Twenty years ago today, terrorists affiliated with al Qaeda hijacked four commercial jetliners in US airspace, crashing two of them into the World Trade Center towers in New York City, and one into the Pentagon. You know this, though. For over the last week, people have been talking about it a lot.
In my Senior year of High School, I had a teacher tell our class about his experience sitting in class in that same building back in 1963 and having the Principal come over the PA at the school to inform everyone about Kennedy's assassination in Dallas. He said that he had always remembered that day, that moment. That it was burned into his memory, even 38 years later. At the time, I never expected to have such an experience.
Months later, I did.
I remember that morning like no other morning in my life. I was in College in Bozeman, MT. I had an 8am class, and it was one of the rare times I was up early enough for breakfast. I remember walking toward the dining hall on the cool September morning, and saying hello to another resident of my building making his way back. "Someone just flew a plane into the World Trade Center," he said. I remember screwing up my face, snorting a bit, finding that possibility incomprehensible.
Sure enough all the TVs in the dining hall were tuned to CNN, and on the screen was the Twin Towers, both with smoke pouring from their center, and it was clear from the news coverage that no one knew what was going on. So I sat, watching a building I'd literally stood upon two months earlier burn, and confused went to class, where we only talked about the news. By the time we were done, the university had canceled all classes for the next few days.
The rest of the next few days isn't so clear. For hours no one knew anything, but the news was absolutely glued to what little we could know. As an 18-year old male who had recently had to send in my Selective Service card, the question and prospect of the Draft was absolutely in the back of mine, and many of my friend's minds.
We had been attacked. We didn't know yet by whom. We didn't know what might be coming next. The possibility of war loomed, people were scared, and our government clearly didn't have any answers.
What I never expected was that almost everything about our national response would prove to be a clear indication that al Qaeda had struck a perfect blow against our National Identity and way of life. They won. And two decades on, they still have.
We expanded our domestic surveillance state with the formation of the Department of Homeland Security and passage of the USA PATRIOT Act. We chose to engage in a costly and ultimately futile war in Afghanistan and another in Iraq, both of which collapsed those nations into a state even less stable than they had been in 2001. We continue to subject ourselves to unnecessary and intrusive security theater from an organization that has stopped precisely zero terrorists or hijackings since it's inception. We sell our police military hardware that they use to subjugate their local populations.
Don't get me wrong, the forces that were active in the US that have led us to the deep dysfunction we are operating in today have been active for more than the twenty years since 9/11. But those attacks accelerated all of the most dangerous trends in our national zeitgeist, and at the time, to so many of us, it seemed reasonable. We'd been attacked. We were scared. We didn't know what else to do.
I have to believe that we can change things. That the world can be made better than we've made it the last two decades. That we can rise above our fear, and undo all of the damage we've inflicted to ourselves, giving al Qaeda far more than they could ever have hoped for. I have to believe that, because the challenges that were laid out in front of us back on September 11, 2001 have only become more dire and more difficult, and our actions have only created new problems.
I have to believe it can be better, but I can not deny the magnitude of the challenge ahead.