September 11: Remembering the day and what it has brought us

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Posted yesterday on Instagram, from Katie Couric: “18 years ago today 3,000 people would be spending their last night with their family. Think about that for a second.” I’m thinking about that, have been all week. Not a day goes by, from September 1 until September 11, that I don’t think about that day — and now the day and night on the eve of the attacks.

Most of us never know when we will spend our last night alive. Some people do and you can imagine who those people are; some of us have watched family members and friends in their final days and hours.

For the majority of us, we just wake up one Tuesday morning and head off to work as usual, or board a plane bound for the other coast, as we may have done before. If we think about what might happen, on our way to work, at work, or on a plane to somewhere, it’s usually fleeting.

Aerial view of the Pentagon Building located in Washington, District of Columbia (DC), showing emergency crews responding to the destruction caused when a high-jacked commercial jetliner crashed into the southwest corner of the building, during the 9/11 terrorists attacks.
(Chief Photographer’s Mate Eric J. Tilford, U.S. Navy)

When we stand in the damn line for the TSA security screening, it bugs the crap out of us, but we remember why we have to remove our shoes, even our sandals and send them through the scanner.

That’s been baked into our culture now for 18 years. Some nutbar had his shoes turned into a bomb that failed. The cologne I use is expensive so I don’t travel with it. No liquids over … who remembers how many ounces? But the alternative? I’ll make some choices and sacrifices, as small and inconsequential as they appear.

Many of us are reminded of 9-11 throughout the year, whether it’s at the TSA security line or a brief encounter with someone we were with or spoke to on that day. Seems like there are a million ways we are reminded. For instance, the only reason former Daily Show host Jon Stewart is in the news is when he is shaming Congress to pass legislation to fund first responders and others that are deathly ill — or deceased — from working at and being around “The Pile,” what workers called the remains of the World Trade Center complex which smoldered for months after 9-11. That’s a very powerful reminder.

We remember that 2,996 people died as a direct result of the 9-11 attacks, as well as those that have died as a result of being exposed to the toxic air at and around Ground Zero.

I still remember exactly where I was and what I was doing when the news of what was going on in New York and Arlington, Virginia and then later in Storycreek Township, Pennsylvania — Shanksville first hit me. It was early in the morning, Pacific Time, around 6:30 a.m., 9:30 New York. The twin towers of the World Trade Center were still standing, bellowing smoke. I had been awake for about two hours before turning on the TV. Every network was showing video of Lower Manhattan, people rushing away from the disaster, firefighters and police running towards the burning buildings.

Two planes had plunged into the towers and the newscasters said, a third had crashed into the Pentagon. We were under attack and on every station, every newscaster, commentator and reporter was comparing it to Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941, only this was much worse. And it was.

Other than one plane diving into the Pentagon, this was primarily an attack on civilian targets, although the plane that crashed into the field in Storycreek, PA was on its way to Washington, D.C.

Then the towers went crashing down, sending suffocating clouds of smoke and debris through Manhattan. Throughout the day news of the details began pouring in. New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani — before he was a Trump hack — speaking to the media as he walked from WTC to a new command center. The permanent command center had been in one of the towers. The mayor talked about the horror of finding out that the loud thumps they were hearing were actually human bodies hitting the awnings above the entrance to the tower they were in. People were jumping from the windows.

For weeks after we heard people sharing the last messages from loved ones who were trapped in the floors above the places where the planes had hit. We saw news reports of the workers at Ground Zero who were becoming victims themselves. It was not long after the attacks that we began to hear about how bad the air was, that it could be dangerous, even fatal, to those who were working on the site.

San Diego, CA, from San Diego Bay
(Tim Forkes)

One thought stayed in my head for more than a year: How easy it would be to detonate a dirty bomb in San Diego Bay, with the wind blowing east it could wipe out much of the city and render the entire area unlivable. It could happen in Long Beach, San Pedro and San Francisco. How could the government guard against that?

It was a revelation for everyone — none of us are safe from this type of terror. There were a number of terror attacks around the world in the years that followed, all carried out by the same organization. U.S. troops went to Afghanistan and then, based on fraudulent information, to Iraq.

Life for Americans changed on that day. In many respects we over-reacted and didn’t really try to over-correct the initial response. Things like the Patriot Act and Joint Resolution 114 that gave President George W. Bush broad power to wage wars without Congressional approval, without Congress declaring war, as the founders had intended.

The Patriot Act gave the National Security Agency broad powers to intercept our communication, tracking every phone call, every email, all in an effort to stop terrorism. Scarier still, a lot of Americans, maybe even a majority, were okay with that if it kept us from being attacked. Because of 9-11 we brushed aside the intrusions into and dismantling of our civil liberties. Innocent people were detained for days and weeks, months even, because of some suspicious phone call or email. We had become what had been foretold in the Orwell classic, Nineteen Eighty-Four. And the majority of people seemed to be okay with it. No one ever talks about the Patriot Act anymore. Why is that?

Bush’s successor, Barack Obama, didn’t do anything to reduce presidential power in that regard. He was so hawkish, authorizing drone strikes from Yemen to Afghanistan, that members of his own party were talking about reigning him in.

We have been living the never-ending War on Terror ever since. Troops are still in Iraq, and even creeped into Syria. Troops are still in Afghanistan and some creeped into Pakistan to kill Usama bin Laden. And still, we haven’t formally declared was on anyone. Think about that.

The Tribute in Light
(Anthony Quintano)

We just found out that our current president had invited leaders of the Taliban to Camp David, and they would have been here this week, when they nation was remembering what they helped perpetrate 18 years ago. The Taliban, brutal rulers of Afghanistan, had given aid and comfort to Al Qaeda, the group that attacked us on 9-11. And now on the anniversary of those attacks our president was inviting those who were involved to Camp David?

There will be a lot of news today about memorials in New York, Arlington and Pennsylvania. It will be the center of attention on every news network all day, as it should. But we should also stay focused on what is happening today. What is our government doing now? How much danger are we in? There is no National Security Advisor. It appears the president is making up foreign policy as he goes along, taking his cues from TV talk show hosts. Many important posts in the Department of Defense, the State Department and intelligence agencies are unfilled; some have never been filled during this current administration. Our president has demonized our intelligence community, has cozied up with dictators — even taking Putin’s side about the attack on our 2016 elections.

The question is: are we safer now than we were in 2001? Each of us will have to answer that question. Maybe it’s time to stop living in fear, regardless of the threat level. None of us want to see that color code system again.

Today is a day for remembrance. All the other issues will be here tomorrow and we can fret about it then. The reality is: this will never end, as long as we continue to remember that day.

Photos courtesy of Wikipedia, unless otherwise noted.
Top photo: The World Trade Center burning (National Park Service)