History, History Column

September 11, 2001 – Twenty Years Later


by ©2021 Sarah Becker

September 11, 2001 – Twenty Years Later

In October 2001—twenty years ago in this column—I wrote: “On September 11 a group of hateful terrorists turned commercial airplanes into weapons and bombed The Pentagon and the World Trade Center.  More than six thousand Americans are missing and the death toll continues to rise.  The FBI has code named the egregious episode PENTBOM.

Alexandrians are well aware of the disaster.  Phone service was interrupted.  F16s fly overhead, and the Coast Guard defends the Potomac River.  The Capitol is vulnerable and so are we!”

Although the day’s events are behind us still we remember those who died: at the Pentagon, in New York City, and near Shanksville, Pennsylvania.  I watched the Pentagon burn; from my front stoop.  The smoke, the airborne particles darkened an otherwise blue sky.

“The Arab perpetrators did not act on behalf of nation-states,” my 2001 column continued.  “They are self-determined hijackers who belonged in terrorist cells in as many as 50 countries.  Retaliation is inevitable and as Americans we must now ask ourselves, at what cost does good overcome evil?”

On September 11, 2001, America seemed unassailable.  The Soviet Union had fallen and the millennial mood was optimistic.  President George W. Bush [R-TX] was settling into office.  His arrival was controversial, his focus mostly domestic.  Bush considered treaties “as counter to U.S. self-interest.”

“The enemies of liberty and our country should make no mistake: America remains engaged in the world by history and by choice, shaping a balance of power that favors freedom,” President Bush forewarned in his January 20, 2001, Inaugural Address.  “We will defend…our interests.  We will meet aggression and bad faith with resolve.”

When President Bush first heard news of the 9/11 World Trade Center tragedy his advisors assumed the crash was “a tragic accident.”  When the second plane crashed into the World Trade Center 20 minutes later he got it.  “Terrorism against our nation will not stand,” the President exclaimed.

“Terrorist attacks can shake the foundation of our biggest buildings, but they cannot touch the foundation of America,” Bush said in his later 9/11 television address.  “These acts shatter steel, but they cannot dent the steel of American resolve.”

Soon after, in the fall of 2001, the U.S. moved into Afghanistan and “crushed the Taliban government that had supported the al-Qaeda terrorist forces.”  Many of the 9/11 hijackers were trained in Afghan camps.

“In four short months, our nation has comforted the victims, begun to rebuild New York and the Pentagon…captured, arrested, and rid the world of thousands of terrorists, destroyed Afghanistan’s terrorist training camps, saved a people from starvation, and freed a country from brutal oppression,” President Bush explained in his 2002 State of the Union message.

The American flag flies again over our embassy in Kabul.  Terrorists who once occupied Afghanistan now occupy cells at Guantanamo Bay.  And terrorist leaders who urged followers to sacrifice their lives are running for their own.

Our progress is a tribute to the spirit of the Afghan people, to the resolve of our coalition, and to the might of the United States military…And tonight we are winning the war on terror.

“States like North Korea, Iran and Iraq constitute an axis of evil, arming to threaten the peace of the world,” Bush continued.  “By seeking weapons of mass destruction, these regimes pose a grave and growing danger.

America will work closely with our coalition to deny terrorists and their state sponsors the materials, technology, and expertise to make and deliver weapons of mass destruction…[A]ll nations should know: America will do what is necessary to ensure our nation’s security.”   The U.S. Department of Homeland Security was founded on November 25, 2002 [Public Law 107-296].

In the spring of 2003, despite global opposition, President Bush “launched arguably the first preemptive war in American history.”  Charging that Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein held weapons of mass destruction Bush then convinced Congress to authorize an invasion.  Operation Iraqi Freedom began on March 20, 2003: ended on August 31, 2010.  Yet on May 1, 2003—while speaking on the USS Abraham Lincoln—Bush declared the “major combat operations” over, the Mission Accomplished.

America’s excitement was short-lived.  Why?  Because Saudi-born al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden—chief architect of the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks on the United States—had yet to die.  “Every day bin Laden was alive was a symbolic al-Qaeda victory,” The Washington Post inferred.  Bin Laden died on May 2, 2011, in what U.S. officials described as a surgical raid on his luxury hideout in Pakistan.

Said newly-retired, 20-year, USMC veteran Major David Romley after receiving news of bin Laden’s death: “In general, I believe there will be a monumental—albeit gradual—shift to the way in which our citizenry thinks about the current war.  I believe history will remember it as being 10 years long—from 2001 to 2011.”

“Of course, that won’t be exactly true,” Romley continued.  “We will always battle terrorism.  Yet this single event gives us, our government the political capital to reduce the financial and human resources we currently apply to military operations, weapons and domestic security.”  Romley, an Alexandrian “was at sea on the USS Pelelieu on 9/11 and was one of the first conventional forces on the ground in Afghanistan in November 2001,” the May 5, 2011, Alexandria Gazette-Packet explained.

Now President Joe Biden [D-DE] has ordered an August 31 end to America’s longest allied war: the withdrawal of all U.S. troops from Afghanistan.  President Donald Trump (R-NY), as per his administration’s Agreement for Bringing Peace to Afghanistan, hoped to withdraw all U.S. troops by the November 2020 election.

