At just after 9 am on September 11, 2001, I watched United Airlines flight 175 hit the South Tower of the World Trade Center. I had not seen American Airlines flight 11 crash into the North Tower almost 20 minutes earlier, but had been called almost as soon as it happened. Less than an hour later, the South Tower collapsed, followed by the North Tower. American Airlines flight 77 had crashed into the Pentagon, and United Airlines flight 93 crashed in a field in Pennsylvania.
America was under attack, but information was sketchy. There were reports of car bombs in Washington, D.C. and of explosions in other major American cities. National Command Authority (military-speak for the President) was diverted and hard to reach, as were Agency and department heads, who were being moved to secure locations. We knew quickly that Al-Qaeda was responsible, but we didn’t have a clear picture of how enduring or severe the attacks would be. An attack by a nation-state would have been more predictable, and in a perverse way, more orderly, than what we were dealing with on September 11. Terrorism came to American soil that day in a manner we were not expecting – or prepared for.
For me, September 11 was very personal. As a native New Yorker, the Twin Towers were a familiar and comforting daily sight, a marker of identity as much as a useful way to get one’s bearings from anywhere in the City with a clear sight-line. My dad worked in the South Tower for one of the building’s original tenants, and one of my earliest memories is the view out his window to the Statue of Liberty. I was fascinated by the soft sway of the building in high wind, and amazed to be among (and sometimes above) the clouds on a rainy day. His former office was eviscerated by the impact of flight 175.
I fondly recall late-night, late-autumn walks to the World Trade Center from the Village when I was in college and amazing evenings at Cellar in the Sky atop the North Tower. I was a member of the World Trade Center Club and frequently enjoyed breakfast at Windows of the World; it is a minor miracle that I wasn’t sitting there for breakfast on the morning of September 11. The World Trade Center wasn’t just an iconic part of New York. For me, it was part of my life – a marvel of technology and man’s reach for unfathomable heights. It was always there. Until it wasn’t.
September 11 was a shockingly awful introduction to terrorism for the American public. Terrorism, to that point, was something that happened “over there,” not at home. Sure, we had been attacked before – most notably the failed bombing of the World Trade Center in 1993, along with numerous ‘small’ incidents, not all of which ever made the evening news. But these were anomalies – after all, terrorist attacks happened in Israel and other places in the Middle East. And when they happened elsewhere, it wasn’t about America or targeting Americans. Americans were just collateral damage in someone else’s war. Yes, we had to worry about nuclear doomsday at the hands of the Soviets or the Chinese, but terrorism was surely not something we had to worry about. It was someone else’s problem. Until it wasn’t.
As a nation, we were not new to the problem, of course. We had been involved in counterterrorism operations for decades. But not since December 7, 1941 had we experienced such a devastating attack on our homeland, and the proliferation of media outlets meant that all people saw, across dozens of channels, was Ground Zero and replays of the attacks. Terrorism became our problem, and Americans were enraged and demanded action. So we did what no other country in the world was capable of doing – we mobilized in quick succession and inserted servicemembers and intelligence officers half a world away under incredibly difficult technical conditions, and often under fire. Let’s not mince words: we invaded Afghanistan, with the aim of destroying Al-Qaeda and the Taliban forces in control of the government that harbored the terrorists.
No one can doubt that America is very skilled at eliminating its adversaries on the battlefield. And no reasonable person can argue that going in to Afghanistan was unwarranted or improper – not when that quasi-nation state supported a direct attack on America resulting in thousands of civilian casualties. The problem, as we have seen play out over the last 3 decades, is that America is not very skilled at “winning the peace.” We can tear through and eviscerate hostile forces within a matter of days or weeks, yet we lack the political will to become an occupying force and properly rebuild a vanquished country, as we did in Germany and Japan after WWII. What starts with clarity (“Every nation, in every region, now has a decision to make. Either you are with us, or you are with the terrorists.”) becomes a mess of indecisiveness and populist-driven drivel in which the civil rights of terrorists outweigh the human rights of their victims.
And so here we are, twenty years after September 11. The Taliban is back in control of Afghanistan. After one President idiotically wanted to meet with them in the Oval Office on another anniversary of that somber day, another President idiotically allowed the country to fully fall into the hands of the Taliban, bungling a rushed evacuation of Americans (and our allies) and leaving behind thousands of vulnerable people who expected – and deserved – our protection. We promised democracy, and gave the people of Afghanistan… Taliban 2.0, now armed with American weapons and equipment.
That we would so casually dismiss our security commitments should be of grave concern to our allies in Israel, Taiwan, and NATO. It sends the message that we have your back only until it becomes politically expedient for us not to. And what’s the big deal with the Taliban, anyway? Surely, we can do business with them, just like Carter thought he could do business with a man named Khomeini back in 1979, and really, he wouldn’t be worse than the Shah.
Except that he was. Much worse. This, too, is the nature of terrorism: they use propaganda and fund massive campaigns of disinformation meant to entice useful idiots into providing them with material support. On this, terrorists are all the same. It doesn’t matter if they are named al-Qaeda or Taliban, Hezbollah or Hamas, Boko Haram or the PFLP. They are driven by a maniacal desire to subjugate the masses to their version of religiosity, and are perfectly willing to kill civilians to achieve their goals.
So here we are, twenty years after the greatest terrorist attack on American soil. Who runs Afghanistan? The same terrorists we fought for years. Who runs Iraq? The same Iran-backed terrorists we fought for years. How about Gaza? It’s run by a terrorist group that Israel and America have fought for years. Ditto Lebanon. And the rest of the Middle East doesn’t look much better. Perhaps the only change in the last 4 decades is that Beirut has been replaced by Doha as “the” place to be (and meet) if you are a terrorist. That’s where Hamas conducts its business – the Taliban, too. Little wonder that the minute America pulled out of Kabul Airport, Qatari agents were quickly on the ground, restoring critical infrastructure.
Does anyone even care? Fifteen years ago, we asked one another, “where were you on 9/11?” much the same as people a few generations ago never forgot where they were when they learned that JFK had been assassinated. But our generation is not like theirs. Our generation forgot, or stopped caring somewhere along the way. This much is obvious because, if they still cared, the Taliban would not be running Afghanistan, and colleges would not be trying to facilitate leaders of designated terrorist organizations lecturing American college students. If this generation gave any thought to where they were on September 11, the leaders of Hamas would have been eliminated by drone strikes after launching thousands of missiles against Israeli civilians. Instead, those leaders are living it up in Qatar. And I’m sure that, somewhere, people in our government are thinking that they can do business with them, just as they thought about a guy named Khomeini.
Heartbreak. This is the best word to describe September 11, twenty years later. It is not just the pain of what we lost that day, but it is the added grief of what we have lost in the intervening years. I’ve lost friends and colleagues. Others have lost family. We share a collective trauma of loss – of innocence, dignity, and honor. Of the people who died with honor for a greater cause – a cause we abandoned (along with our allies) not even two weeks ago, in our rush out of Kabul Airport. Heartbreak is the knowledge that so many have sacrificed so much, for so little. Every meaningful victory and accomplishment we achieved in twenty years has been erased. What of the memories of the people who died on September 11, or the people who died avenging that atrocity? What of the basic human right of people to live free of tyranny and terror? Heartbreak is the knowledge that no one really cares. Heartbreak is the knowledge that we can build consensus around global warming or gender pronouns, but not around combatting terrorism. Heartbreak is the realization that twenty years after September 11, no one cares about it anymore.