Tomorrow, Friday, is September 11, a date that will always have special meaning for all Americans, indeed for all decent people worldwide. Like December 7 and November 22, September 11 is a date that will, in the words of former President FDR, “live in infamy.”
September 11, 2001 at 8:46 a.m. ET, Americans’ safe and secure lives changed forever. Like the sneak attack on Pearl Harbor and the JFK assassination, undoubtedly, most everyone remembers where they were and what they were doing when they first heard of the attack. At that moment, the first hijackers’ plane crashed into the north tower of the WTC. This was followed quickly by a second plane crashing into the south tower, and, later, a third one crashing into the Pentagon. Incredibly and inexplicably, by 10:28 both towers had collapsed.
Later in the day, a fourth plane crashed into a field in Shanksville, PA. It is believed that this fourth plane was bound for a target in Washington, D.C., perhaps, the White House or the Capitol, and it would have succeeded but for the heroism of some of the passengers on board.
This year will mark the 19th anniversary of those horrific attacks. They resulted in just under 3,000 deaths. Most of those were workers who were trapped in their offices and consumed by fire or smoke/chemical inhalation. They could not escape because most of the stairwells were blocked. Many victims have only been identified due to their DNA, in some cases many years later.
Compounding the tragedy was the fact that NYC’s 911 operators were not as well informed as they should have been. Thus, they were advising callers from inside the towers not to descend the stairs on their own. Some of them proceeded to the roof hoping to be rescued by helicopter. Unfortunately, helicopters could not land on the roofs due to the heat and thick smoke. Many of us who were watching on tv witnessed the awful sight of people jumping to their deaths (in some cases, actually holding hands with others for support) rather than awaiting their fates from the fire.
The horror of the attacks, themselves, was amplified by the fact that the victims were not soldiers but innocent civilians who were merely working at their jobs. In addition to the thousands of civilians, police officers, firemen and EMS workers that were killed in the attacks, themselves, thousands more volunteer workers and even people who lived or worked in the vicinity ended up contracting various illnesses from inhaling the many carcinogens in the air and dying subsequently, in some cases many years later. Many of us know or know of someone, such as Jamie Testa, a close family friend, who suffered this fate. Even today, 19 years later, people are still contracting diseases and dying. Horrifying as it may seem, some doctors have predicted that eventually these victims will exceed the 3,000 killed on 9/11.
The primary illnesses are cancer, respiratory disorders, asthma, COPD and gastroesophageal reflux disorder. In addition, in the aftermath health workers noted a significant increase in anxiety, depression and PTSD. As I said, many of the above have manifested themselves years later. Even now, new cases are being presented. The number of documented cancer cases, alone, has tripled in the past few years. The physical, mental and emotional toll has been astounding. An estimated 18,000 people have contracted illnesses from the toxic dust. Moreover, there is speculation that 9/11 has caused health issues in babies whose mothers were pregnant at the time of the attacks, such as premature birth, respiratory problems, below average weight, and increased neo-natal requirements.
This was the deadliest attack on US soil ever. By comparison, the shocking Japanese sneak attack on Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941, which, as I said, President FDR characterized as “a date that will live in infamy” resulted in “only” 2,400 deaths, and they were mostly military personnel.
This year, due to the health threat of the CV many of the commemorations will be scaled down. There will be an attempt to balance paying proper respect to the victims with the safety and health of the participants.
For example, the 911 Memorial and Museum, which is the body in charge of the commemoration, has changed the procedure of the reading of the names of the victims. 911 M&M Director Alice Greenwald stated the overriding objective was to “balance safety and tradition.”
Many friends and family strongly objected to the changes. A group called the Stephen Stiller Tunnel to Towers Foundation announced it had arranged its own ceremony a few blocks away (on the corner of Liberty and Church Streets). Survivors would still read the names live but at a safe distance from each other. Said Chairman Frank Stiller, “we need to ensure that “America know[s] what happened 19 years ago. And they need to [experience] the emotion of the day [live], not [via] a recording.”
Normally, the survivors read the names of every 9/11 victim out loud in real time on tv, including those killed at the WTC (in both 1993 and 2001), the Pentagon and on flight 93. This is a particularly poignant scene as the readers are typically the spouses, children and/or grandchildren of the victims. In addition to citing the name of the victim some of the readers add personal messages of remembrance. In my opinion, these readings of the names of the victims is a fantastic idea as it helps us to remember the horrific and cowardly terrorists attacks and continue to pay tribute to the victims.
However, this year due to COVID concerns, the procedure will be altered. In lieu of the traditional live reading of the names family members have pre-recorded the victims names, which will be streamed on line beginning Friday morning. The 911 M&M will permit family members to gather at the site to listen, but they will be spread out to observe social distancing.
In addition, there was a huge controversy over the traditional Tribute in Light ceremony. The Tribute of Light is an amazing spectacle. It consists of 88 vertical lights placed on top of Battery Park Garage, which is located six blocks south of the former WTC site. It creates two columns of light which represent the Twin Towers.
Initially, the 911 M&M announced that, due to COVID concerns, it would be cancelled. But, under pressure from the survivors and other groups it was reinstated with appropriate safety precautions. In an additional statement Greenwald stated “this means something to us so profound, we must have it.” The objective was “how we could do it safely that became a question for us.” I agree as I’m sure most of us do.
