New Yorkers will never forget the attack on our city of 20 years ago. But will Americans remember the lessons of 9/11 and of the war in Afghanistan?
Survivors of the attacks in New York, 11 September 2001 (AP Photo/Gulnara Samoilova)
Next month will mark 20 years since Islamic extremist hijackers flew passenger jets into New York’s two tallest buildings, killing nearly 3,000 people in the single deadliest strike on U.S. soil.
Those of us who were in America’s biggest city the day the Twin Towers collapsed harbor vivid memories of the attack that seared our collective consciousness, much as the assassination of President John Kennedy in 1963, the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 and other key moments in living memory.
Many events have stunned our country and the world since 9/11: the 2008 global economic meltdown; the election and re-election of the first Black U.S. president; Donald Trump’s divisive one-term presidency and his defeat in 2020; and the COVID-19 pandemic.
As cataclysmic as 9/11 was, for some its impact now feels overshadowed by COVID-19, which to date has killed 4.2 million people worldwide, including more than 613,000 in the United States, according to Johns Hopkins University.
Last year, when New York City was America’s coronavirus epicenter, for weeks the national daily COVID-19 death toll exceeded the total 9/11 death toll of 2,996, which included 19 al Qaeda hijackers.
Yet as U.S and allied troops withdrew from Afghanistan this summer, memories loomed of the terror attacks that led the United States into its longest war, in the “graveyard of empires,” as Afghanistan is often called.
Will young Americans bow to the changes that 9/11 wrought?
I asked Lawrence Wright, author of the Pulitzer Prize-winning book The Looming Tower: Al-Qaeda and the Road to 9/11, to comment on the legacy and significance of 9/11.
“I worry that younger Americans, who have no memory of America before 9/11, will accept the changes that event caused to our country—to the freedoms we enjoyed, the sense of security we felt, the confidence we had in our institutions to administer justice,” Wright said.
“America was wounded and is still suffering the after-effects of 9/11,” said Wright, whose acclaimed new book, The Plague Year: America in the Time of COVID, came out in June.
“I hope that young people will study that period of our history and realize what we’ve lost. That’s the only way we’ll get back the country we used to have.”
The Looming Tower offers an instructive perspective on recent political history in the Middle East, especially in Egypt, where the author lived and worked early in his career.
One of the book’s most disturbing revelations is how inter-agency squabbling and personality conflicts in the months leading up to 9/11 kept U.S. intelligence agencies from sharing the information that several al Qaeda operatives had entered the United States.
‘We did some good.’
Annie Pforzheimer, Acting Deputy Assistant U.S. Secretary of State for Afghanistan until March 2019 and deputy chief of mission at the U.S. embassy in Kabul in 2017-2018, also views September 11th as a watershed event.
“My 30-year diplomatic career divided itself into before and after 9/11,” Pforzheimer told me.
“Our relationship to the world was that different before and after the attack. Before, we had more trust and willingness to work with and for others, while afterward, the very primal urge to protect ourselves started to creep into every diplomatic and military conversation,” she said.
“We made terrible errors of judgment, like our intervention in Iraq, in part out of the desire to show strength after feeling so terribly weak,” Pforzheimer said.
“Going into Afghanistan immediately after 9/11 was not especially well-planned. How could it have been? The day before 9/11 we didn’t know that distant country would suddenly become a national priority.
“But once we got there, we did some good. We gave Afghan women, youth and minorities enough space to raise their voices on their own behalf.”
A board member of the non-profit Women for Afghan Women, Pforzheimer added: “Of all the work I did as a diplomat after 9/11, I am proudest of my work (in Afghanistan), because it was not just an expression of an ‘America First’ self-defense posture.”
“We protected the most vulnerable populations, like women harmed by searing domestic violence, and we helped a younger generation of Afghans beat back their leadership’s long history of solving conflicts through violence alone.”
I draw personal lessons from 9/11.
Present in New York on 9/11 and the days that followed, I personally will never forget the heartbreaking, homemade fliers that those searching for loved ones taped up on street corners and subway walls.
Nor can I forget the story that a friend told of her neighbor on Staten Island who, determined to be home should her missing son return from his job at the World Trade Center, barely rose from her couch for months.
On weekends, I volunteered at Pier 90, headquarters of the federal recovery effort, where I helped to screen survivors who applied for aid.
Two months went by, and a Parisian producer for Canal TV was moved by “Ground Zero Blues,” a song I wrote for my string band. She filmed us performing and aired it on the news in France.
More than a decade of controversy and bickering passed before plans were finalized for the 9/11 Memorial and Museum, which opened in New York’s newly constructed One World Trade Center in 2014.
More years rolled by, and the 9/11 attacks finally dealt my family a harsh blow that struck my adoptive son, a Muslim immigrant from Sierra Leone.
Abdulai had come to New York in 2000 as a young teenager fleeing the civil war that had killed his mother and other family members. By late 2016, recently married and a new father, he was diagnosed with a rare blood cancer.
Doctors traced his condition to a part-time job he had worked in lower Manhattan on 9/11 and the weeks that followed.
My son underwent a stem cell transplant and has been on chemotherapy ever since.
“Ground Zero Blues”
by Susan Ruel
One hundred and ten stories, a quarter mile in the sky,
Three thousand people — they’re wanted, dead or alive.
Three thousand fliers, three thousand cellphones ring;
Running upstairs and downstairs: somebody’s everything.
In the name of God, a million tons of open grave;
Downtown digging with their bare hands. Nobody left to save.
Missing, missing, missing… steel falling down like rain.
It happened one Tuesday morning. Now nothing feels the same.
©2001 Susan Ruel, all rights reserved.
Questions to consider:
- What happened on September 11, 2001 in the United States?
- Why did the United States begin a bombing campaign in Afghanistan in October 2001?
- What geopolitical events have marked your life, and why?
Susan Ruel worked on the international desks of the Associated Press and United Press International and reported for UPI from Shanghai, San Francisco and Washington. She has written and edited articles and books for the United Nations, including reports from Nigeria. A former journalism professor with a PhD in writing and literature, she co-authored two French books on U.S. media history and was a Fulbright scholar in West Africa. Based in New York City, she is currently hematology/oncology editor for MDedge/Medscape.