People remember where they were on 9/11 (more on that below) but it is harder to remember how you felt and what you thought. At first it was just surprise and then anger. I don’t remember exactly when we found out Osama bin Laden was behind it. There was a lot of speculation before that. It was considered racist to jump to the conclusion that it had been Middle Eastern terrorists, but I think most people jumped in that direction anyway. Go with the probabilities.
I wrote notes to myself that evening, so I have some documentary sources beyond fallible memory. I wondered if this was going to be a big break with civilization, that would build to something catastrophic like the assassination of Franz Ferdinand let to World War. I understood that militarily all the countries of the Middle East combined could be defeated by a single American carrier group, but I also knew that would not be the type of conflict we faced. Everybody thought the terrorists would hit again and there was talk about a new normal where it became routine to have terror attacks.
When I look back over the years since 9/11/2001, I am relieved. It was not nearly as bad as we feared. We did a good job of countering the bad guys. I know we feel a little guilty now because we treated some of bad guys harshly and nobody can say what would have happened had we been less aggressive, I have to say that we achieved a good result. I would err on the side of caution and if that means some terrorist are uncomfortable, that is just the way it is. In eight years they have been unable to hit us again. It is not for lack of trying. Terrorism is a disease that will never go away entirely, but it can be controlled with proper treatment.
When I think back to the crowds and how we felt on 9/11/2001, I bet anyone in the crowd would have happily held anyone responsible or even associated the attacks underwater for as long as it took to make them talk or drown them. If fact, I bet a majority would have still held them under AFTER they talked. Considered judgment from a position of safety is usually different from the decisions you make when you are in the fray, when your life or those of your loved ones seem in the balance, and I don’t think we really have the moral right to be too strict when judging methods unless we also can recreate the state of mind. It is like telling someone that he used too big a caliber in stopping the attacking beast since a smaller one PROBABLY would have worked.
But it is human nature to second guess and to want to hold someone accountable for producing a result that was not as good as it is possible to imagine. I don’t hold with that. IMO people should feel afraid to attack the United States; those who kill Americans should anticipate a lethal response. And they should get it. The 9/11 attacks came when the U.S. was ostensibly at peace. We had just finished saving millions of Muslim lives in Kosovo. We had invaded no Middle Eastern countries. In fact, we had liberated one (Kuwait) from a particularly brutal tyrant. Al Qaeda had no reason to attack us, at least no reason a civilized human being would accept. As I write, I feel the anger return even after years have passed, so let me move along before I post something too bloody minded.
What I did on September 11
I was in the middle of a seminar on websites at FSI (yes, even back then) when someone came into the room and said that there had been a terror attack in NYC. We thought it was something like a suitcase in an airport, but we went out to the common area where CNN was on. We saw the towers burning and then they just collapsed. Somebody said that they could not have collapsed and it must just be the smoke hiding them, but it was a collapse. By then the Pentagon had also been hit so they decided to evacuate FSI, since it also was a Federal facility. They sent us home. I didn’t have a local home, since I was assigned to Warsaw and was on TDY in Washington from a conference. My hotel was the Holiday Inn in Roslyn near the Potomac, so I started to walk in that direction.
People were all over the streets, mostly going the opposite direction. Everyone was asking questions, but nobody knew any answers. I was surprised how friendly and helpful people were. There was no shoving or fighting even though the crowds and traffic were massive. There was also no panic, which is surprising when I think about it. When somebody would start to talk about a frightful thing, others would calm him down and say that we all just had to be calm. It is a couple of miles from FSI to the Potomac, so I passed lots of people walking and standing on porches. Despite the tragedy, or maybe because of it, I felt a peaceful easy feeling of solidarity with my fellow Americans, even as we could hear and see all the emergency vehicles screaming toward the Pentagon.
The Holiday Inn was full of people from posts overseas, since that is where we all were staying. Some worried about paying for the unexpectedly long stay. The Holiday Inn folks assured us that we could stay as long as we needed to. Soon State Department guaranteed that our travel orders would be amended to account for any differences. Those assurances were important. We all called our families to make sure they were okay and to tell them that we were fine. Actually, we tried to call. The lines were jammed. I don’t remember when I finally got through. Email worked, however. I figured the my family, living in Poland, were among the safest people in the world anyway.
I walked over to the Key Bridge. You could see the smoke rising from the Pentagon. It was actually pretty against the clear blue sky. I thanked God for the brave Americans working to protect us, all those firefighters and police in New York, and those ordinary Americans who stood up to the terrorists on Flight 93 and probably saved much destruction and death in downtown Washington.
I was stuck in DC until September 17. If you see that Michael Moore movie where he makes a big deal about the bin Laden family getting out “early” on September 21, know that he is full of crap (about that and everything else, BTW). Flights to Europe resumed on or before September 17 because I was on one of them. I had to go via Atlanta and Rome to Warsaw, but it wasn’t too hard. The planes were almost empty. I got upgraded to business class and the seat next to me was empty.
I got back home and back to work, sadder, a little less trusting and a lot more aware of being American in a world that seemed more dangerous.