Twenty years ago yesterday—September 10th, 2001—I was five and a half years old growing up outside of Boston. That day, my mom and I went to the nearby Chestnut Hill Mall (having since been gentrified and recast as The Shops at Chestnut Hill) to try and find myself a new pair of shoes for the new school year.
Plumbing the depths of my foggy and halcyonic recollections of late 1990s and early 2000s Boston, I recall a Stride Rite on the second floor of the mall—our destination that day. I wistfully remember Stride Rite, a Boston-based children’s footwear chain, for its sand tables, toys, and vivid atmosphere. It was, in essence, everything that shopping as a kid usually was not—fun.
I recall picking out a pair of light-up sneakers—second only to Heelys when it came to the playground hierarchy of kids’ footwear.
I couldn’t wait to get to school and showcase my shoes, banging them against any object in sight to activate the lights.
There’s something strange about thinking back to that time. Much is made by historians, sociologists and journalists about the profound effects and transformations that the attacks and aftermath of September 11th, 2001 had on our country, and our world.
But to have been that young then, on this brink of sentience and development, and to inherit and grow in front of the backdrop of a world very much shaped by the events of not only the next day, but the next decade and beyond—there’s just something to that I’ve never been quite able to put my finger on.
In some way, it feels like coming of age at the precise juncture of where one era meets the next, the sinew of one millenia meeting the next—from a post-Cold War Pax Americana of Seinfeld, Bill Clinton, and the World Wide Web, to Eminem, George W. Bush, and the War on Terror.
Directly across Route 9 from The Chestnut Hill Mall, and just a quick ride down Beacon St. from Boston College, was the Park Inn. The Park Inn was a 144 room motel located next to The Atrium Mall, which has since been renovated into medical office space, an upscale gym, along with other tenants. The Park Inn was torn down in the mid-2000s and replaced with luxury apartments.
Just 500 feet away from where my mom and I stood that afternoon, across Route 9 from the mall at the Park Inn, staying inside Room 432, was 9/11 hijacker Satam al-Suqami. al-Suqami was then a 25-year-old Saudi law student.
Now a 25-year-old American law student, sometimes I think about what was going through the mind of al-Suqami that day, struggling to imagine what it would be like to have committed one’s self to such evil, and knowing what will happen in the following 24 hours.
As my mom and I exited the mall on 9/10/01, it seems now in retrospect those were the final hours of the world as we knew it, before everything changed. I often wonder what it would be like to be as conscious then as I am now, to be able to experience through adult eyes our country, our government, and the American experience in such a different era–what it would be like to go on a vacation through time instead of space, not leaving the upper right quadrant of our country, but instead being able to visit it and experience how it was some years ago, back before that terrible and fateful day.
al-Suqami had been recruited to al-Qaeda, and the next morning would become one of the hijackers of American Airlines Flight 11. Staying with him that night at the Park Inn in Chestnut Hill were fellow hijackers Waleed and Wail al-Shehri.
Also across town on September 10th, 9/11 ringleader Mohammad Atta picked up Abdulaziz al-Omari from the Milner Hotel on Beacon Hill in Boston, and drove the pair to Portland, Maine, where the next morning they would take a connecting flight to Boston’s Logan International Airport, where Flight 11 would depart from and which the five men would hijack somewhere over Western Massachusetts and crash into the North Tower of the World Trade Center in New York City, part of an attack in which 3,000 souls perished.
The attack thrust the United States and a coalition of allies into the War on Terror, with its aftermath resulting in the largest restructuring of the US Government in contemporary history. Powerful lawyers like Attorney General Alberto Gonzalez and Vice President Cheney’s Chief of Staff David Addington reinterpreted the law, created agencies, developed loopholes, strengthened the presidency, moved detainees around the world, sicked the NSA on treasure troves of data, all desperately trying to prevent the next 9/11, and confront an enemy plotting in the shadows, with no state, no government, no rules, and no concern for their own life or the lives of others.
