Sept. 11, 2001 — Ten years later, we remember

The 1990s had been a decade of dreams. With the fading of the Cold War and the collapse of communism, external threats to America seemed to have disappeared. The “end of history” was proclaimed — a millennial age of peace and prosperity, at least for the United States. 

Then came Sept. 11, 2001. Suddenly and forever, America’s physical and moral landscapes changed. 

The day “dawned temperate and nearly cloudless in the eastern United States.” So begins the final report of the presidentially-appointed National Commission on Terrorist Attacks Upon the United States — the 9/11 Commission. 

“Millions of men and women readied themselves for work. Some made their way to the Twin Towers, the signature structures of the World Trade Center complex in New York City. Others went to Arlington, Virginia, to the Pentagon. Across the Potomac River, the United States Congress was back in session. At the other end of Pennsylvania Avenue, people began to line up for a White House tour. In Sarasota, Florida, President George W. Bush went for an early morning run. 

“For those heading to an airport, weather conditions could not have been better for a safe and pleasant journey. Among the travelers were Mohamed Atta and Abdul Aziz al Omari, who arrived at the airport in Portland, Maine … .” 

Before the day was out, the Twin Towers were smoldering rubble and twisted steel. Smoke drifted from a gaping hole in the side of the Pentagon. A Pennsylvania field became a burial ground. Four airliners with passengers and crew had been converted into terrorist weapons for mass murder. As 9/11 drew to a close, an assistant to the mission crew commander at the North American Aerospace Defense Command (NORAD) center in Rome, N.Y., summed up: “This is a new type of war.” 

Soon, America’s response had a name: the War on Terror.  

‘Heroism and horror’

It has been the overriding reality of national life for the last decade. 

Up to now, the events of 9/11 have directly claimed nearly 3,000 lives, among them those of the 19 hijackers who carried out the attack. The dead include 2,753 at the World Trade Center site, 184, mostly civilians, at the Pentagon and 44 in Pennsylvania. (The total rose by one last June, when the New York medical examiner ruled that a man who passed away in 2010 died of a lung disease caused by inhaling dust from the trade center collapse.) Also among the dead were 343 firefighters, 60 New York City and Port Authority police and eight emergency medical personnel. 

“The nation was unprepared,” the chair and vice chair of the 9/11 Commission, former New Jersey Gov. Thomas Kean and former U.S. Rep. Lee Hamilton of Indiana, wrote in the preface to the final report. That points to two questions: “How did this happen, and how can we avoid such tragedy again?” 

In the last 10 years, the United States has spent much time, treasure and energy — and not a few lives — seeking answers. And then arguing about them. If there is consensus on anything, it’s that the events of 9/11 itself comprise, in the commission’s words, a narrative of “heroism and horror.” 

Breeding terror

What happened that day had a lot of history behind it. When the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan in 1979, a wealthy Saudi Arabian named Osama bin Laden went there to help organize resistance by Islamic fighters called mujahedeen. The resistance got covert support from America and Saudi Arabia via Pakistani intelligence agencies. Bin Laden’s Islamic terrorist organization, al-Qaida, grew out of this experience. 

After the Soviets left Afghanistan, bin Laden and al-Qaida turned their attention elsewhere — especially to the United States — staging several attacks on American targets before 9/11. Included were a truck bombing at the World Trade Center garage in 1993 in which six people were killed, bombings in 1998 at U.S. embassies in Nairobi, Kenya, and Dar-es-Salaam, Tanzania, that took the lives of 257, and the attack on the USS Cole in Aden, Yemen, in 2000 that killed 17 sailors. And as early as December 1998 the director of the CIA told President Bill Clinton that al-Qaida was preparing attacks in America and training people to hijack planes. 

At the top of the reasons for bin Laden’s hostility to the United States was American support for Israel. In a November 2002 “Letter to America,” he said: “There is no need to explain and prove the degree of American support for Israel. The creation of Israel is a crime which must be erased. Each and every person whose hands have become polluted in the contribution to this crime must pay its price, and pay for it heavily.” The 9/11 victims paid more than most. 

The specific idea for the attack came from a bin Laden associate named Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, who proposed the scheme to bin Laden in 1996. The al-Qaida leader approved it in late 1998 or early 1999, while eliminating other targets such as the U.S. Bank Tower in Los Angeles that he believed made it unworkable.

