Solemn anniversary today. Is there anyone who doesn’t remember where they were and what they were doing that day, seventeen short years ago, when death descended without warning from a clear blue sky?
The day began much like any other. Three hundred million Americans went about their morning routines, oblivious to the drama about to unfold. I was reading the newspaper and having coffee when my girlfriend of the time called to tell me that a small plane had just collided with one of the Twin Towers, and that I should turn on the television. Which station? “Pick one; it’s on every channel.”
The live picture, shimmery with distance, was zoomed in on the two famous structures. The one in the foreground had a giant jagged hole in it. Smoke poured from the gaping wound. A Cessna didn’t do that, I thought. Improbably, tiny figures could be seen moving amid the wreckage. One of them picked its way to the edge, paused briefly, and leaped into nothingness.
Suddenly United 175 came into view, banking sharply in its final, fatal approach. On impact, flames and debris exploded in all directions. And in that instant confusion gave way to a terrible clarity: This was no accident.
There was stunned silence as, inconceivably, the South tower fell, it’s crowning antenna oddly askew, trailing smoke and dust as it collapsed in surreal slow motion. Minutes later the North tower followed. An icon of American enterprise, containing many lives, had simply disappeared. The sickening realization dawned that thousands had just died. In short order the Pentagon was struck, followed by a news of plane crash in Pennsylvania. It became painfully clear that a coordinated attack was underway.
The attacks shocked the nation. A sense of unreality settled over the land, and for a while life hung suspended. All flights were grounded, and for the first time in decades no jet contrails crossed the bright blue late-summer sky. Little business was conducted. Wherever people gathered they spoke in hushed tones. There was a general sense of disbelief mingled with foreboding, as though another shoe was surely poised to fall. Fearing the worst, panicked shoppers picked store shelves bare.
How they must have danced with joy at the sight of the toppled towers, hated symbol of the haughty American infidels. How they must have cheered to the thought of thousands of them dead, murdered in their very lairs, where they thought themselves safe. Not just murdered, but obliterated, shredded and ground into dust. Allah be praised!
How they must have howled with rage to learn of the soft, impudent apostates of United 93, who had bidden their loved ones a tearful goodbye and then gone grimly to work, ultimately wresting the doomed craft from their captives’ grasp at the cost of their own lives. And in so doing, unknowingly thwarting what was to have been the master stroke, the grand finale, the coup de grace. For United 93 had been chosen to destroy that most hated of symbol of them all, the Capital.
They had planned exceptionally well. Each of the hijackers entered the country legally. All trained at certified flight schools. They did little to draw attention. They chose cross-country flights, each fully loaded with fuel. Their weapons, knives made of carbon fiber, were invisible to the metal detectors. Even the last-second hard banking turns of United 11 and American 175 had been deliberate, causing the planes to strike their respective targets at steep angles, simultaneously damaging many floors.
Little slip-ups here and there caught the attention of American intelligence, but they were too infrequent and scattered to form a pattern. One hijacker told his flight instructor that he did not need to learn how to land. Mohamed al-Qahtani, believed to be the 20th hijacker, was turned back at the entry port of Orlando when he could not answer basic questions or produce a return ticket, and gave his Customs inspector “the creeps.” Zacarias Moussaoui aroused suspicion among his flight instructors when he sought time in the Boeing 737 simulator despite having failed all his coursework.
Those who planned the attacks had no way of knowing it, and wouldn’t have believed it anyway such was their contempt, but before the dust had even cleared their fate was already sealed. Because for some, the sight of falling towers and smoking wreckage had a very different, quite powerful effect. From that moment of pure shock, rough men of sure purpose and unforgiving mien drew steely, lethal resolve.
In retrospect one war was right and proper, the other a tragic blunder, and in our haste to avenge the grievous injury, we made more enemies than we dispatched. Such is war.
Something like 911 was probably inevitable. For many of Islamist bent, the mere continued existence of the decadent, secular West and its chief avatar, the United States, was provocation enough. Years of perceived petty slights stoked a gathering rage that demanded satisfaction.
The architect of the attack, one Osama bin Laden, had long been on American radar. In many ways he made a most unlikely villain. Son of a Yemeni contractor who built a multi-billion dollar fortune serving the House of Saud, bin Laden was born to a life of extraordinary privilege. Shy and retiring from a young age, even as a grown man he exuded a fragile, almost delicate air in spite of being unusually tall.
Bin Laden’s early life featured all the usual hedonistic indulgence of the idle super-rich. But a chance meeting with an early advocate of Salafism, an extremely ascetic branch of Islam, sparked a sense of purpose in the aimless and diffident thirty-something, and launched him irreversibly down the path of radicalization. In time, bin Laden came to nurture a profound, inconsolable sense of historical grievance. In his later life he spoke frequently of the “Tragedy of Andalusia,” a reference to the expulsion of the Moors by the Spanish in 1492, as though it had only recently happened. With a combination of deep pockets and hypnotic, low-key charisma, bin Laden gradually ascended the ranks of the shadowy jihadi underworld until he was its undisputed leader.
After a worldwide manhunt lasting a decade, bin Laden met death at the hands of American Special Forces in his compound on the outskirts of Abottabad, the West Point of Pakistan, where he had hidden in plain sight for years. In death, bin Laden was accorded the respect he wouldn’t have dreamed of granting his own numberless victims. His body was ritually washed, wrapped in a shroud, given proper last rites, and then buried at sea in the dead of night, somewhere in the vastness of the Indian Ocean.
The attack’s symbolism was immediately obvious: United, American, nine-one-one, the Towers, New York, Washington. The White House was also supposed to be struck, but the pilot of American 77 came in too low and too fast and had to settle for his secondary target, the Pentagon, just across the Potomac.
The attacks awakened a dormant homegrown crackpot faction who, before the battered bodies were even cold, proclaimed loudly and insistently that “911 was an inside job.” Ignoring physics, chemistry, logic, and Everests of evidence, imputing powers of nearly supernatural scope to those who carried out the attacks, “truthers,” as they called themselves, blamed a malignant nexus of shadowy government forces and transnational operators for the crime, though for what purpose they could never coherently articulate. Years on, they snipe from the fringes, their ardor undiminished by time, an unwitting testimonial to the power of true belief uncorrupted by reason.
A poisonous aftermath still lingers. Tens of thousands rushed to ground zero in the days after the attacks. Eschewing protective masks, with every breath they inhaled a toxic stew of particulates, chemicals and rotting flesh, planting the seeds of future exotic, deadly cancers. Thousands have already died, with many more undoubtedly to come.
In the conventional sense, of course, the enemy was utterly defeated. Two wars and countless black missions left their forces in ruins, their safe havens destroyed, their financial and communications networks wrecked. But because the war was always about ideology, not a contest for territory or resources, it could be argued that in some ways they may actually have won. Because we are no longer as we were. They changed us, forever.
The inchoate fear the attack unleashed has never quite gone away. We have willingly surrendered many little freedoms we once took for granted. We live in a surveillance society and think it normal. We persist in a state of permanent war, the end nowhere in sight. With the threat of another attack ever-present, we can never let down our guard. We killed thousands of enemies but made tens of thousands more, at a cost of trillions.
Though we may rightfully hate them, in a way we must also admire them: for their savagely unwavering single-mindedness, for the brilliant, brutal simplicity of the plan and its nearly flawless execution, for its powerful symbolism. For the price of a handful of plane tickets they humbled their bitterest enemy, the Great Satan, if only for a short while, and changed the course of history.
And still we wait, for the other shoe that will surely someday fall.