Craig first tried to write something about the events on September 11, 2001 about three years ago. He quickly realized that any genuine meditation on the subject matter would require much, much more depth. Especially when viewed from a present so far removed from the catalyst of such thoughts.
With the 20th Anniversary of the event, he decided it was time to revisit and take a look at the last 20 years of American foreign policy.
As a general rule, I try to stay away from doing too much opinion or comment on national stories when writing for the Chicago Journal. This isn’t a rule carved in stone, of course, but I try.
I prefer to keep the focus on our local debates and use national cultural to color and highlight rather than bring a local perspective to a national debate. It almost always works better for me and there’s nothing a man can’t talk about locally that wouldn’t apply elsewhere. People are all the same, after all, and no matter how talented the person hiding it, home always shines through.
This general rule may not last forever and I know, while I don’t have cause to worry about it right now, it may make this particular publication less attractive to outsiders. We certainly get less social media engagement because of that decision. It’s just that, these days, in order to gain any traction under the national commentary umbrella you have to so disarm yourself of any nuance and so flood your work with such absurd incantations it can only be compared to writing biblical credence and each treatise must be issued with the requisite level of religious zeal so as to fire up the share factories, appease the true-believers, and cast out the demons from your enemies possessed. Public intellectual life now more closely resembles televangelism and prosperity gospel than anything akin to serious reflection upon the nature of existence or entertained considered, logical argument about the consistencies in the dogma of the day. That’s obviously to our collective and individual detriment but there will always be swill merchants and the levees broke long ago so there’s no real point to dwell on it too long here.
I don’t know, I suppose that while I’ve never been good at fighting windmills or debating clouds, I’m human, after all, and big anniversaries for monumental moments in time can drag thoughts out of me just as much as any other.
Perhaps we’d all be better off if we took a step back and just focused on making our own towns or neighborhoods better for a little while? Maybe we could start with something as simple as trying to take a joke again? Rather than rush to hot take social media and try to solve the lives of others halfway across the country and the larger world, we moseyed across the property line to share a cold one with our neighbor?
Nah. Who am I kiddin’? It’s never that simple and we’re not putting that genie back in that bottle. Pandora burned the box.
I respect your time and willingness to read this little website so I’ll spare you the length and tell you, up front, that I believe the events of September 11, 2001 set in motion a sequence of decisions that lead the American experiment down a path it never should have gone. A path the ghosts of history warned us about that, if we were wiser and more patient, we may have heeded. And, I suspect, deep down, our collective consciousness knows it. And, if we are to grow, just as we look back on the behavior of our younger selves, we need to learn to honestly assess our mistakes and, more importantly, learn to live with our regrets.
I admit, that’s easy to say in retrospect, but it’s a long and difficult but necessary conversation to reach that conclusion and have a better understanding how we got here, twenty years later.
Who knows? Someday, maybe a politician will actually make an attempt at having a long and difficult but necessary conversation?
Ha, just kidding. No, it is for us to sift through the rubble and for those in posterity to be our judge.
I suspect, the first real images of a true and utter horror inflicted on a great mass of perceptibly innocent people and a world forced to bear witness to what humans can do to each other in the name of something as confounding a concept as their God broadcast live to a national audience, when paired with preposterous technological advancements that have convinced everyone that no one knows what they’re talking about yet that they know everything about everything and vice versa has more than contributed to this vague sense of mixed reality it’s only served to exacerbate the general malaise and unshakeable feeling of mental instability inherent in our modern times.
You may agree with none or some or all of that above sentiment. Either way, I doubt I mean it the way you think I mean it at first glance and I encourage you to read further.
Because it’s not your fault. It’s not anyone in particular’s fault, really, but we have an obligation to at least try to make ourselves better.
Though the average citizen from the middle of this country’s opinion now has so little effect on the decision making process of the behemoth that this government and its techno-bureacratic accompaniment has become to render it almost effectively meaningless by design, there’s still that little almost. And these amazing new technologies we all now possess give us far more power in that little almost than any average citizen from the middle of the country ever had previous and it’s our responsibility to tell our tales all the same. It’s our responsibility to highlight and make a good faith effort to elucidate our hopes and dreams to best help us reckon with and better understand what may or may not become our flaws, failures, and mistakes. It’s our responsibility, our duty, even if it’s only for a single someone, somewhere in some far off future who cares to heed them.
