Let’s start with some pure, unvarnished facts.
On the morning of September 11, 2001, 19 followers of Osama bin Laden boarded four commercial U.S. airliners. Five boarded American Airlines Flight 11 in Boston, ostensibly en route to Los Angeles (two of those five actually started their journey in Portland, Maine, flying from there to Boston). Five more boarded United Flight 175, also in Boston and also bound for LA. Another five took their seats on American Flight 77, which was taking off from Washington, D.C., and also heading to Los Angeles. And the final four boarded United Flight 93 in Newark, New Jersey on the way to San Francisco.
Less than two hours after the first of the terrorists had boarded his plane, all four had crashed and just short of 3,000 people were dead.
All that is true, and much more. What happened nine years ago today changed everything, as the Bush administration liked to say, and not nearly enough of it was for the better. In fact, very little was.
For one thing, we had our first “who could have anticipated” moment from the Republicans, as in “who could have anticipated that terrorists would fly airplanes into buildings?” Why, the intelligence community, who, just the month before, had told President George W. Bush that bin Laden was thinking about such a thing.
With the hijackers at the controls, Flight 11 hit the World Trade Center’s north tower. Moments later, my newsroom got the news that a plane had slammed into the tower at 8:46. We had video up fast and spent the next few minutes wondering how a pilot could make a mistake like that. The smoke obscured the size of the hole in the building, but we were trying to get a better look 17 minutes later when Flight 175 hit the south tower. At 9:03 that Tuesday morning, we knew we were looking at a terrorist attack.
It was not an easy thing to deal with. Even though we saw no bodies immediately, the death toll, we knew, would be high. We struggled to come to grips with what we were seeing, but we were all professionals. We soon put our feelings on the back burner somewhere and focused on the task at hand.
And then we heard the Pentagon was on fire. Flight 77 had struck there, and at least one more plane was missing. I can’t even recount all the rumors that followed about what planes were where that day. Somewhere along the way, someone spotted the smoke from Flight 93 — which we learned later had been brought down by revolting passengers — billowing up from a field in Pennsylvania. Later — much later — we hear from Khalid Sheikh Muhammed himself that the Capitol had been its intended target.
Flight 93 came down just minutes after the south tower fell, and the north tower came down less than a half hour later, sealing the fate of rescuers and the hoping-to-be-rescued alike.
I cannot describe what that hour and a half was Iike, between the first strike and the north tower’s collapse, partly because it’s all a blur and partly because I fear dredging up some of the feelings I suppressed that day and the days that followed — feelings that haunted my dreams and nightmares and some of my waking hours in the weeks and months to follow. Even now, I sometimes feel a chill when I catch a view of a building near where I work, one with a vague resemblance to the WTC towers, and cannot keep my mind from imagining a jet flying into the mirrored walls.
All of that is fact, although some of it is personal, not things you would know unless you knew me, personally, and I had told you. You would have to know me very, very well. I am telling you this much, now, so you can, perhaps, understand some of what my colleagues went through. I wasn’t there. I saw it all on raw video feeds, live, as it happened, and in the halting words of my colleagues, emergency workers and witnesses who were there. I can’t imagine how they sleep at night, even now. I can’t imagine how many real journalists — not the pretend journalists who pontificate from behind avante garde desks on any number of television shows originating in Washington or New York — sleep at night, spending so much of their time covering disasters. The floods, the hurricanes, the fires. But worse of all are the stories about man’s inhumanity to man — 9/11, the Holocaust, the Kosovar and Rwandan genocides.
9/11 pales in comparison to the others but for one thing: It happened in one day, in one 90-minute period. A beautiful blue fall morning, and then fire and smoke and dust and screams and death.
Likely, you have your own stories — where you were, what you were doing at the precise moment you learned about the attack. Like I remember those things about when I learned about the JFK assassination. Now I have two of those things, impressed indelibly on the network of my nervous system and likely to flair into my thoughts unannounced.
As a result of those incidents, the United States entered into war in Afghanistan, shrunk some of the civil liberties of its own citizens and began fostering a slow, simmering bigotry that, for a short time, most Americans tried to fight off.
Bush had a golden opportunity to heal the serious divisions caused by the Republicans non-stop, eight-year-long attack on Bill Clinton simply because he was a Democrat who had the audacity to win the presidency.
He squandered it. But that should have been obvious from the start when he won election by virtue of being appointed by the Supreme Court and promptly claimed a mandate to do whatever the fuck he wanted and to hell the with other half of the country.
All of whom were promptly labeled traitors and terrorist sympathizers after as 9/11, doubled down on March 20, 2003, when Bush did what he’d been planning to do since before the election — he invaded Iraq.
Instead of bringing a divided country together, Bush and the Republicans widened the rift, holding us hostage to fear — fear they fostered.
Those are facts, too, but you wouldn’t know it from listening, watching or reading most of my colleagues. I tell you these things to gently show you how easily facts can be twisted, denied and ignored. Here are some things that are not facts.
The towers were brought down by controlled explosions.
It was an inside job.
Several of the hijackers were later seen alive.
The Pentagon was hit by a missile.
Flight 93 was shot down.
Despite what you may hear from the conspiracy-mongers who believe this shit, none of it is true. Come on, the Bush administration wasn’t competent enough to plan this. Or maybe these dweebs believe Clinton planned it before he left office.
I don’t even know why I’m going on about this, except that all this Quran burning crap finally got to me, just like the scary Muslim terrorist meme that started on September 11, 2001, finally got to Terry Jones and Pam Geller and the rest of the conservatives who have finally loosed their inner Islamaphobe. Nine years later.
What the Reagan Revolution started — economic destruction and the largest divide between the haves and have nots since the robber barons — Bush put the finishing touches on. But then, term limits took him out, and Americans started to see reality. They not only elected a Democrat, but they elected a black Democrat. And at that moment, we had our one and only chance to stop disaster.
Barack Obama squandered it. He tried to make nice with men and women who had no intentions whatsoever of cooperating, who, in fact, had made it clear from the very start that they intended to assure his presidency’s failure. It hasn’t really worked, of course. The Obama administration, while not living up to our dreams and aspirations, has accomplished quite a bit. The world is a better place right now than it was on January 19, 2009.
But you wouldn’t know that listening, watching and reading my colleagues. They’re too busy looking for the scandals, the most minute inconsistencies they can find. And the Republicans, who have spent all their time looking for problems instead of solutions, are happy to provide them with all their hard work. And that’s what passes as “news” these days.
This week, it’s Terry Jones and the Quran Burners. My colleagues have given you the blow-by-blow of everything, right up to Jones’ not really set up meeting with the “iman” in New York who is building an Islamic Community Center too close to ground zero for the conservatives. And by too close, they mean in the United States.
What my colleagues have failed to point out, however, is that the very conservatives who want nothing to do with the “iman’s” First Amendment rights to freedom of religion are all about Terry Jones’ First Amendment rights to freedom of speech.
It’s been nine years since those 19 men, trained and funded by al Qaeda, did their dirty work. And we have learned nothing at all.