On the morning of September 11, 2001, when the first plane struck the World Trade Center, I was asleep in my college dorm room. My friend Daniel called from across campus to wake me up. “Turn on the TV,” he said. “A plane just hit the World Trade Center.” I lumbered into the dorm’s living room and turned on the television. My roommates were still asleep. In those first few moments, I thought that it was surely an accident. “Decades ago, a plane hit the Empire State Building,” I remember saying.
Then, the second plane hit. Clearly, it was no accident. I woke everyone up.
When news broke about a plane hitting the Pentagon, I began working the phones. I didn’t know anyone who worked at the World Trade Center, but I knew my Uncle David worked at the Pentagon. My family didn’t hear from him until hours later. David’s a medical doctor and a flight surgeon. His experience on that day, as a first responder, is truly remarkable, and I won’t cheapen it by attempting to tell it.
Ten years later, the media narrative is that Americans hadn’t even heard of Osama bin Laden until September 11th. This is total nonsense. Americans knew the name well. The attack on the USS Cole had occurred less than a year before. They also knew al-Qaeda was responsible for the 1993 World Trade Center bombings. When it was apparent to my friends and I that this was an actual terrorist attack, we all knew it was likely the work of bin Laden and al-Qaeda, and we were all teenagers.
At 10:30 that Tuesday morning, I was supposed to be in a Political Science class. I’d already heard that most professors were canceling classes, and I assumed my Political Science professor would understand why her students missed class that day. I later learned from one of my classmates that the professor was anything but understanding. As she called roll, she apparently ridiculed those students who were absent. Over half of the class had skipped. Another one of my classmates, who also skipped class that day, learned, hours later, that her father had been killed in the attacks. (If there is any cosmic justice to this, it’s that the professor who ridiculed students for not attending her 10:30AM “Women in Politics” class on September 11th, including the girl whose father was killed, was basically fired at the end of the semester).
Downtown Houston was evacuated that afternoon. The Rice campus was on lockdown. Classes were canceled for the remainder of the week. The panic and anxiety were palpable. Students stayed up all night, pouring over television sets.
My roommate’s uncle, as it turned out, was a member of the Secret Service. They were able to speak a few times throughout the day. I am not, by any means, a conspiracy theorist, but I vividly remember my roommate telling me, “There may be more hijacked planes, as many as five or six, and they are also worried about Amtrak.” It was an incredibly frightening hypothetical, one that, thankfully, turned out to be false. Incidentally, the next day, two men from India were arrested on an Amtrak train in Texas, after authorities discovered they were traveling with box cutters and thousands of dollars in cash, but it was later determined those men were not connected to the 9/11 attacks.
The next semester, I enrolled in an Anthropology class about terrorism. America had already declared war on the Taliban and against any government that knowingly harbored terrorists. My professor and some of my fellow students were convinced that this was criminal. I rarely spoke up in that class, but one day, after listening to an entire lecture about the “social trauma” we were about to inflict on the people of Afghanistan, I had to say something. No one can deny the trauma and the barbarism of war, but I was fed up.
“We were attacked, right?” I asked the class. “3,000 Americans died, and you are all concerned about the political sovereignty of a small group of thugs who are sheltering the man responsible for a mass murder.” Ostensibly, the class was about social trauma, but there seemed to be a disconnect between trauma and justice.
The professor gave me a D on my mid-term examination. I could have withdrawn from the class, but I didn’t want to. Despite our disagreements and despite my belief that my D had more to do with my political perspective than my academic performance, I had a lot of respect for this particular professor. She had personally experienced the violence and trauma of war in South America. I had and continue to have a vastly different perspective on the merits of warfare, but I wanted to understand why she had so readily dismissed me. I began meeting with her regularly during her office hours. Over time, I understood that she primarily wanted her students to appreciate that warfare was dynamic, that it had tentacles; its indirect impact was often more damaging than anything you could immediately calculate.
I wrote my final paper on the role of race in the War on Drugs, and she gave me an A in the class.