Recently and over the last 20 years a flurry of documentaries, books, articles, news shows, autobiographies and films have been critical (often rightfully so) over the legal transgressions of the United States and other nations in response to 9/11. Images of “detainees” at Guantanamo Bay, the collateral damage of drone strikes and war, and concern over warrantless wiretapping and electronic surveillance by the NSA among other matters are areas of concern that have dominated discussions for years.
The Iraq War, launched in 2003, has long served as the poster child for bad decision making and overzealous foreign policy. The human cost of conflict, something we have been largely desensitized to as the civilian and military death tolls of 20 years of conflict have for many been reduced merely to a running tally on the Wikipedia pages of wars the American public had largely long forgotten about, has been profound.
Among the ashes of tragedy rise stories of great heroes from that day and the days and years that followed.
Complex decisions faced our leaders. President Bush chose to use boots on the ground in Afghanistan as opposed to merely cruise missile strikes, another option presented to him by his national security team, on Al Qaeda camps which President Clinton had targeted in the 1990s to little effect. In the 1990s, President Clinton decided against a strike on Bin Laden offered by the CIA and declined to accept him from Sudan as a prisoner for lack of evidence. The US and its allies knew Bin Laden was pure evil and was a financier and organizer of terror. It was known in the years and months leading up to 9/11 that more was in the works. But it was deemed unlikely by the Clinton administration that there was sufficient evidence that the US legal system could stick to bin Laden at the time, and strategic questions existed. Despite growing concerns about al-Qaeda, little was done. Despite threats emanating from the terrorist hotbed of Afghanistan, following the Soviet Union’s exit from the country the US found little strategic interest there in the 1990s.
The system was blinking red, but nothing was done. Of the many flaws in the system, defense, legal, and otherwise that were exposed on 9/11, the decisions made not to act in the 1990s were in many ways as consequential as decisions to act in the years that followed.
The Bush administration, following what came to be known as the Rumsfeld Doctrine, sent limited numbers of US forces with heavy air support into Afghanistan to support local rebel groups in toppling the Taliban and ousting Al Qaeda from the country, something that was achieved rapidly, by the end of 2001.
But the decision to use a light footprint, to spare US lives, to prevent the optics of the US as an “occupier,” and as some would argue, to conserve resources for future war in Iraq, had the effect of leaving the mountainous border range between Pakistan and Afghanistan open, allowing Osama Bin Laden and senior Al Qaeda leadership to escape at Tora Bora. Pakistan’s inability and unwillingness to allow Western militaries to operate on the ground in its border regions that the Taliban continuously used to regroup and retool throughout the war made victory undefinable, as there existed an enemy that could be killed but never extinguished since it could escape whenever it was on the ropes. Pakistan’s military was and is largely focused on its heated rivalry with neighboring India, and while the nuclear armed nation proved instrumental in finding and handing over intelligence and high value terrorists to the US, it and its ISI maintained an under the table relationship with the Taliban and was weary of the ire of its people if it were to, in their mind, sacrifice some sense of sovereignty by allowing US forces to target Taliban and Al-Qaeda within its boundaries on the ground.
President Bush, in his autobiography Decision Points, writes:
“In the months after we liberated Afghanistan, I told [Pakistani President] Musharraf I was troubled by reports of al Qaeda and Taliban forces fleeing into the loosely governed, tribal provinces of Pakistan—an area often compared to the Wild West. “I’d be more than willing to send our Special Forces across the border to clear out the areas,” I said. He told me that sending American troops into combat in Pakistan would be viewed as a violation of Pakistani sovereignty. A revolt would likely ensue. His government would probably fall. The extremists could take over the country, including its nuclear arsenal. In that case, I told him, his soldiers needed to take the lead. For several years, the arrangement worked. Pakistani forces netted hundreds of terrorists, including al Qaeda leaders like Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, Abu Zubaydah, and Abu Faraj al Libbi. Musharraf also arrested A.Q. Khan, the revered father of the Pakistani nuclear bomb, for selling components from the country’s program on the black market. As Musharraf often reminded me, Pakistani forces paid a high price for taking on the extremists. More than fourteen hundred were killed in the war on terror.