As Frost reminds, we made the choice at the road and it has made all the difference. But it was our decision. Now that it’s done, we have to live with it. For better, for worse, and for all the in-between.
Shock & Aw Shucks
Three years ago, I made my first attempt at sincere reflection about September 11, 2001. Three years ago, I intended to focus solely on the events of that day but, I quickly realized, that any genuine meditation on the subject matter would require much, much more depth. Especially when viewed from a present so far removed from the catalyst of such thoughts.
Three years ago, I began as follows:
At a glance, the 17th anniversary of the September 11 attacks may not seem as significant as the others. The number 17 is not the most aesthetic number for an anniversary and doesn’t have the particular sort of “je ne sais quoi” found on a more traditional milestone like a 10th or a 20th or a 25th. In truth, I wasn’t particularly interested in the 17th anniversary either, until I realized, yesterday, while sitting on the couch, flipping through channels and watching the various retrospectives about that fated Tuesday, just how much it meant to my personal life.
I am 34 years old. The September 11 attacks are half my life away. To my friends born in ‘83, it will come to you next year, and so on.
So, hello to my friends born in 1981. The attack on September 11, 2001 is now officially half your life away from where you are now.
Sorry to be the one to bring that up. Time flies when you’re having fun, amirite?
It’s okay. It made me feel old, too. To say it a different way, with this anniversary, every child of the millenial generation is now more than half of their lifetime removed from the events of September 11, 2001.
Did that help?
Hey, since we’re here together at the 20th anniversary, let’s take a walk down memory lane.
September 11, 2001
We were only a few weeks into the school year and I was one of the youngest high school seniors in my class.
It was meant to be a year of fun and hopeful expectation. Anticipation, may be the better word. Youth on the verge of adulthood. My class was no different. We buzzed with our plans for after.
It was palpable. You could feel it. Most had either already picked the colleges they were going to attend or were close to choosing. Those that were more hesitant or didn’t want to go beyond were still excited for an easy last year of schooling and looked forward to some sort of finality to their childhood and they were eager for their new beginnings as adults. All of us stood firmly at the precipice of being released out into the world, to the someplaces and the somewheres far, far away from our hometown where all our dreams would come true.
Oh, the places we would go, the people we would meet, and the individuals we dreamed we would become in that mythical future that’s different for all kids but is forever idealistic and utopian all the same, was merely a few seasons away. After the long winter, the next flowers that would bloom for us would be those that would herald our blossoming.
The naïve 17-year-old poetic metaphor is intentional.
Our schoolday began at 7:35am, central standard time. My first period Calculus class ran until 9:05am.
I did have a cell phone at the time, but it wasn’t allowed in class. A Nokia 3310 that I had convinced Dad to give me so I could replace the Nokia 5160 hand-me-down from the previous years I would use only to call Mom and Dad in the event of an emergency at various practices after school or if I forgot something important. Texting wasn’t a big thing back then. Well, some kids had texting but it was usually short lived once their parents received the War & Peace sized cell phone bills with the itemized texting overage costs. Everyone who had texting always went over.
I wouldn’t get my first flip phone until college. Smartphones were still science fiction. AOL Instant Messenger was dominant and Google, Amazon, and the rest were little more than barely-knowns and kinda understoods out on the coast let alone household names in the Midwest. Many others were still being ‘tsk-tsked’ after the dot-com bubble.
It’s a bit strange, how memory works.
I don’t remember a single thing we talked about that morning. I could not tell you any jokes I laughed at that morning or who I spoke with in the halls. I could not tell you if I was running late (though that’s likely) and I could not tell you if I was scrambling to complete a homework assignment by my locker (also, just as likely). I could not tell you what I had for breakfast. I could not tell you what I was wearing. I could not tell you which girl in class was my current “crush” of the moment which, at that age, changed depending on something as simple as a passing smile or a laugh at something I said. I could not tell you anything about my parents or siblings that morning.
I can’t tell you much of anything about the immediate moments before.
As I said, it’s weird how it all works.
My memory of that day begins with the announcement. Our Principal had a deep voice and it was his that came from the speaker on the wall next to the door.