I was at Cafe du Monde in New Orleans when President Bush declared war on Iraq. A heavy-set, African-American waitress shouted patrons into silence. “Attention, attention, America is going to war against Iraq,” she yelled. President Bush wouldn’t make his official declaration until hours later, but the news was out. One of my friends burst into tears. “This is not right,” she said. “It has nothing to do with bin Laden.”
At the time I publish this, one of my best friends in the world (I was a groomsman at his wedding) is waking up on a U.S. military base in the suburbs of Baghdad. He’s been shot at, but he’s actually not there to fight. His primary task is to ensure the orderly retreat of his fellow U.S. soldiers.
A few years ago, another one of my best friends (I was also a groomsman at his wedding) fought in combat in Northern Iraq. It was during the height of the war. He’d try to reassure his family and his friends that he was safe and perfectly fine, but we all knew better. Once he finally returned home, he resigned from the military, at the age of 22, and began publicly protesting the war. It wasn’t political for him; it was personal.
A kid I went to elementary school with was killed in combat in Iraq. A friend of mine from high school was severely wounded. Thankfully, he survived and recovered. Then, he went back.
When President Obama revealed to the world that Osama bin Laden had been killed, he hinted at something that necessitates amplification (bold mine):
We give thanks for the men who carried out this operation, for they exemplify the professionalism, patriotism, and unparalleled courage of those who serve our country. And they are part of a generation that has borne the heaviest share of the burden since that September day.
I may be, technically speaking, a member of this generation, but I have not borne the same sacrifices as my friends and peers who serve in the military. The vast majority of the boots on the ground in Iraq and Afghanistan were, like me, teenagers on September 11, 2001. (28 is the average age of the U.S. military).
9/11 was a defining moment for our nation, but it was THE defining moment for my generation.
It’s strange for me to consider that my little cousins probably don’t remember what the country was like before September 11th, that the only America they know is a country that has always been at war. Multiple wars. Expensive, wide-ranging, brutal wars.
Remember this: In both Afghanistan and Iraq, our stated objective for going into war was to bring to justice to those responsible for attacking America on September 11, 2001. That’s what my friends signed up for. No one signed up to build astroturf democracies or to become a pawn in some international geopolitical chess game.
I supported President Bush’s decision to go to war against the Taliban in Afghanistan, but I never- not even for a second- believed or supported the War in Iraq. But the purpose of this post is not to re-litigate the past.
“We got him,” President Obama said in the White House Situation Room immediately after learning of bin Laden’s demise.
I don’t pretend to be an expert in foreign policy, but as I recall from nearly ten years ago, there was a clear and unifying cause for going to war: To get Osama bin Laden and to dismantle his terrorist organization. Of course, it is impossible to know, right now, whether or not bin Laden’s death will result in the dismantling of al-Qaeda in the same way that Hitler’s death represented the definitive end of Nazism, and it would be premature and unwise to believe that.
Like him or not, President Barack Obama made an epochal, gutsy decision, and our Navy SEALs executed their orders brilliantly and effectively.
Some of my friends and fellow bloggers believe it’s inappropriate to celebrate the death of another human being, even someone as vile and contemptuous as Osama bin Laden. Although I understand their ambivalence, I respectfully disagree.
When I watched the scores of people running toward the gates of the White House and the perimeter of Ground Zero immediately after the news had been leaked, I didn’t think that those people (most of whom were younger than I am) were there to gloat over the assassination of a single person; I thought about my friends and my peers who fought and are fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan. I thought of my buddy in Iraq, who just welcomed his first child into the world, a baby girl he can only watch when he and his wife video-chat on Skype (and thank God for Skype).
So, although it may seem strange or even wrong to react with joy over the news of someone else’s death, I’d rather think of it this way: This isn’t about one man. This is about the service and sacrifice of the men and women who risk their lives to protect ours.
And while these wars may still be far from over, hopefully, the death of the world’s most wanted and most powerful terrorist represents the beginning of the end.