I wrote this one week after September 11th, 2001. Seventeen years later, I have to say the jury is still out on the questions I posed and desires I stated back then. I did not know the loss of morality my country would willingly take on. I did not know how such good will could be so wantonly squandered by men of low character in some of the highest offices of the land. I did not foresee my service’s willingness to mortgage its future for political expediency or to forsake the identity and capability it alone could provide for the nation. I am saddened on this day every year both for the loss of innocent lives and for our seeming inability to make ourselves better because of it. In reflection, I offer the following….
At 8 o’clock on the morning of September 11, 2001, my wife’s best friend woke me with a phone call. It was the second time she has been the first to call with terrible news. The first was during pilot training. In calling to find out if I was all right, she told me that a jet from my base had crashed and killed its two pilots. This time she called to tell me of the event of our generation. I didn’t know it, but I woke to a different world.
I watched with amazement as two airliners plowed into the sides of the twin World Trade Center towers. I watched with terrible wonder as those towers fell to the ground and, like every other American, questioned if this was all just a bad dream. It was not. Since then I have watched the news almost constantly over the past few days while I try to wrap my mind around this singularly distinctive event in the history of this country and the world as a whole.
The pundits and unofficial spokesmen for America began almost immediately trying to put a face on what will be remembered on the same level with world-altering events like the murder of Archduke Ferdinand, Pearl Harbor, and Hiroshima. Such comparisons sprung to the lips before anyone took the time to consider the effects. Our leaders stood strong; they spoke strong words. Retaliation. It didn’t take long for that word to emerge. Recently the responses have become more measured. There is a subtle warning tone, and only time will tell if the public is capable of receiving it. This will not be quick or easy. It will not be clean.
Our country has been attacked. There are those that say we are now at war. I submit that we have been at war for a long time. We were distracted by a celebrity murder, the questionable sexual practices of a president/general/Supreme Court nominee/congressman, and the rise of the next boy band or augmented teen song goddess. In our shallowness we failed to see the depth of hate living among us. In our summertime schoolyard daze following the end of the “evil empire” and the victory of the Cold War, we failed to understand that our need for expediency in our too-busy lives would become the chink in the armor that killed thousands this terrible Tuesday. It saddens me to hear a radio announcer say the National Anthem has new meaning. It hasn’t changed; we have. Where was the outrage and lasting national resolve when over 200 Marines lost their lives in Lebanon? Where was it when our embassies were attacked and hundreds of Africans died? Where was it when our ships could not find safe harbor in Yemeni ports? Where was the outrage and resolve the last time the World Trade Center was bombed? We are fickle, and we should have seen it coming.
America is an enigma. We complain like spoiled children and protest for our own pet issues. We are apathetic about politics and world events. We drive to work never looking out the side windows of our cars, totally self-absorbed. Yet we project our ideals across the globe. Our military patrols hostile skies and waters. Our charity finds its way into the third world, and we want everyone on the planet to have the freedom we have. “Let freedom ring,” goes the familiar refrain.
Those responsible for this act are smiling at their apparent success. They toppled two of the greatest buildings ever engineered by man. They killed thousands of innocent civilians. I’m certain they are relishing our despair. They are fools. They smile while their God weeps. In times like these I want to believe in heaven and hell and think their journey on the river Styx is filled with a foreboding anguish before an eternity in the worst kind of hell ever conceived. But I believe instead they are in the black vastness of death from which there is no return and no end. I hope that in the instant before they ceased conscious thought, in that fractioned moment between life and death, they knew they had failed…their heaven just a myth. If it is so, it makes their crime against humanity all the more potent. Individuals claiming every religion on earth have at one time or another killed or attributed death in the name of their god. Even today two of America’s so-called spiritual leaders, Pat Robertson and Jerry Falwell, blamed this disaster on God’s revocation of his protection over us for any number of our own “evils.” Words from the jawbones of asses. What an imbecilic destruction of all that could be good. I heard a line I will never forget this morning. It was spoken by a Muslim cleric who said, “terrorism knows no religion.” Even I would say “amen” to that.