Hijacking plot

The first al-Qaida members selected for the attack began arriving in the United States as early as mid-January 2000. Others drifted in over the months that followed. Mohamed Atta, an Egyptian, was designated leader of the group. Of the rest, 15 were from Saudi Arabia, two from the United Arab Emirates and one from Lebanon. A 20th would-be hijacker is said to have been turned back by U.S. immigration officers; the rest entered without difficulty.  

Before traveling to the United States, their training at an al-Qaida base in Afghanistan had included hijacking techniques and butchering sheep and camels to learn the use of knives. 

Early on the morning of Sept. 11, the terrorists began heading to their assignments. Four flights were involved: American Airlines 11, from Boston to Los Angeles; United Airlines 175, also from Boston to Los Angeles; American Airlines 77, from Washington (Dulles Airport) to Los Angeles; and United 93, from Newark to Los Angeles. 

Several of the men were flagged by a computerized system to receive special attention, but this amounted only to screening their checked bags. Security procedures in place at the time failed to detect the knives, box openers and mace or pepper spray they carried with them. 

In each case, the terrorists seized the aircraft about a half-hour after takeoff, killing or wounding crew members and passengers, then heading for the target with a hijacker at the controls. American 11 struck the North Tower of the World Trade Center at 8:46 a.m. United 175 hit the South Tower at 9:03 a.m. American 77 hit the Pentagon at 9:37 a.m. 

For millions, nightmare images of these events captured on film remain etched in memory: the agonizingly slow approach of the airliner, the giant fireball, the floor-by-floor collapse of the tower like a house of cards imploding in slow motion. 

United 93 was the exception. Alerted in phone conversations with family and friends to what was happening elsewhere, the passengers fought back. The hijackers were shorthanded, and in the desperate struggle, the passengers came close to taking control of the plane. 

At that point, the terrorists chose to die. The hijacker-pilot put the aircraft into a dive, and at 10:03 a.m. it crashed into a field near rural Shanksville, Pa. One of the terrorists can be heard on the cockpit recorder shouting as the plane plummets earthward, “Allah is the greatest! Allah is the greatest!” Its intended target had been the U.S. Capitol in Washington. 

Estimates of the number of people in the Twin Towers at the time of the attacks range as a high as 17,400, though the actual number may have been several thousand fewer. Most on floors below the point of impact got out safely. Those at the point of impact or above did not. They numbered 1,366 in the North Tower and 618 in the South Tower. Engulfed by smoke and flames, at least 200 jumped or fell to their deaths. 

Fire officials made an early decision not to try to save the buildings and to concentrate on evacuating people. The firefighters, police and emergency medical personnel performed heroically. There’s no telling how many owe their lives to them. 

Attack’s aftermath 

Worldwide shock greeted the news. At his general audience in Rome the next day, Pope John Paul II called the events “a terrible affront to human dignity.” 

“The ways of violence will never lead to genuine solutions to humanity’s problems,” the pope insisted. 

Very likely not. But among the consequences of 9/11 for the United States and the world, America was to launch full-scale wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. 

The U.S. and its allies went into Afghanistan to end the threat posed by al-Qaida, but soon they found themselves fighting, and eventually toppling, the Islamist fundamentalist Taliban regime that gave the terrorist group shelter and support. In a statement in November 2001 the American bishops recognized “the right and duty of a nation and the international community to use military force if necessary to defend the common good by protecting the innocent against mass terrorism.” 

Ten years later, the war in Afghanistan continues. President Barack Obama has begun a drawdown of U.S. troops that some call too slow, others criticize as premature and others say is ill-timed to maintain the gains achieved by the military. 

America and its coalition partners launched the war in Iraq on March 19, 2003. The reason most often given was that Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein either possessed or was developing weapons of mass destruction — nuclear, chemical, and/or biological. But the invading forces found no WMDs, and the proliferation of official and unofficial rationales has left many wondering why America went to war there at all. 

Unlike the war in Afghanistan, which he supported, Pope John Paul II strongly opposed the Iraq War. On the eve of the invasion, he took the unusual step of sending a special envoy to Washington — Cardinal Pio Laghi, a former Vatican ambassador to the U.S. and a friend of the Bush family — to try to persuade President Bush not to go ahead. The effort failed. 