Over time, it became clear that Musharraf either would not or could not fulfill all his promises. Part of the problem was Pakistan’s obsession with India. In almost every conversation we had, Musharraf accused India of wrongdoing. Four days after 9/11, he told me the Indians were “trying to equate us with terrorists and trying to influence your mind.” As a result, the Pakistani military spent most of its resources preparing for war with India. Its troops were trained to wage a conventional battle with its neighbor, not counterterrorism operations in the tribal areas. The fight against the extremists came second. A related problem was that Pakistani forces pursued the Taliban much less aggressively than they pursued al Qaeda. Some in the Pakistani intelligence service, the ISI, retained close ties to Taliban officials. Others wanted an insurance policy in case America abandoned Afghanistan and India tried to gain influence there. Whatever the reason, Taliban fighters who fled Afghanistan took refuge in Pakistan’s tribal regions and populated cities like Peshawar and Quetta. In 2005 and 2006, these sanctuaries aided the rise of the insurgency.”
The US learned from mistakes at Tora Bora by using a large conventional US force to clear Al-Qaeda fighters from the Shahi-Kot Valley in Operation Anaconda in March 2002. While the mission was successful, the US encountered logistical difficulties of fighting in such an inhospitable and rugged environment that it eventually adapted to, with aircraft issues, radio and communication problems, and a chain of command still getting used to applying the American way of war to a country that without radios, AK-47s, and vehicles, largely resembled itself from the time Alexander the Great tried to conquer it in 330 BC.
Further, the coalition in keeping with the belief of not negotiating with terrorists, they refused to negotiate with defeated Taliban members, giving them no role in the future of the country and in essence believing it was possible to completely eradicate their violent ideology. Instead of ending the war in a clear and decisive victory in early 2002 and pursuing counterterrorism missions throughout the region, the coalition remained in Afghanistan for two decades, trying to build a democratic nation from scratch, allowing a Taliban insurgency to fester for years in the belief that tribal warlords could at once be transformed into practitioners of Jeffersonian democracy.
In Iraq, an alloy of the neocon opportunism of remaking a brutal dictatorship that eschewed human rights into a Western friendly and oil rich democracy, and the legitimate fears of Saddam Hussein unfurling chemical and biological weapons (which he had used before) and possibly nuclear weapons upon the world led to the controversial invasion of the country in which the US was accused of rushing to war. President Bush, in his autobiography writes:
“Whenever I heard someone claim that we had rushed to war, I thought back to this period. It had been more than a decade since the Gulf War resolutions had demanded that Saddam disarm, over four years since he had “kicked out the weapons inspectors, six months since I had issued my ultimatum at the UN, four months since Resolution 1441 had given Saddam his “final opportunity,” and three months past the deadline to fully disclose his WMD. Diplomacy did not feel rushed. It felt like it was taking forever. Meanwhile, the threats continued. President Hosni Mubarak of Egypt had told Tommy Franks that Iraq had biological weapons and was certain to use them on our troops. He refused to make the allegation in public for fear of inciting the Arab Street. But the intelligence from a Middle Eastern leader who knew Saddam well had an impact on my thinking. Just as there were risks to action, there were risks to inaction as well: Saddam with a biological weapon was a serious threat to us all. In the winter of 2003, I sought opinions on Iraq from a variety of sources. I asked for advice from scholars, Iraqi dissidents in exile, and others outside the administration. One of the most fascinating people I met with was Elie Wiesel, the author, Holocaust survivor, and deserving Nobel Peace Prize recipient. Elie is a sober and gentle man. But there was passion in his seventy-four-year-old eyes when he compared Saddam Hussein’s brutality to the Nazi genocide. “Mr. President,” he said, “you have a moral obligation to act against evil.” The force of his conviction affected me deeply. Here was a man who had devoted his life to peace urging me to intervene in Iraq. As he later explained in an op-ed: “Though I oppose war, I am in favor of intervention when, as in this case because of Hussein’s equivocations and procrastinations, no other option remains.”
