It comes around every year. Nine, one, one. The date that echoes our universal distress signal. The call for help. The day that commemorates the vulnerability of our humanity.
And it’s the day that celebrates first responders, rescuers, those who risk and sacrifice their lives to save the lives of their fellow human beings.
The attack on the twin towers of the World Trade Center lives in vivid memory for Americans whose eyes and memories were burned with the sights and sounds that filled their television screens fifteen years ago today.
Last night I watched a video in which President George W. Bush described his actions on that fateful day. It began with a 6:30 AM run on a golf course near the hotel in Sarasota where the President was staying.
As part of an effort to highlight the need for better education, Bush was scheduled to visit a grammar school and watch children in their reading class.
Just before he entered the class room, an aid whispered to him that an airplane had crashed into the World Trade Center. There were no other details, and the President assumed it was some sort of tragic accident.
He took a seat in the classroom and listened while the mostly black students read words on the blackboard. In a few moments, another staffer came in and whispered in his ear that the second tower had been struck.
Bush knew he was being taped on video. He didn’t want to react; didn’t want our enemies, whoever they were, to see him panic or show weakness.
He stayed until the children finished their lesson, and complimented them and their teacher. Then he left the school to become a wartime President.
His staff hurried the President into Airforce One, and when news came that the Pentagon had been hit by a third plane, George Bush realized that we were at war. His immediate concern was to defend against further attacks.
He ordered all aircraft flying over the United States to land and all scheduled flights to be canceled. He issued orders that the Airforce scramble available fighter planes to patrol the nation’s airways with orders to shoot down any aircraft that did not respond to instructions to land. When it was reported that a fourth plane had crashed in Pennsylvania, the President wondered if it had been shot down by U.S. fighters.
President Bush thought about declaring, as Franklin Roosevelt had done after the attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941, that our nation was in a state of war. He didn’t, simply because the attack was not the work of a nation we could identify. It was rather a cowardly scheme of radical religious madness.
The nine eleven attacks were something new for America. For two hundred years, we presumed that our homeland was safe because we were between two great oceans that separated us from those who might wish to do us harm.
No more. On that fateful day, we realized that enemies can reach us, attack our cities and soak the soil of of our land with the blood of our people.
Over the last fifteen years we have reacted to the 9/11 terror attacks in various ways; improved domestic security, TSA clearance at every airport, and of course, traditional warfare.
We invaded Iraq, not because it was responsible for the World Trade Center attack, but because of some supposed concern that Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction. He didn’t, as it turned out, but in the minds of many Americans, he was an Arab dictator who represented the anti-American radicalism that motivated the 9/11 murderers.
George Bush was ultimately able to announce that we had won the war in Iraq, and I suppose we did, in the traditional sense. Hussein was ousted, a new government was installed and we came home.
But the drums of war have not ceased. Fifteen years after nine eleven we are still dropping bombs in the Middle East, still trying to define our enemy, still hoping to find him and still determined to kill him.
Perhaps in November we will elect a President who understands that people with a primitive, fundamentalist understanding of the Islamic religion have a vision of life and death that is incompatible with our concept of human dignity, equality and freedom. And that religiously motivated homicide is not protected by the First Amendment.