long in coming.
My feelings about 9/11 are imbedded in the fact that as a child and immigrant, my mother was raised in New York City’s “Hells’ Kitchen”. She was a New Yorker. Queens is my permanent home of records. Family still lives in the upper East Side, Brooklyn, and Queens. 9/11 was personal. The city is more than a world destination, it’s my home. 20 years ago, I stood in shock as I watched the first plane hit, quickly followed by the second. I was at work on Ray Barracks, in Friedberg, Germany. Army home to Elvis Presley in 1958, and to the 1st Brigade, Ready First Combat Team, 1st Armored Division in 2001. Reality hit me like a cold shower. My thoughts and fears were of my cousin who worked in lower Manhattan. I feared the worst. No phone call could get through. My other fear was my daughter who was on a trip to Egypt. Fortunately, she had returned the day before. In minutes we were informed by the Brigade Commander that the post would be under Threat-Con Delta and only essential personnel were permitted access. The rest of the day became a blur as our military community faced the unknown. The morning after all the fences surrounding the post were covered in flowers and American flags intertwined with German flags. The local population stood by us in solidarity. Local German wives brought food to our soldiers now guarding the post in full battle gear 24/7. The outpour of love and sorrow from the local German community was overwhelming. It continued throughout the next few years and the various deployments that followed.
Twenty years later I still weep when I see the footage. I weep for those lost in the attacks, but also for those who served in the various deployments in Iraq and Afghanistan years later. 65 names come to mind. We supported and served them before they deployed and memorialized them when they didn’t return. The significance of the day hits Gold Star families as well. Their loved ones made the ultimate sacrifice because of this one day in history. As I attempt to do justice to the memory of so many, I recollect the few I knew so well and still miss. All remain in the recesses of my mind. All remain as vivid as the day they were deployed. All remain as painful as the day we were told that they would never return. To those of us who had the privilege to serve and support military units all over the world, 9/11 is more than a day. It is a litany of memories and emotions that started with the attacks and continued with the deployments that took so many from us. May the memory of all 9/11 victims and those who made the ultimate sacrifice in combat, be a blessing to us and our nation forever.
Will, F. George. September 7, 2021. End secrecy over the Saudis and 9/11? It’s about time. Stars and Stripes Opinion.