I can see it now, the speaker. It’s white to blend in with the wall, to the front and to the right from where I’m sitting. The teacher’s desk sat a few feet from the door, also on the right, across from the windows which were on my left. The windows faced the west so this classroom was darker in the morning, especially through the winter months. I was sitting in the almost perfect center of the room, with maybe a slight deference toward the back and to the right of the desk rows. The tube television was hung and mounted from the ceiling at the front left of the class, above and off to the side of the blackboard.
The announcement came closer to the end of that first class. The click of the intercom that day is now some sort of strange, almost Pavlovian but not quite, life moment. A place where God as editor insert a cut scene that I can instantly retrieve and play back on the DVD extras. For the kids who don’t know, DVD was still a relatively new technology at the time.
I confess, I don’t remember our Principal’s exact words that day, but it was something along the lines of this:
“Teachers and students, there has been an incident in New York City. Teachers, please keep your students in your current classrooms through the break and please turn on the televisions in your classrooms and allow students to contact their families. There will be more announcements to follow soon, as we know more.”
Our teacher turned to the news on the television to see the first World Trade Center tower on fire. Moments later, the second plane hit the second tower.
It felt live but, in retrospect and considering the timing, I realized this must have been a replay and we happened to turn on the television at the moment of replay rather than witness the first live recording of the second plane. Though I never asked him, I also assume and/or don’t believe our Principal would have interrupted class after the first plane hit until it was understood to be a deliberate attack/major event.
Further, the newsperson followed the visuals closely with, “Officials believe this to be an attack…”
Our teacher, a woman then in middle age, turned and looked at us. A class of about 25 high school seniors, some having just turned 18, some about to turn 18, and most of us at 17 who would be turning 18 within the year. I remember her stammering, unclear of what to say, and she put her head down.
Then, after some sudden realization within seemed to wash over her, she audibly gasped, raised her head, and put her hands over her mouth.
She looked at us again and, as she fought back tears, she said, “Oh God…you’re all going to war…”
I did not personally know anyone who died in the attacks. Classmates and school staff did. Neighbors in our town did.
An uncle here. A cousin there. Someone’s Dad’s friend from college. A former colleague. A friend of a family who they met at a New Year’s party once. Many had family who worked and lived downtown Chicago at or near the Sears Tower and other landmarks that, in the immediate aftermath, rumors quickly spread that they were thought to be potential targets.
The following days were tense, to say the least.
Even those of us who were not personally affected by the tragedy itself, meaning those of us who did not lose close loved ones in the event itself, felt as if we were personally affected and anyone who tells you otherwise I’d call a liar straight to their face without hesitation. Though my classmates and I were mere spectators half the country away from where it all happened, it felt as if it was you and your family and your friends and everything you believed in being personally attacked.
And, quite frankly, we were. To this day, no amount of intellectual rhetoric and sophistry has been able to convince me otherwise.
Trying to describe the sensation of that morning and the immediate aftermath and the following few days still produces a surreal and ethereal feeling that, I suspect, will remain with me forever and something I’ll never approach the talent level necessary to either poetically or prosaically define. I would venture the only historical parallel would be the nation watching the moon landing live but that was national triumph compared to national tragedy and the metaphor is difficult to translate. Perhaps maybe the fall of the Berlin wall and the ensuing collapse of the former Soviet Union would qualify but, though I remember brief snapshots, I was too young to understand and, even if I were old enough, that, too, was hardly relative as a moment of exuberance.
After a ’90s decade in which the nation’s biggest news stories were, while serious, largely domestic and introspective, we were suddenly thrust into a new international arena against an enemy that cared not for material and earthly ideological power and control but for the just rewards received from some unknown All-Mighty granted only in the afterlife and no one bothered to ask just how the hell we we’re supposed to fight that?
It didn’t matter.
We were American.
Someone. Somewhere. Had to fucking pay.
We were 17 and 18-year-olds filled with that eternally fearless wannabe heroic vigor that’s in the blood of every teenaged midwestern American boy but is really in all boys all across the world and throughout all-time and all that bravado and machismo was and is good. It can be. Anyone who tells you otherwise is a fool.
By the end of that week, I think every guy I knew had a military recruiter’s pamphlet in their backpack.
