We all remember where we were that bright September morning when 19 hijackers turned four passenger planes into weapons of mass destruction. We sent our kids to school, kissed our spouses and went about our busy lives, never dreaming that this would be the day our innocence died — a demarcation point between an old world where America was relaxed and open and a new world where security barriers, metal detectors and armed guards have become regular fixtures in our lives.
What had the United States done to deserve this horror? That the World Trade Center, the Pentagon and likely the U.S. Capitol were targeted made it apparent the hijackers intended to destroy America’s most iconic symbols of military power, capitalism and freedom.
Perhaps we should have suspected something awful was coming. There were warnings. Less than a year earlier, a small dinghy pulled up beside the USS Cole, a U.S. Navy destroyer refueling in Aden, Yemen. Two suicide bombers, Al-Qaida henchmen, waved to the unsuspecting American sailors onboard, and then blew themselves up, killing 17 sailors, wounding 39 and creating a 40’ by 40’ hole in the ship. Despite the insistence of many that this was an act of war, the U.S. government did little to retaliate. The incident quickly retreated in the minds of most people.
So, on 9/11, when the first airliner hit the north tower of the World Trade Center in Manhattan at 8:46 a.m., killing all the passengers and hundreds in the building, Americans initially assumed it was a horrible, freak accident. It was not until 9:03, when the second plane slammed into the south tower, killing hundreds more, that the terrible truth was realized — our homeland was under attack.
Concern escalated into terror and shock as we learned that a third plane had flown into the Pentagon, killing 184; and in a bucolic field in Pennsylvania, Flight 93 crashed, killing all 40 souls on board.
In the uncertainty of the day, at 9:42 that morning, for the first time in history, the Federal Aviation Administration ordered the grounding of all flights over or inbound to the continental U.S. In a little more than two hours, more than 4,500 commercial and private planes had landed at airports in Canada and the U.S. In Washington D.C., the White House, the U.S. Capitol and numerous federal buildings and national landmarks were evacuated.
Sept. 11, 2001, was a day filled with fear and death. But it was also a time when American resolve shined — demonstrated by incredible acts of courage and patriotism. In one of the most heroic events of the day, resolute passengers and crew on Flight 93, their own aircraft hijacked, received calls from loved ones informing them of the events. Those individuals, some of the bravest Americans in history, fought back. The revolt led by Todd Beamer, Edward Felt and others likely prevented far more deaths had the plane reached its intended mark.
In New York, within minutes of the planes hitting the towers, hundreds of first responders rushed to the scene. As firefighters and police officers unhesitatingly prepared to enter the burning infernos, priests quickly heard confessions and offered absolution to men who knew they likely would not come back. Of the 2,977 victims killed that day, 412 were first responders.
Meanwhile, President George W. Bush, who had been reading to a group of second-graders in Sarasota, Fla., was quickly whisked away. Despite arguing with Secret Service to return to Washington, he was taken to Barksdale Airforce Base in Louisiana. The base commander, Lt. Gen. Tom Keck, later told journalist Garret M. Graff, author of “The Only Plane in the Sky: An Oral History of 9/11,” that base authorities “got this radio request — Code Alpha — a high-priority incoming aircraft. It wanted 150,000 pounds of gas, 40 gallons of coffee, 70 box lunches, and 25 pounds of bananas. It would not identify itself. It was clearly a big plane. It didn’t take us long to figure out that the Code Alpha was Air Force One.”
The pilot of the president’s plane, Col. Mark Tilman, told Garret that during the brief landing at Barksdale, he “went down to the tarmac to see about having the plane refueled. We could carry 14 hours of fuel. I wanted 14 hours of fuel. I was worried that they weren’t going to have enough fuel trucks, but it turned out we’d happened to park over a hot refueling tank they used for bombers. This civilian is arguing with our crew, ‘The fuel pits are only authorized for use in time of war.’ This Air Force master sergeant — God bless him — overhears this and roars, ‘We are at war!’ He whips out his knife and starts cutting open the cover. That defines to me what the day was like.”
That day, the U.S. went to war. Soon after, American armies invaded Afghanistan and Iraq. They are still there today. Since October 2001, more than 3 million service members have deployed to those theaters at least once. Nearly 6,900 of them never came home. Hundreds of thousands have returned wounded in mind, body and/or spirit.
Nearly 10 years after the attacks, President Barack Obama authorized the killing of Al-Qaida leader Osama bin Laden, the perpetrator of the awful crimes. While the nation rejoiced, in bin Laden’s absence rose a new terror group called ISIS. More troops were required to squelch that brutal organization. And they did, quite efficiently. But decisive victories and lasting peace in Iraq and Afghanistan remain out of reach.
Nineteen years ago, the United States came face to face with evil. In the days, weeks and months that followed, Americans came together in a way that had not happened since Pearl Harbor. Flags flew from millions of homes. Artists created memorable tributes, musicians sang patriotic songs and legislators worked together for a brief time. Too brief a time.
Now, the bumper stickers and slogans of that day — “Let’s roll,” “Never forget” and “Support our troops” — are long gone. Few politicians now bother to make any pretense of working with those on the other side of the aisle. And, for an entire generation of Americans, 9/11 is a but a history lesson — they see the shocking images and hear the stories but for many, the event is no more real to them than Pearl Harbor is to anyone born after 1941.
On the 10th anniversary of 9/11, we noted on these editorial pages that “terrorists may attack the symbols of our freedom and our way of life, but they can never defeat us because of the spirit of freedom that all Americans share. When the passengers of Flight 93 understood their situation, they voted as a group to risk all in a fight against a suicidal and fanatical foe — and they won.” We continue to believe that today, despite the protests, the infighting and the discontent, most Americans would still respond the same way. We pray we are not wrong.