These decisions were and are complicated. Twenty Septembers later, after now President Biden’s decision to withdraw from Afghanistan entirely, horrifying images of desperate Afghans trying to flee the violent and repressive Taliban falling from departing US cargo planes shock the conscience. The aftermath for veterans of two decades of war, many of whom have children who also fought in it, is complicated and heartbreaking. The human cost is immeasurable. Despite thousands of terrorists and extremists having been killed over two decades, threats and offshoot terror organizations remain. It is unlikely anything like 9/11 could happen again. In fact, in two decades, it has not. The United States and its allies have in many ways sufficiently hardened our defense infrastructure and intelligence abilities such that hijackers could never again wantonly enter the US and walk through the doors of Boston’s Logan Airport armed with boxcutters and repeat the tragedy and great evil of that day.
Unmanned drone strikes, while controversial, have effectively decimated the leadership of terrorist organizations over the last two decades, keeping a thumb on their ability to create chaos and violence, while avoiding risking US lives. A coalition of western nations successfully defeated ISIS in Iraq and Syria and today stands an Iraqi nation that while imperfect, in many ways is a better place than it was under the barbaric dictator Saddam Hussein. But the ends do not always justify the means. Mistakes were made, and the region from which the tragedy of that day was organized is still a perilous place that certainly today seems much like it did twenty years ago, with a hardline government under the Taliban banner back in power, and a Biden White House that–much like the Bush White House of 2000-2001–seeks to focus its attention on rival China, domestic issues, and the problems of our time.
Twenty Septembers later, what has changed? What has stayed the same?
There are so many directions one could go with this line of thinking. For me though, there’s something about these events that have served as part of the backdrop of my life and my generation’s experiences that is the most interesting, and as I referenced above, is something that’s hard to put my finger on.
The unwritten stories, the unspoken truths, and the way my life straddles the fence of two eras—the one that came before that day, and the one we have come to inhabit after it, inspires me to think deeply about the world and our issues. I remember myself and others being afraid to go into Boston in late 2001 and into 2002 since tall buildings were targets, and for some time after 9/11 nearly everyone was certain there were more attacks to come. I remember spinning a classroom globe in elementary school and thumbing the tactile ridges on the middle east section of the globe meant to represent the rugged mountain ranges that served as the theater for the airstrikes and battles chronicled on TV.
I remember the sudden sense of unity and belonging, care and concern for one another—patriotism and the shared sense of duty for the difficult tasks ahead following that day. Yellow ribbons and “United We Stand” bumper stickers, reinvigorated Memorial Days and Veterans Days fill my memory. I also remember every September for the last twenty Septembers—the annual tradition of going to school on 9/11/20XX each year, shortly after the first day of school, with the weather still summerlike and our school supplies still fresh, focusing our prayers and lessons and conversations on the effects of that day. New NFL seasons were advertised all over TV, alongside advertisements for 9/11 documentaries and ceremonies. With each passing year, the solemnity of the day drifted from being top of mind, to a tapestry of sad thoughts coloring a world that has become increasingly partisan, inward, divided across class and politics and our many fractious lines, to where it’s hard to imagine the “United We Stand” of twenty Septembers ago.
I’m not old enough to have the fully ossified and experienced, perhaps cynical worldview of those much older than me. I’m also old enough that I can think beyond the aestheticized, corporatized, partisan and overly idealist and in many cases classist worldview that young people see through our broken elite media system.
I’m sympathetic to different sides and perspectives and competing interests. I have many ideas about how to improve the world and what’s happened over the last twenty years, having spent as long watching things become the way they now are on the succession of televisions in my home that corporate America has kept making thinner and wider and higher resolution with more features and internet connected and for less production costs. In an era where nearly anything can be made controversial, it’s a testament to the depth of our divides that it would be entirely without controversy to observe and to state that our world today is far more divided, far more unequal, far more challenged, far more resigned to its corners, and far more tribalistic than the world twenty Septembers ago.
How did things become this way? Of course there are many conversations to be had, conversations about social media and AI, economics and technology, climate change and disruption, media fragmentation and extremism, conversations about the tribal politics of rural Pakistan, the local politics of Main St., the influence of Wall St., vanity and elitism, the military industrial complex and the challenges of securing and stabilizing a part of the world with no economy, no rules, and nothing to build on.