The 911 M&M committee effected these changes with good intentions and perhaps an abundance of caution. They insisted they wanted to conduct the ceremony but, at the same time, “avoid close contact among the readers who are usually paired at the podium.” It is scheduled to commence at dusk.
Some of the surviving relatives and friends understood. Anthoula Katsimatides noted “it [the ceremony] wasn’t cancelled. It’s just been changed in such a way where we still get to pay tribute to our loved ones in a respectful and safe way.” However, others were not mollified. For example, Jim Riches, who lost his firefighter son, Jimmy, characterized it as a “slap in the face.”
There will also be a memoriam at Shanksville, PA. President Trump and the First Lady, will be the featured speakers. Joe Biden is also expected to attend, but hopefully not at the same time.
I understand this will also be scaled down due to COVID. The names of the passengers will be read in tribute, but there will be no musical interludes nor any other entertainment.
In addition to the deaths there was significant damage to the economy of NYC and the US as a whole. The entire Wall Street area, including the financial markets, was closed until September 17. Air travel was disrupted. Americans’ psyche was severely damaged. The cleanup of the WTC area was not completed until May 2002. All in all, it took 3.1 million man-hours to clean up 1.8 million tons of debris at a cost of $750 million. Internationally, countries were generally horrified and supportive, although some of the people in some Muslim countries, such as Iraq, were seen to be celebrating.
Fifteen of the hijackers were from Saudi Arabia, with the others having originated from Egypt, Lebanon and the UAE. The terrorist group, Al Qaeda, led by Osama bin Laden, quickly claimed responsibility. Bin Laden had declared a holy war on the US and had issued a fatwa calling for the killing of Americans. Following 9/11, bin Laden became public enemy number 1. Eventually, the US exacted revenge, hunting him down and killing him.
In the aftermath of the attacks, Americans wanted to know how our intelligence agencies had failed to anticipate them. Who had “dropped the ball?” Amid many investigations and finger-pointing it became obvious that the major factor was a failure to communicate and share intelligence and information. For example:
l. The CIA had intelligence reports that a terrorist attack was forthcoming, but it was expecting it to be in Israel, not the US.
2. The CIA knew that two known terrorists had slipped into the US.
3. The FBI had information of certain anomalies at some US flight schools.
4. The Justice Department policies advocated very limited intelligence sharing, even with other agencies.
5. The CIA and NSA were reluctant to reveal sources of information and their methods of attaining it.
6. None of these agencies reported their information to each other or to the White House.
7. In 2004 Attorney General John Ashcroft testified to the “9/11 Commission” that the “single greatest structural cause…. was the wall that segregated or separated criminal investigators and intelligence agents.”
I hope that the coordination and information-sharing among these agencies have been enhanced since 9/11, but I have my doubts. As time has gone on, I sense that we have grown more and more complacent and the various alphabet agencies have resumed “guarding their own turf” rather than sharing intelligence and information for the greater good.
Americans’ lives have changed considerably since 9/11. Many believe that not all of these changes are good or even necessary. For instance:
1. The US created the Department of Homeland Security to coordinate and oversee intelligence activities and security. In addition, it passed the USA Patriot Act. These agencies have improved our readiness and security but at the price of certain civil liberties. There is, and should be, a balance between security and liberty, and depending on one’s political point of view the pendulum may have swung too far, or not enough, toward security.
2. Enhanced security at airports and train and bus terminals has made travel more complicated, time-consuming, and nerve-wracking. Some people have curtailed or ceased their travel entirely, particularly internationally.
3. Many parents are apprehensive, if not paranoid, about letting their children go outside to play or ride their bicycles in the neighborhood. Also, they accompany their children to the school or school bus stop and pick them up at the end of the day. The various terrorist attacks in schools in recent years have done little to assuage these fears and concerns. Schools have ramped up security protocols. Some have even hired armed guards. Some people have advocated arming teachers.
4. Many Americans have become very focused on enforcing immigration laws strictly to protect our borders, which has led to conflicts with those who view such an approach as “racist” and favor looser, or even open, borders.
5. On the plus side, there has been a significant increase in patriotism and gratitude toward veterans.
In my opinion, parents should make a concerted effort to educate their children on the tragedy of 9/11, what happened, how it happened and what it means. According to the Kaiser Family Foundation approximately one-third of Americans are under the age of 26, and, therefore, have little or no recollection or knowledge of this event. The danger is that as time passes the populace will forget, and we should never allow that to happen. Educate your kids!
Already, some people are “down-playing” the 9/11 attacks. For example, Rep Ilham Omar, one of the notorious “Four Horsewomen of the Apocalypse” who has uttered many disparaging remarks about America and Americans, has summed up 9/11 as “some people did something.” Really? Is she kidding? It’s easy to write off her and others of her ilk as “kooks,” but she does have followers who place credence in what she says.
I encourage everyone to find the time to visit the 9/11 Memorial and Museum. It is on the site of the original WTC complex in lower Manhattan. It occupies approximately one-half of the acreage of the original complex. It features two huge waterfalls and a “survivor tree,” which symbolizes resilience and strength. Take the time to stroll around this beautiful area. Take one of the many tours. You will find them most informative. Yes, it is tragic to be reminded of the horror of that day, but, on the other hand, it is uplifting to be reminded of the heroism and resilience of many first responders and even ordinary citizens and to experience the healing that has occurred. Remember, what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger.
Undoubtedly, many of you experienced 9/11 firsthand. Please feel free to share your experiences.