As American troops prepare to quit Iraq, leaving behind a weak, violence-plagued democracy, it is clear that this war was marked by faulty intelligence, bad planning and unrealistic expectations. 

The big winner may be anti-American Iran, whose regional influence has expanded. The big losers appear to be Iraqi Christians, victimized by repeated acts of terrorism that have moved hundreds of thousands to flee the country. 

In the United States itself, the consequences of 9/11 are everywhere apparent. Chief among them is a huge, and sometimes controversial, domestic security apparatus centered on a new Department of Homeland Security. Anti-terrorism efforts appear to have halted an unknown number of real or potential threats in these 10 years, though in some cases that seems the result of blind luck. 

What to do with terrorism detainees and where to keep them remain in dispute. President Obama ran for office promising to close down the prison at Guantanamo Bay, but he has been stymied by domestic resistance to putting them on the mainland. 

Pursuing perpetrators 

Almost since 9/11 itself, the American government has been in pursuit of those responsible. Khalid Sheikh Mohammed was arrested on March 1, 2003 in Rawalpindi, Pakistan by Pakistani security agents in cooperation with the CIA. How to handle him has been debated ever since. The plan now is for him to be tried by a military tribunal at Guantanamo Bay. He and four companions have said they want to plead guilty in order to be executed. 

“The steel cross found in the ruins of the World Trade Center is a silent symbol of the presence of Christ. Because he suffered for us willingly with his life, he has a right to share in our sufferings now.”  
Father Benedict Groeschel, in his book “The Cross at Ground Zero” (OSV, $7.95)

America caught up with Osama bin Laden last May 1 when Navy SEALS raided a fortress-like mansion in Pakistan where the terrorist leader had been holed up for several years. Bin Laden was killed in what President Obama at first called a “firefight.” Later it turned out that he was unarmed. 

In the United States, relief and jubilation generally greeted the news. A Dallas man celebrating outside the White House told a Washington Post writer, “This is the beginning of peace.” Others weren’t so sure. Bin Laden’s death weakened al-Qaida but didn’t destroy it, and the group soon selected a new leader. Over the years, it has spawned affiliates in what resembles a sinister franchising system. And there are other terrorists and terrorist groups besides al-Qaida. 

“Believing that their religion requires them to act violently against nonbelievers in the West and impure, apostate Muslim elites, the Islamist extremists will not be stopped by the elimination of al-Qaida’s leader or even the eradication of al-Qaida itself,” former National Security Council anti-terrorism coordinator Richard A. Clarke wrote in The New York Times. Meanwhile, American willingness to keep waging war on terror abroad appears to be flagging after a decade of it. Partly as a result, the government has been making increased use of unmanned drones and special forces for what amount to targeted assassinations abroad. 

Anti-Muslim sentiments

Also unresolved after 10 years is how Americans should view Islam. The upsurge in anti-Muslim sentiment after 9/11 is still there a decade later. In an article on American Islam, The Washington Post said of the estimated 2.4 million U.S. Muslims: “Some have reacted to a decade of stares, cutting comments, airport humiliations and disturbing incidents of homegrown terrorism by drifting away from their religion, some by deepening their faith, and a few by turning to the very extremism that sparked the mistrust they encounter.” 

Projected onto the world scene, that might serve as a thumbnail account of the billion-plus Muslims around the globe — and of the way Americans and other Westerners tend to see them. At times, this whole subject appears almost too sensitive for discussion. Pope Benedict XVI, speaking on Sept. 12, 2006, at the University of Regensburg in Germany, stirred up a hornet’s nest when — without saying he agreed — he quoted a Byzantine emperor of the Middle Ages: “Show me just what Mohammed brought that was new, and there you will find things only evil and inhuman, such as his command to spread the sword by the faith he preached.”

Fair? Unfair? In a survey last March and April, the Pew Research Center’s Global Attitudes Project found approval of al-Qaida in Muslim-majority countries ranging from a low of 3 percent in Lebanon to a high of 28 percent in the Palestinian territories. Other extremist groups drew a much notably more positive response. With the exception of Indonesia and Lebanon, public views of the United States were strongly negative. 

A decade after 9/11, few if any of the conflicts, tensions and fears it either created or dramatized — between Islam and the West, within Islam itself and among divided Americans seeking security and peace in a fractured and contentious world — have disappeared. There is no reason to think that will happen any time soon. 

