As I look over the Atlantic on a picture perfect late summer day in southern Maine, I marvel at the crystal clear, azure sky, as cloudless as on that day 20 years ago in New York City that we would like to believe did not really happen, but was actually a nightmare. But it was all too real and, at the same time, a nightmare from which we never awoke. Of course I mean September 11, 2001, when a handful of true believers in a supposedly faith-based medieval doctrine of hatred used nothing more sophisticated than boxcutters to gain control of sleek and shiny symbols of modern technology and turn them into weapons of destruction that wreaked havoc on our civilization and forever changed the course of history.
As I meandered from Penn Station to my law offices at 47th and Broadway on that nefarious day, I vividly recall thinking “what a beautiful day!” But shortly after arriving, the news started trickling in. At 8:46, a plane had hit the North Tower of the Trade Center. I had a vision of the 1945 crash of a B-25 bomber into a fog-encased Empire State Building, an unfortunate accident that resulted in 14 deaths and $1 million in damage. But the reality was much more grim and tragic, and soon the South Tower was hit and they both came tumbling down, with nearly 3,000 fatalities.
Although I was miles from the scene, in midtown, the sense of panic throughout the City was palpable. An almost comic announcement over our building’s p.a. system was supposed to comfort us: “building management has determined that there is no immediate threat to this building.” “How in God’s name do they know that?” was my first reaction. When the reality started setting in, I had an angry thought, it was our government that created the Mujahideen to fight the Soviets in Afghanistan and, in our usual tip of the nose approach to foreign policy, we had created a monster that would come back to bite us.
In the first sign of common sense on that day, New York City started evacuating. We New Jerseyans marched West to the Hudson, inching closer to home and, at least in our minds, safety. Standing in lines for hours waiting to board ferries to Weehawken, we futilely dialed and redialed our newly invaluable cellphones over and over, hoping to assure our loved ones that we were safe, but were mostly unable to connect. On the ferry, I saw nothing but smoke where the towers had stood. I thought back to my former commute, when I rode the PATH train from Hoboken and walked under the underground plaza of the Trade Center with tens of thousand of others every day as I made my way to my Wall Street office.
That vision and my total loss of any sense of time led me to believe that tens of thousands had perished, not realizing that courageous first responders and a delay in the collapse of the towers allowed many thousands to escape. In a perverse sense of relief, the ultimate number of 3,000 dead seemed small compared to what I had assumed at the time. We were bussed from the ferry to the Giants Stadium parking lot from which I made my way on foot to the nearby Meadowlands Diner on Route 17 where my wife and father-in-law finally picked me up after driving for hours in chaotic traffic from our home in Morristown. We made it that evening and had to begin to face a world where our perceptions of safety were turned upside down.
But the fear did not go away, at least not right away. When we made it back to our offices (life, after all, somehow, always goes on) the sounds in the air were mostly of sirens of emergency vehicles responding to real, imagined and, in some cases, sadly, manufactured threats. After reconciling our immediate fears, anger set in. Someone had to pay.
Eventually, privacy and our sense of individuality gave way to a society where our most precious rights were unabashedly compromised to supposedly assure our safety. The USA PATRIOT Act gave the government virtually unfettered access to our most intimate information. A callow, unqualified President was led to initiate a two-front war that had only tenuous connections to the attacks in the name of protecting our country by callous men named Cheney and Rumsfeld who were driven by a desire to “finish the job” against Saddam Hussein and impose our ideas of democratic government and a modern society on backward countries. We are still paying a heavy price for their cynical “chicken hawk” philosophy.
So here we are, 20 years later. President Biden rightly put a stop to the futility of attempting to establish democracy in the feudal society of Afghanistan, despite the amateur hour execution. But we now live in a country that demonizes “the Other,” symbolized by an ex-president who made it okay to openly exclude, mock and, yes, hate people of certain countries, religions and colors. But the greater current risk is that of domestic terrorists who hide behind their perverse notions of what this country is supposed to be and are willing to attack our most precious institutions of government in a fruitless pursuit of, what exactly?
The 9/11 attackers believed that they would ignite a firestorm that would cause the ultimate destruction of America and its democratic principles. While they failed in that goal, they may have succeeded in planting the seeds for us to accomplish that ourselves. But, in these tumultuous and divided times, let us again consider the wise words of Alexander Hamilton and bring some common sense back: “[t]here are seasons in every country when noise and impudence pass current for worth; and in popular commotions especially, the clamors of interested and factious men are often mistaken for patriotism. ”