But these debates miss the broader picture. When I think back to twenty Septembers ago, and watch television and movies from that time, news broadcasts and documentaries, listen to music and watch home movies, a trend comes into view, and a different conversation emerges.
In December 2020 following my law school final exams, in some of the darkest days of the COVID-19 pandemic, I found myself in New York City. Covered in the shadows of snowfall and the limited daylight of the shortest part of the year, the shuttering of the local economy and any sort of normal interaction gave the city, which I had been to often, a solemn and darkened feeling that could only be compared with the last crisis that struck it nearly twenty years prior. Nearly everything, from restaurants to theaters were closed. I was staying in Lower Manhattan and walking back from Dunkin’ Donuts one day and observed that the 9/11 Museum had a line in front of it and was one of the few things still open. I had never been. I decided to go.
A whirlwind of emotions fill you when you walk through the museum. For me the part that had the biggest, most visceral impact on me was towards the bottom of the museum, where you walk through a room filled with names and photographs of victims of that day, and speakers play the voicemails left by office workers in the World Trade Center and passengers on the planes for their family, friends, and children, and the last calls they had made.
I remember being moved nearly to tears hearing voices like those of Betty Ong, an American Airlines flight attendant, as well as those of Kevin Cosgrove, a 45-year-old father-of-three in the South Tower, Christopher Hanley, an attendee at a conference at Windows on the World, located on the 106th floor of 1 World Trade, and Melissa Hughes, who left a voicemail for her husband in another time zone saying simply, “I just wanted to let you know I love you and I’m stuck in this building in New York. There’s lots of smoke and I just wanted you to know that I love you always.”
As you walk through this room, anger and sadness coagulate. You cannot help but to be filled with emotion for the tragedy of that day as well as anger and resolve to avenge its outrage in some way. The imagination runs wild as you climb the stairs to the exit, walking past the encased uniform worn by Navy SEAL Robert O’Neill when he fired the shots that killed Osama Bin Laden in 2011, and everything is at once brought full circle as you exit onto cold Manhattan streets lined with advertisements for streaming services and smartphones and the complications of our time that did not exist on that fateful day.
Walking out onto Church St., my mind was spinning, trying to process what I just experienced. A particular facet of the experience stuck with me.
The archived voices of news reporters discussing that day twenty years ago sound so different from how people speak today. Indeed people’s attire and sense of fashion, pop culture, values and beliefs, expectations and ideas, and their understanding of, and relationship with the world around them was so palpably and fundamentally different than today. While not quite as stark as the difference between how people speak today and perhaps the tweedy “mid-Atlantic accent” of actors in black and white films of old, there exist major differences in our society between then and now that a long enough exposure to b-roll footage and speeches and photographs and camcorder tapes will make it clear.
Despite all of the advances made in society, a major area where we have regressed sharply is in the simple kindness and virtue that has been stripped away by partisan rancor, a wonder and curiosity about the world that has been stripped away by technology, and calmness, softness, and mild manners that have been stripped away by the cacophony of social media. We find today a world of hard eyes and transactional patterns of behavior that vie for the quantifiable—account followers and likes, money and prestige, and soapboxes from which to talk down to those we once regarded with the solemn dignity of our “fellow Americans.”
Instead of “United We Stand,” we so often today inhabit a nation where the idiom more widely embraced is “divided we fall.” We spend so much of our bandwidth trying to stand against one another—coasts vs. flyover states, urban vs. rural, red vs. blue, white collar vs. blue collar, masks vs. no masks, left vs. right, where even the idea we should try harder to get along is labeled by some as “both sidesing” or being “tone deaf” or not “reading the room”—empty expressions that seek to emphasize that which drives us apart instead of that which brings us together—and that the latter is somehow a negative thing. We seem to have grown so egregiously addicted to our gross cultural and economic divides and accentuating our lives as they are best exemplified through rectangular OLED screens in our pockets, that we have become, as many athletes have said in the face of their team’s inner turmoil, a team of individuals.
