It’s the fifteenth anniversary of the September 11 terror attacks, and arguably the biggest question immediately facing me is whether to watch the U.S. Open men’s tennis final this afternoon, or the New York Giants’ first game of the pro football season. Something definitely seems off about that.
Not that I haven’t taken the time to think about that day’s terrible events, and to contact the one person I know who lost a loved one to let him know that I haven’t forgotten him. But otherwise, aside from the television coverage of the memorials, it’s been an ordinary Sunday.
It’s humbling to contemplate adding anything useful to the torrent of September 11 commentary and analysis that’s come out today alone. But before trying to provide some useful perspective, I thought it might be of interest to provide a link to the first post-September 11 column I wrote – for the website of the organization I worked for – and then recall my own experience and principal emotions that day.
First the link to the article, which I was pleasantly surprised to see holds up pretty well. I hope you agree that its main warning – about the prospect that economic forces of internal division would eventually hamper America’s anti-terrorism efforts – still resonates today. The only main change I would make if I had to redo the piece fifteen years later would be to place greater emphasis on internal social and cultural divisions – which arguably have been widened by the unequal impact of economic pressures.
My own September 11 began much as that of many others did. I was having a quick breakfast at home before leaving for work, watching the morning news, when I heard the first report, at about a quarter of nine, EST, of an airliner hitting the World Trade Center. I immediately thought that was odd because I knew that, since a military plane flew into the Empire State Building in 1945, extensive precautions had been taken to prevent repeats along the New York skyline. The clear weather also made the idea of an accident seem fishy. When reports of the second plane strike started coming in, the accident theory was clearly over.
Since in those days I had no computer at home and wanted to follow as much of the news as I could, I figured I’d head to work and take advantage of the desktop. The D.C. Metro system was still up and running – presumably because the Pentagon attack didn’t occur until 9:37 A.M. So I didn’t hear about that third attack until I got to my downtown office via subway.
I spent the rest of the morning trying to separate news from rumor, and phoning New York area friends and relatives to find out their circumstances. Then remembered I had scheduled a lunch that day with a scholar visiting from out of town. I made contact by email, she had of course heard about the news, and we agreed that we might as well try to keep the appointment. Evidently, I had seen something on-line about one restaurant being open in the DuPont Circle area, which was where she was staying, and which was an easy walk from my office. So at about noon I set off northward along Connecticut Avenue.
That walk remains my most vivid memory of the day. It was uneventful in and of itself, and the street didn’t seem especially deserted by pedestrians, although most businesses were closed. (Downtown D.C. can be remarkably un-urban.) But I kept looking up at the sky, and all around me, wondering whether another hijacked plane or truck would strike someplace in the vicinity. It was the first and only time that I’ve ever been on American soil and felt threatened by foreign attack.
The lunch took place – though my memory is unclear, I’m sure we spoke of nothing except for the stunning events of the day. We parted company, and since the Metro was closed by that time, I figured the only sensible thing to do was walk the two miles back home. It was, remember, a beautiful early autumn day in the Northeast. And like so many others, I spent the next day or two glued to the TV set and tracking down loved ones by phone.
As for the lay of the land now, it seems clear to me that the conventional wisdom is correct, and has been summarized pretty accurately by the Washington Post: Homeland security is considerably improved, but jihadism abroad looks much stronger than it was 15 years ago despite massive military, propaganda, and diplomatic efforts to combat it.
What the conventional wisdom doesn’t seem to recognize is that not only is this a major win for the United States. The contrast between success on the home front and ineffectiveness abroad sends a powerful message that a homeland-focused defense that tightens border security is America’s best bet for handling the terrorist threat – as I’ve written repeatedly. The logical follow on remains true as well – the last thing Washington should want to do is to worsen the emerging “lone wolf” problem at home by admitting more unvettable refugees from the chaotic Middle East.
I’m watching the Open.