And hey, girls like heroes, right? If we were heroes for saving the honor of America and finding and killing the evil-doers who attacked us, heroes for defending the Republic, nay the very dignity of the American Dream itself, we could get any girl we wanted, right? Ellen? Liz? Lauren? Maybe even Sarah?
Had to fucking pay…
Late September, 2001
I won’t go through every historical detail as they’re outlined much better elsewhere but, as you would expect, the weeks following were nearly as surreal and ethereal as the day itself.
Many are quick to mention the overwhelming sense of patriotism, the feeling of national togetherness that, compared to today’s political landscape, looks like a Sunday School Christmas program. It really was here, there, and everywhere.
As morbid as it sounds to say and with as much respect for those deeply affected by the tragedy, I miss it, in a way. I hope you can understand and forgive where I’m coming from when I say that.
Though it was a profoundly sad and greatly fearful time, at this point, I doubt I’ll feel that sense of of oneness with my fellow countrymen ever again. It seemed to swell from the very earth around us, as if we were living Genesis 2:6, only instead of water it was a mist of kinship, camaraderie, and unspoken bonds. What’s more, looking back, it was the last I remember a collective objective that felt righteous. None of us may have well understood what exactly this was, and we still may not understand what exactly that was, but we knew that whatever it is it was not something we wanted any part of and not something any of us would abide.
Again, I know that may not be as lucid as I’d like but I hope you understand the attempt to provide context. That said, I would be remiss if I were to not admit and remind that I was far removed from the situation and I realize that my experience may not have been the same for all Americans but it was mine.
Few choose to remember the concurrent concerns of what was coming next.
Would there be more attacks? What are the potential targets? Every plane overhead became suspect. What is jihad? The terrorists could be anywhere. I’m sure you’ve seen the various compilations of late night talk shows where comedians struggled with how to make people laugh again. How do we respond? How do we secure the continental United States from this new type of threat?
In those moments, no one really knew quite what to do beyond channeling their inner Churchill and keep going. In those moments, it was all anyone really could do.
Fewer still remember the anthrax letters that started on September 18th. Originating from a mailbox in New Jersey, anthrax bacterium was deliberately sent to major media organizations and the Senate offices of Tom Daschle and Patrick Leahy. The near pure spores of these samples would kill five people and infect another seventeen at various points on the routes the letters traveled.
The anthrax letters would turn out to be something entirely different but, coming on the heels of the large scale event a week prior, many minds immediately jumped to obvious conclusions that only enhanced the sudden xenophobia toward this new world we seemed to be facing for the first time. We often forget that Occam’s Razor is not an irrefutable principle of logic nor is it a scientific result.
That same day, the 18th, President George W. Bush began making stronger overtures toward the Taliban in Afghanistan to hand over Osama bin Laden, “close immediately every terrorist training camp, hand over every terrorist and their supporters, and give the United States full access to terrorist training camps for inspection.” To which the Taliban would respond by refusing to hand over Osama bin Laden, demand the United States produce evidence of his involvement, and declare him protected by the traditional Pashtun laws of hospitality.
That same day, the phrase “War on Terror” would be used for the first time. A phrase I’ll revisit much later on.
These were strange times, to say the least.
On Wednesday, September 26, 2001, an Mi-17 helicopter inserted eight members of the CIA’s Special Activities Division and Counterterrorism Center into the Panjshir Valley, north of Kabul, but I had varsity soccer practice.
As we ran laps around the soccer field, we had no idea what was happening with the Northern Afghanistan Liaison Team, of course. Now known by the call-sign ‘Jawbreaker’, they were the first boots on the Afghanistan ground that we as a country would trod for the next 20 years. The boots we were most concerned with that afternoon was how long we could pretend to tie the laces on our cleats and linger around the water cooler as the girl’s dance team practiced nearby and also which of our teammates had the biggest boot down the field.
It was Mickey, by the way. He was our starting goalie and had the strongest leg on the team, in case you were wondering. Jamie was the best dancer on the dance team, though that could have been because she smiled at me that day.
As we prepared to play our rivals and figure out our plans for the weekend, so, too, prepared the war machine.
October, 2001 and the Patriot Act
To be continued…