Remembering 9/11 twenty years later

Two beams of light representing the Twin Towers beam in the Manhattan night sky (Source: Jesse Mills on Unsplash)

The images of the September 11 attacks in 2001, often referred to as 9/11, are seared into the memories of all who watched the events unfold, in person or on the television live streamed to our homes and offices around the world. A collective disbelief and horror at the unfolding events resulting from a series of four coordinated terrorist attacks against the United States of America by the militant Islamist terrorist group Al Qaeda on the morning of Tuesday, September 11, 2001 (USA Eastern Seaboard time), indelibly scorched our souls and was a defining moment in the history of western civilisation and culture. One which would also define the subsequent events in Afghanistan, Iraq, and Syria.

On that bright and sunny September morning twenty years ago, four commercial aircraft travelling from the north-eastern United States to California were hijacked mid-flight by nineteen Al Qaeda terrorists, organised into three groups of five hijackers and one group of four. Each team had one terrorist who had received flight training and who took over the control of the aeroplane. Their categorical goal was to crash each airliner into a prominent American building, causing mass destruction and death.

American Airlines Flight 11 was the first plane to hit its target when it was flown into the North Tower of the World Trade Center complex in Lower Manhattan at 8.46am. Seventeen minutes later at 9.03am, the World Trade Center’s South Tower was hit by United Airlines Flight 175. Both 11-storey towers collapsed within an hour and forty-two minutes, which led to the collapse of the other World Trade Center structures and the severe damage of surrounding buildings.

American Airlines Flight 77 was flown from Dulles International Airport and hijacked over Ohio. At 9.37am, it crashed into the west side of the Pentagon (the headquarters of the American Military) in Arlington Country Virginia, causing a partial collapse of the building’s side. 

The fourth and final flight, United Airlines Flight 93, was flown towards Washington, D.C. This flight was the only aircraft not to hit its intended target. The plane’s passengers, who had received messages from loved ones about what was occurring in New York, had attempted to regain control of the aircraft away from the hijackers, but it ultimately crashed in a filed near Shanksville, Pennsylvania at 10.03am. Investigators determined that Flight 93’s target was either the White House or the US Capitol.

The terrorist attacks resulted in 2,977 fatalities, over 25,000 injuries, and substantial long-term health consequences, in addition to circa US$10 billion in property and infrastructure damage. It remains the deadliest terrorist attack in human history and the single deadliest incident for firefighters and law enforcement officers in the history of the United States of America, with 340 and 72 killed, respectively. 

Suspicion quickly fell onto Al Qaeda. The USA formally responded by launching the ‘War on Terror’ and invading Afghanistan to depose the Taliban, which had not complied with US demands to expel Al Qaeda from Afghanistan and extradite Al Qaeda’s leader, Osama bin Laden. Although bin Laden initially denied any involvement, in 2004, he formally claimed responsibility for the attacks. Bin Laden evaded capture for nearly a decade, but he was located in a hideout in Abbottabad, Pakistan and subsequently killed during Operation Neptune Spear.

The attacks on and destruction of the World Trade Center and nearby infrastructure significantly harmed the New York City economy and created a global economic recession. The US and Canadian civilian airspaces were closed until September 13, whilst Wall Street trading was closed until September 17. Many evacuations, closings, and cancellations followed, out of respect or fear of further attack.

Many countries, including Australia, strengthened their anti-terrorism legislation and expanded the powers of law enforcement and intelligence agencies to prevent terrorist attacked. 

The clearing of the World Trade Center site was completed in May 2002, and the Pentagon was repaired within a year. The construction of the replacement of the World Trade Center complex began in November 2006, and the building opened in November 2014.

Twenty years on, I still vividly remember waking on September 12, 2001, to the news of the attacks and watching, stunned, as events unfolded. The telephone calls to and from close friends and loved ones in New York, all thankfully spare, some only due to quirks of fate and timing.

The rise of extreme Jihadist Islam was not new to me. In late 1987, my then 3-year-old daughter, a friend, and I had been attacked by the forbears of Boko Haram whilst having a picnic lunch by a river near Jos in Nigeria due to our ethnicity and gender. We were saved by my friend’s exceptionally large German Shepherd dog, my watermelon knife, a long telescope camera lens that looked remarkably like a gun, and sheer adrenalin. Surprisingly, my overarching memory of the attack was of a young Muslim boy, approximately 14 years old, who, such was his hunger, put his bare hand into our small fire to retrieve a potato wrapped in foil. He was not interested in following the yelled instructions of the thugs who commanded him. He was present because there was no viable alternative for him.

A few days after the events of 9/11, whilst in the cafeteria at Westmead Hospital in Sydney, I witnessed a middle-aged observant Jewish Doctor come to the rescue of a group of five Muslim young women, identifiable by their head scarves, who were being harangued and cursed by angry and threatening men and women as a reaction to 9/11. The Jewish gentleman loudly condemned the behaviour and was quickly joined by an equally devout Christian man, a professor at the hospital. They gently ushered the crying young ladies to a table, and they sat together in solidarity and prayer every lunch time for the next few weeks, eating the contents of their lunchboxes together and providing a circle of safety and friendship for the young women.

I do not have the answers for how to stop angry, violent, thugs from perverting their religion and espousing hate and hateful behaviours across the world. But I do know that some of the West’s actions in the recent past have exacerbated the issues and dramatically grown this cohort. But I also know is they are only a relatively small (but powerful) percentage of their fellow religious adherents in the world.

I am also convinced that to break cycles of intergenerational hate and the disadvantage, which lead otherwise decent young men into following the thugs, we need to be prepared to invest considerable energy and money over extended periods. 

More importantly, to do so one has to be very sure of one’s own cultural identity and values, and not compromise them. We should never tolerate thuggery, but we should, where at all possible, endeavour to build trust and social cohesion, and extend a hand of friendship and aid to those who would welcome it and who do not represent a threat.

In the case of Australia, our cultural identity and freedoms are based on Judeo-Christian values, which are enshrined in our Westminster-based legal system and ensure our democracy. If these values are eroded internally; if post truth and fake news become the norm; if it is unacceptable to challenge the status quo; and we no longer know whom to trust; and social cohesion and altruistic purpose are lost; we risk losing our democratic freedoms. History tells us that, when this happens, a more draconian and organised replacement will prevail. 

However, if we retain our cultural identity and values, are represented by elected officials across all governments who aspire to serve and have high levels of integrity, if we retain socially cohesive communities, and in doing so easily agree to disagree and still remain friends, with that strength, we can then certainly welcome the stranger and find that in reality, he or she is, in fact, just like us.

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