Russell Shaw is an OSV contributing editor.

Top ways 9/11 has changed our lives

Heightened security

 Creation of the Department of Homeland Security.

 Introduction of the now-defunct color-coded threat alert system.

 Longer waits at airport checkpoints as the Transportation Security Administration has enacted more extensive screening measures. 

Wars in Afghanistan/Iraq

 Launched Oct. 7, 2001, the war in Afghanistan has claimed more than 2,100 coalition and U.S. troops; among the latest fatalities was the downing of a helicopter carrying an elite force of Navy SEALS. 

 Launched March 19, 2003, inspired by the ultimately incorrect belief that the country had weapons of mass destruction, the Iraq War cost more than 4,400 U.S. service-member lives.  

 The American combat mission in Iraq ended August 2010, with the bulk of U.S. forces drawing down, leaving a small U.S. military presence in the fragile democracy.

Unfavorable views of Islam

An August 2010 poll by the Pew Research Center for the People & the Press and the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life found that 30 percent of respondents had a favorable view of Islam.

More than half surveyed — 51 percent — sympathized with those who opposed plans to build an Islamic cultural center near the former World Trade Center.

 In a Pew Research Center’s Global Attitudes Project survey from last spring, 69 percent of U.S. respondents say they are concerned about Islamic extremism.

Pop cultural influences  


 “Reign Over Me”: A drama about a man (Adam Sandler, right) struggling with the loss of his family in the attacks. 

 “United 93”: United Flight 93 passengers’ foiling of the terrorist plot to attack Washington, D.C. (below, right). 

 “World Trade Center”: Oliver Stone’s 2006 movie about two Port Authority police officers trapped in the rubble of the World Trade Center.


 “Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close”: A novel by Jonathan Safran Foer about a precocious boy who searches for a lock that matches a key left by his father, who died on 9/11. A film version opens in limited markets on Dec. 25. 

 “Falling Man”: A novel by Don DeLillo that looks at the 9/11 attacks from various points of view. 

 “In the Shadow of No Towers”: Cartoonist Art Spiegelman, creator of the Pulitzer Prize winning “Maus,” documents his emotions after the attacks.

Memorials to Victims

New York: Long a subject of controversy and debate, the National 9/11 Memorial features two reflecting pools with cascading waterfalls on the footprints of the Twin Towers, with bronze parapets surrounding the pools. The names of those killed on Sept. 11, 2001, and in the 1993 terrorist attack on the World Trade Center will be inscribed on the parapets. The memorial will be dedicated on Sept. 11, and will be open to the public beginning Sept. 12. An accompanying museum will open September 2012. Visit for more information. 

Pentagon: The National 9/11 Pentagon Memorial, remembering the 184 people who died when American Airlines Flight 77 slammed into the building, was dedicated in 2008. The outdoor memorial features benches for each victim of the attack. Crape myrtle trees and ornamental grass adorn the site. Visit for more information.

Shanksville, Pa.: On Sept. 11, National Parks Service will open the first phase of the Flight 93 National Memorial to commemorate where United Flight 93 crashed into a Pennsylvania field. The memorial features wildflowers and marble walls bearing the names of the 40 passengers and crew members who died in the struggle with the hijackers. Eventually the memorial will have a visitor’s center. For more information, visit 

Additional quotes

“9/11 led us all into the very depths of the mysteries of human suffering, death and resurrection. We discovered that we cannot obtain nor find all the answers to the atrocities we experienced. Yet with God’s grace we also experienced the height of human sacrifice and the ability of our brothers and sisters to manifest heroic love.” 

Msgr. Anthony Sherman, a priest of the Diocese of Brooklyn, from his essay “Suffering, Death and Resurrection: A Pastor’s Experience of 9/11.” 

“In this hell I found grace. I thought ‘What is God like? God is like the firefighter who rushes into a burning building to save someone. That’s how much God loves us.’ And I saw this love expressed in the great charity of all the rescue workers who gathered at the American Golgotha.”

 — Jesuit Father James Martin, excerpted from his essay “The Parable of Ground Zero” . Father Martin, who is the culture editor at America magazine, ministered to family members and rescuers after Sept. 11, and wrote about the experience in “Searching for God at Ground Zero” (Sheed & Ward, $14.95)