Twenty years ago I walked out of first hour gym class at Monroe High School to hear now-alderman Josh Binger exclaim from the M-Room entryway, “I (kid) you not, two planes just flew into the World Trade Center and another into the Pentagon!”
I was a sophomore in high school. For a lot of people that day was a blur, but I remember almost every thought I had that day — my ADHD must have hit mega-dopamine/hyper-focus levels. There were some teachers that either played blind-eye to the world-changing events happening in the moment. There were others trying to distract students so-as to control the overwhelming emotion of some. Then there were others that simply said, “World history is happening at this moment” and turned on the tube TV sitting four feet off the ground on a rolling cart.
Mrs. Setterstrom took our Concert Choir down to the PAC to practice for the fall concert that was many weeks away. I skipped it, and stared at the screen in the chorale room. I watched the first tower fall, and after a deafening array of expletives, I stood with my hands on my waist with my jaw dropped. Tears swelled; anger; confusion; horror; angst. I felt it all.
I was just a 16-year-old kid from Wisconsin, and I could see the future: War. It was my generation’s Pearl Harbor — an attack on our country.
In Mr. Baker’s English 10 class that day, he had us write our thoughts and emotions in the moment, so as to help remember them. I didn’t know who Osama bin Laden was, or what al Qaeda was, but rumors on TV were circulating that it was Middle Eastern terrorists. At that time, in 2001, all I knew about Middle Eastern terrorists were the weekly bus bombings in Israel and the Gaza strip. It was so far away from home, there was no reason to give any AP newspaper brief a second look.
In the immediate aftermath, the country as a whole came together unlike anything I had ever seen. Flags as far as the eye could see. People constantly wearing red, white and blue; NYPD and FDNY hats were the rage (I had one of each). Professional sports teams started staying on the sidelines instead of going back to the locker rooms for the national anthem — and helping unravel a too-big-for-its-own-good flag on the field. God Bless America played at the seventh inning stretch — a new tradition. Forced patriotism never felt so good.
After about 6-12 months, I began to feel that unity of being one nation start to slip.
The political realm started splitting. Policy changes, like the Patriot Act, which allowed the NSA and FBI to wiretap, phone tap, keep transcripts of emails and track/spy on our own citizens started putting real doubt into people’s heads about nefarious political intentions of those in charge.
By Year 3 we as a nation were less interested in the day-to-day aspects of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, and even less so in what lay ahead for the future — after all, there was another presidential election in our midst.
Years 3-16 of the U.S.’s “conflicts” overseas were less and less interesting to the public. We were no longer united in defending a common enemy as much as we were about partisan bickering. Even with the rise of the Arab Spring — when Arab nations like Egypt and Libya ousted their leaders, and Syria began cracking down on its citizens and ISIS great into a global terrorist threat, we didn’t seem to give much care or attention. It was more like “oh, what country are we going into next?” Even still, after May 1, 2011, when U.S. Navy SEALS captured and killed bin Laden, the mastermind of the 9/11 attacks, our foreign policies (right or wrong) barely felt a dent — and the celebration in the streets of D.C. lasted about 24 hours, around the same amount of time as a when the home team wins an NBA Finals.
More and more everyone just kind of seemed to realize this foreign occupation had no end-game. There wasn’t a concrete plan for removal of troops or the excessive amount of equipment — much of which was destroyed or damaged before behind abandoned this past month.
President after president — four in all — resided in the White House while America occupied Afghanistan. The guy at the end of it (Biden) gets the blame for the withdrawal, which was predicated by the man before him, and all the while the can had been kicked down the road by the two dudes in office before him.
An endless, almost meaningless 20-year war. For what?
Did the Patriot Act give us more freedom? No. Did it make us more secure?
Perhaps. Was it worth 20 years, thousands of dead American soldiers and trillions in lost tax payer dollars? I’m squarely in the “no” camp.
Twenty years later I try to remember 9/11 for those that put themselves on the front lines for their neighbors, and the strangers who needed help — the FDNY, NYPD, nurses, doctors and National Guardsmen. Also, those that joined the military ranks to defend our country, despite the war itself being regrettable.
I remember the feeling of angst as a teenager fully understanding that what was happening in that exact moment would change everything I knew about the world.
I reflect on those who helped in the moment. Those who dedicated their lives to protect America. Those who sacrificed their lives for their fellow Americans. Those images of ash-covered workers, maimed civilians, the airplanes and the burning towers cross my mind daily even still.
We even experienced some “cool” things in the collective aftermath of 9/11 — from an overwhelming sense of patriotism to the first time in nearly a century where you could look up at the sky and not see chem-trails from airplanes (for about an entire week!). I’ve wondered over these past two years how the divide we see in the current the COVID-19 pandemic can be traced back to 9/11 and the 20-year war that followed.
Here’s the TLDR breakdown, missing pages of nuance: Our unity took a major hit, but it didn’t all come at once.
President Bush was quick to survey the damage of 9/11, but aid for New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina took bogusly way too long. The 2008 presidential race split everyone even more — it seemed either you wanted to see optimism in Oval Office again, or you feared having either a former First Lady or a half-black man with an Islamic name living in the White House.
Eight years later, that split continued to where a shrewd, maybe-rich white dude with a really bad spray tan and a plethora of moral and ethical concerns was up against that same former First Lady (also a former lawyer, Senator and Secretary of State). Then four years of nonstop day-to-day divisiveness on social media continued from the top down.
Our election integrity has been called into question. There was an insurrection at the Capitol (a lot of flags of enemy/traitorous states were flown on those grounds and in those halls Jan. 6, something that had never happened before). The divide has grown so large that so many American people no longer trust its public scientists and doctors in regards to the pandemic — in how to handle it, in trusting the vaccine or protecting oneself. There is no longer a sense of collective American unity. There is simply no longer trust anywhere — not in government, not in science, not in policing, not in the media and not even in our own friends or neighbors it seems.
The definition of terrorism is “the unlawful use of violence and intimidation, especially against civilians, in the pursuit of political aims.”
Osama bin Laden and al Qaeda wanted to strain, if not cripple the Western world, demoralizing us and splitting us into competitive factions.
Suffice to say, it took 20 years, but did bin Laden and the terrorists actually win?
My call to you is to prove me wrong — not in words, but in actions. Come together as a people again; as a nation.
Be civil. Be sensible.
Acknowledge a need for growth in maturity, emotions and intelligence. Acknowledge individual uniqueness.
Understand your constitution; understand that the freedom of speech is not without consequence from private businesses or people.
We can do better — I know this, because we’ve done it multiple times before. We did it after Pearl Harbor in 1941, and 20 years ago we did it again after 9/11. This time, let’s stay the course, so that this Great Experiment we call America can continue to endure.
— Adam Krebs is the Editor for the Times. He was awarded First Place for Local Columnist in Class E in the 2020 Wisconsin Newspaper Association’s Better Newspaper Contest. He can be reached at email@example.com.