Sunday, September 11, 2011

When The World Changed

Ten years have passed since September 11, 2001, and the terrorists attacks that ushered in a new era for the United States and the world. At the exact time of their occurrence, I was sleeping. A night owl by habit, and choice, I have never been a morning person. After the second plane struck the World Trade Center, my sister frantically awakened me; she, like most others, had believed the first plane nothing more than a tragic accident. When I turned on the television and an attack on the Pentagon became evident, the situation was irrefutable:  terrorists had declared war not only on western civilization, but also on the United States.

Of course, several salvos had already been aimed at the United States throughout the 1990s. The first bombing of the World Trade Center in 1993, perpetrated by the nephew, Ramzi Yousef, of 9/11 mastermind and al-Qaeda member Khalid Sheikh Mohammed; the bombings of U.S. embassies in Kenya in 1998, perpetrated by the closely-affiliated Egyptian Islamic Jihad and al-Qaeda; and the bombing of the USS Cole in 2000, again by al-Qaeda operatives while anchored in the Gulf of Aden, Yemen. The Clinton Administration’s response consisted of ineffectively stern warnings and the occasional missile strike against al-Qaeda as part of "Operation Infinite Reach." Targets included the Sudanese Al-Shifa pharmaceutical factory, characterized as a WMD-related facility producing chemical weapons that could fall into the hands of al-Qaeda. [Of particular note, Clinton’s former Secretary of Defense, William Cohen, testified under oath to the 9/11 Commission to connections between the factory and Iraq’s chemical weapons program.]

On the face of it, al-Qaeda had been waging war against the U.S. long before 2001. We, as a nation, seemed not to understand that until tragically reminded.

News reports soon came in during the morning of September 11 about the plight of another plane, United Airlines Flight 93, and an apparent revolt engineered by its passengers. I remember crying at the news, but not tears of sorrow for yet another hijacked plane. They were of joy and patriotism. As the first response in the war against the terrorists, ordinary citizens had stood up and fought against them. No different from the defenders of Thermopylae, The Alamo or Bastogne, holding their ground against insurmountable odds. Thinking about it ten years later, a lump still develops in my throat as my eyes well-up at the thought of their heroics and ultimate sacrifice – the same felt for those citizens and emergency personnel who gave their lives at the other two sites in New York and Washington, DC. Never forgotten, forever patriots. [At least, one would think not forgotten - "First Responders Not Invited To 9/11 Ceremony In NYC."]

At the time, I was 29 years old – the same eternal age as Gotham City’s fictional superhero, Batman. I had just started graduate school. Both my parents had been born, raised and worked for a time in New York City. My paternal grandfather had a successful medical career in the city for forty years, while my maternal grandfather had worked, retired and passed away in the city. On a lesser scale than New Yorkers who experienced it first-hand, I felt an immediate confused anger to the attacks due to those connections. Like many Americans wanting to fight back, I attempted to take up the gauntlet. Having once considered attending Annapolis and pursuing a Navy career, specifically as a naval aviator, I revisited the idea by talking and applying to several recruiters. Educated and degreed, my desire was to join Naval Intelligence. Curiously, and dishearteningly, I never heard back from them. 

In the spirit of Thomas Paine and Elijah Lovejoy, I instead took to the pen in my dual roles as an editorial writer and a historian. Indeed, the pen (“ideas”) being mightier than the sword (“action”), a notion exemplified countless times throughout human history. After all, al-Qaeda itself started as an idea motivating extremists to action, culminating in the September 11 attacks. Nonetheless, possessing a pro-military attitude combined with unrelenting support for sustaining the War on Terror, I continue to believe in total war:  enemies driven into unconditional submission, and destroyed. No quarter given. For as even Mahatma Gandhi, the preeminent advocate of non-violence, stated, “It is better to be violent if there is violence in our hearts, than to put on the cloak of nonviolence to cover impotence.”

Yet how do you destroy an enemy that is like a cockroach, concealed in secrecy and scurrying from place to place? (Or, in the case of Osama bin Laden, not to mention many other high-ranking al-Qaeda leaders, apparently in a not-so-hidden Pakistani compound.) You burn down the forest, preferably by unleashing the might of the U.S. military. That's how former President George W. Bush saw it, and President Obama even has recognized, reluctantly, the importance of taking the fight to the enemy. And it's worked out pretty well so far. Forests will grow back; a dead enemy stays dead.

Alas, some of these terrorists, like 9/11 masterminds Ramzi bin al-Shibh and Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, still draw breath at the Guantanamo Bay detention facility. Meantime, a decade later, the families of their victims’ continue to await justice for innocent lives never to be lived. That is why we fight, and must continue to as the world recognizes the 10th anniversary of the attacks, so that the voices of those lost - at the World Trade Center, at the Pentagon, and on the four hijacked planes (American Airlines 11, United Airlines 175, American Airlines 77 and United Airlines 93) - are never silenced. So say we all!

©2011 Steve Sagarra

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