Trump’s February 29, 2020, Agreement, Part One, B: “With the commitment and action on the obligations of the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan which is not recognized by the United States as a state and is known as the Taliban…the United States, its allies, and the Coalition will execute the following: 1) The United States, its allies, and the Coalition will complete withdrawal of all remaining forces from Afghanistan within the remaining nine and a half (9.5) months.  2) The United States [et.al] will withdraw all their forces from remaining bases.”

Contrary to others Bush backed nation-building: the freedom of the Afghan people, women especially.  Biden has long believed “rebuilding is beyond our capacity.”

“We did not go to Afghanistan to nation-build,” Biden confirmed on July 8.  “[I]t’s the right and the responsibility of the Afghan people alone to decide their future and how they want to run their country.”

“The longer we stay in Afghanistan the stronger the Taliban gets: the weaker, less stable the government becomes,” U.S. Senator and Senate Foreign Relations Committee member Chris Murphy [D-CT] said recently.  “President Biden’s decision is a bow to reality.”  The Taliban, since the withdrawal announcement, “have captured” more Afghanistan’s districts than not.  As of August 16 the Taliban have seized Kabul; the Afghan President has fled the country and Afghan citizens are praying for a reprieve.

“The events of 9/11 demonstrate how severe economic hardships and social alienation can provide a breeding ground for extremist ideologies and terrorism,” United Nations Senior Policy Analyst Randy Rydell penned in 2010.  “Confronting such challenges is not easy, particularly given that the primary actor remains the nation-state.  While the nation-state has proven its versatility, it has also revealed its limitations.  [W]e grapple with security concepts developed in a pre-atomic age.”

“America is not only a nation with deficits it also carries the imperial burden,” London School of Economics Department of International Relations professor Michael Cox noted.  “Plus, Americans have an even stronger sense that changes taking place globally—especially the Middle East—are fast undermining the country’s ability to shape what is taking place around it…We live in a trans-global age, internet and all.”

“Twenty years will have passed since our nation was attacked,” The National 9/11 Memorial & Museum Board Chairman Michael Bloomberg said on March 11.  “We suffered a great tragedy that day and for the weeks and months that followed.  We mourned the victims of the attacks and promised never to forget.”  The National 9/11 Memorial & Museum was dedicated in 2011 and occupies eight of The World Trade Center’s 16 acres.

The American Heritage Dictionary defines terrorism as “the political use of violence or intimidation,” to terrorize as “to coerce by intimidation or fear.”  How, I ask myself, does today’s January 6 Capitol violent extremist compare?  Donald Trump, in an interview with Carol Leonnig and Phillip Rucker, described the January 6 Capitol insurgents as a “loving crowd.”  Yet more than 600 protesters have been charged with individual crimes.

“It is not possible to examine the January 6 attack on the U.S. Capitol without an understanding of the overall terrorism threat picture leading up to that day,” FBI Director Christopher Wray told the House Oversight and Reform Committee on June 15, 2021.  “In 2020, the FBI assessed the greatest terrorism threat to the homeland was from lone actors or small cells who typically become radicalized online and look to attack soft targets with easily accessible weapons.”

“The FBI sees these threats manifested within both domestic violent extremists (DVEs) and homegrown violent extremists (HVEs)—two distinct threats—both of which are located primarily in the United States and typically become radicalized and mobilized to violence on their own,” Wray continued.  “Individuals who commit violent criminal acts in furtherance of social or political goals stemming from domestic influences—some of which include racial or ethnic bias, or anti-government or anti-authority sentiments—are described as DVEs, whereas HVEs are individuals who are inspired primarily by global jihad, but not receiving individualized direction from foreign terrorist organizations.”

Millions watched as New York’s World Trade Center events unfolded.  Others followed American Airlines Flight 77 as it crashed into the west side of the Pentagon.  One hundred twenty-five Pentagon personnel were killed as were all who traveled aboard the airplane.

“For an entire generation, at home and abroad, the United States has waged a war on terror,” Spencer Ackerman wrote in his newly-released book Reign of Terror: How the 9/11 Era Destabilized America and Produced Trump.  “Fighting it has produced neither peace nor victory, but it has transformed America.  [It has] turned the war on terror into a cultural and then tribal struggle….”

Said Alexandria Quaker Edward Stabler in 1814:  “We cannot therefore but desire the advent of that glorious day, in which the ‘people shall beat their swords into plough shares, and their spears into pruning hooks,’ when ‘nation shall not lift up sword against nation.’”

Thankfully September 11 is also a National Day of Service and Remembrance.  The National Day is described as a historic, enduring compassionate legacy honoring 9/11 victims and their families: first responders, rescue and recovery workers.  Please volunteer!  Vaccinations and masks included.


Sarah Becker started writing for The Economist while a graduate student in England. Similar publications followed. She joined the Crier in 1996 while serving on the Alexandria Convention and Visitors Association Board. Her interest in antiquities began as a World Bank hire, with Indonesia’s need to generate hard currency. Balinese history, i.e. tourism provided the means. The New York Times describes Becker’s book, Off Your Duffs & Up the Assets, as “a blueprint for thousands of nonprofit managers.” A former museum director, SLAM’s saving grace Sarah received Alexandria’s Salute to Women Award in 2007.  Email: abitofhistory53@gmail.com

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