In a world that glorifies what data tells us and has a bizarre relationship with needing to be seen, what has fallen through the cracks is that which is not so easily measured or seen, but is in many ways a vital national interest. Looking back at archival footage from that time, people were not walking down city streets with their noses buried in their smartphones for they did not exist yet. Blue checkmarked Twitter users did not oscillate between being infectious disease experts and then suddenly somehow Afghanistan experts, and spending their days talking down to and deriding one another. We used to talk to one another and valued conversation and simple kindness as simple powerful tools. We did not live in echo chambers and information silos. We didn’t create hashtags to bang the drum of our divides, distort facts to reframe conversations around that which trends online, take information out of context to create memes and GIFs, and fight never ending wars in the media to defend preferred narratives about the world and our place in it.
Of the many changes that have happened in twenty years, when I think back to 9/10/01, and we look back to the home movies, recordings, our own memories, and the sources of our nostalgia, for the most part we find an America that spoke with a less sharp tongue, looked upon itself with softer eyes, had more wonder and curiosity, and embraced those powerful tools of simple kindness, easiness, resolve, and humor. Economics or media or history or law or data and the many disciplines and mechanisms we use to understand our world fail to reveal one of the most profound differences between who we were then, and who we are now. You can hear it and see it and feel it. While in a way, “keeping up with the Joneses” has always been a feature of the American imagination, it seems our world today often resembles a great transaction, with each of us trampling over the other in pursuit of vanity, money, prestige, and the inputs to social media success, trying desperately to put distance between ourselves and others.
It’s easy to imagine that if (God forbid) there were another day like that day twenty years ago, we would not see exactly the same unity, the same sense of duty, or the same resolve, but may instead see competing hashtags, competing worldviews, and competing factions battling over what the real story actually is. In recent times, as the tragedy in Afghanistan following President Biden’s withdrawal marked the end of the conflict, its horror forced the nation’s newsrooms to focus their attention almost exclusively on the issue in a way we have not seen since it began nearly twenty years ago, at least for a week or so. But one could also feel the resignation in the editorial voices of these institutions, to a certain degree lamenting this news environment, for the familiar narrative battles that have consumed corporate media (how bad this party or that politician or this group is) had to take a backseat to exigency.
In the same way President Eisenhower warned of the rise of the military industrial complex, today we are in receipt of sufficient warning of a complex of another sort, in some ways far more dangerous—the complex of continuous enmity towards one another, and being unwilling to speak with those we disagree with, being unable to find or desire common ground with those who we are at odds with, and the fact our media system defines success in so many of the wrong ways.
Twenty years ago, I remember clapping light up sneakers together for fun. Today fun is a commodity, it’s a TikTok dance with advertisements on it, it’s spending money and broadcasting it. We live in a time where unity and togetherness can be considered “problematic” and many among us find meaning in shouting over one another and believing it makes us “influencers” or courageous or righteous. Instead, I would argue, based on 20 years of growing up against the formulation of a world that has profoundly fractured and turned against itself, we ought not become cynical on the one hand or quixotic on the other. Instead we should learn that our strength in the face of conflict is not found in the bombs or the bullets or the hatred of twenty years of war. Instead it is in affirming who we are, as we once were, a people with a shared sense of that which we hold dear, less sardonic and more buoyant, less resigned and more resolute, and more interested in our nation as a whole than merely our own standing in it through the warped prisms of our time.
Osama bin Laden believed the US would withdraw from the world after the fallout of war and insurgency and terrorism and become suspicious of one another. Our antagonists try to exploit our laws and our civil liberties to provoke and promote hatred and tension.
We must be true to who we are. My generation, children then but now in law school and entry-level positions in government and in the military, will someday soon assume the positions of consequence held by those decision-makers who have charted the course of the last twenty years. If we intend to guide our nation into the light, we must learn from that which has kept us in the dark and colored and informed our shared American experience.
We rise or fall together as a nation, and we must be determined to rise.
Featured image used under the Creative Commons 3.0 license https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0, via Wikimedia Commons