I have been heartened this week by our greatest national commodity–the intangible American spirit. While it’s true we may worship our heroes to the point of absurdity, perhaps it’s because there are just so many. Steely-eyed firemen seemingly without fear; the possibility that several passengers put others above themselves and wrested control of a doomed aircraft; officers, enlisted men and women, and civilians in “safe” desk duty at the seat of our nation’s military might. All snuffed out by a few misguided extremists. Had they studied their enemy and its history even superficially, they would have seen their folly. The terror bombing of the great Zeppelins, V-2 and blitz attacks on London, and even the Allied Combined Bomber Offensive on Nazi Germany all miserably failed in their quests to destroy the morale of the populations below. Terrorism on this scale is similarly doomed. In fact it can do nothing but strengthen, or awaken, a nation’s resolve. Terrorism on any scale should forever do the same. I have played the famous scene at the end of the movie “Tora, Tora, Tora” over and over in my mind’s eye this week. Admiral Yamamoto standing on the deck of his battleship, Yamato, having just successfully attacked Pearl Harbor says the line no historian was there to record, “I fear we have awakened a sleeping giant.” I hope our enemies have considered that real possibility. Perhaps they would wake in a cold sweat if they had rational thought.
Our nation seems to be rising to the occasion history has once again dealt us. The time of national distraction and petty bickering must now end if we are to answer the call of destiny. The free world is feeling our pain and recognizing the task ahead. For a people used to seeing its flag burned in demonstrations across the globe, pride swelled in seeing it waved in the streets by people of many nationalities. For the first time the Queen’s Royal Guard played our national anthem at Buckingham Palace as Brits waved the flag of their former colonies. Over two hundred thousand Germans stood outside the Brandenburg Gate in Berlin, one-time symbol of the divide between good and evil, and memorialized the victims. All of Europe observed three minutes of silence at the exact same time. From that small instant in time came the most poignant moment of all. The citizens of Sarajevo stood still and silent in reverence for our dead. This city once split along ethnic lines and nearly destroyed by civil war, this place that held the pity of the world stood in somber reflection for the greatest city on earth. Such is the depth and meaning of this tragic event.
It is perhaps a sign of character that America is so slowly stirred to violence. We do not long for nor relish war. We come late to most unless prodded by extreme events. Such an event has occurred; America is handmade for the coming fight, a true struggle of good versus evil. It is how Hollywood would cast us and how we have cast ourselves many times over. America: the knight in shining armor, the man in white, the defender and protector of a world sometimes unaware of our hopes for it. We have faced the evil of tyrannical leaders bent on world domination in the First World War. The evil of genocidal and imperial systems in World War II. The evil of a world united against their will under the weight of an iron curtain. The evil of denying the very freedom we represent based solely on the color of one’s skin. We have fought them all. We have prevailed. It is time to prevail again.
There are no glory-days ahead. Theater newsreels will be silent. Our papers will not discuss large and noble campaigns. This war will not be fought on conventional terms but in the shadows by clandestine means. The cleanliness of cruise missiles and the majesty of battleships cannot root out faceless culprits under the protection of rogue states, or a militant without regard even for his own human life, or the nice man living next door and walking in your park who decides to fly an airliner into one of the tallest buildings in the world. I wonder where it will take us. The Vietnamese fought for over fifty years to expel all western influence from their country. Can we fight such a protracted war or will our need for expediency once again outweigh our sense of security at the airline ticket counter? Will individuals continue to be stirred to action and refuse to be victimized or will we roll over back into our slumber and apathy? Will a Latino who reports on the suspicious acts of a man of middle-eastern descent be accused of racial profiling, or will he be lauded for his attention to detail? In the most litigious country on earth and one that prides itself on the rule of law, can we stomach trial by silenced firearm on the edges of civilization? These are the challenges that confront us as we beat our chests in public and cry in solitude.
I went to work that day because I could not afford to do nothing. A trip that normally takes 20 minutes took an hour and half. Though in uniform and with the proper ID, my car was searched by security forces and sniffed by a military working dog. As I busied myself with menial tasks, I was ordered in a frantic moment to my commander’s office. “The boss wants to see all the F-16 pilots.” There were three of us. The rest were kept at bay by the enormous security measures at the gate. The Wing Commander entered the office followed by my group commander. He said a few haunting words, then we ran from the office to our planes. Fifteen minutes later I was sitting in the cockpit, engine running, waiting for the order to launch and take down a civilian airliner not responding to air traffic control. In a lucid moment spent considering my task and listening to my own breathing over the intercom, I knew my world had forever changed.
I suspect the whole world has changed. Our answers to the questions above and our actions in these first few years of this new century will define my generation. They will likely define the legacy of America and the free and civilized world. I hope that like our fathers and grandfathers before us we are up to the task. I hope that our country and our world will stand behind us, resolute and unwavering, for it is now up to us to decide whether irrationality and senseless acts of waste and destruction can win over civilization and the inherent freedom of man.