“They’ve bombed the World Trade Center in New York,” my mother said.
“Who?” I asked.
“I don’t know. We just heard about it.”
It was a few minutes before 9 A.M. on Tuesday, September 11, 2001, and her phone call had awoken me from a sound sleep. I had lost my job at the bank almost five months earlier and had taken to sleeping late throughout that summer. I had my alarm clock set for 11 A.M. My father had an appointment with his eye doctor at 1 P.M. Exactly one week earlier one of the doctor’s colleagues had implanted some radiation pellets into his left eye; another attempt to destroy a small tumor that had formed behind the eyeball. The doctor had made his first effort to eliminate it nearly seven months earlier by cauterizing the blood vessels around the tumor. But, it had regenerated. The pellets could only remain in his eye for a maximum of seven days.
After my mother had called me, I really couldn’t go back to sleep and finally got up around 10:00. Turning on the TV, I couldn’t believe what I was seeing: the South Tower of the World Trade Center collapsing. It had just occurred, and I was watching a replay. “What the hell happened?” I kept asking myself.
I thought back to Memorial Day weekend, when I visited New York with a close friend, Phillip*, who had lived there for five years. He had attended New York University, beginning in 1991, and after graduating, decided to stay and try to build a long-desired career in the film industry. When that didn’t go as planned, he returned to Dallas. Yet, Phillip kept his tiny one-bedroom apartment in the heart of Greenwich Village; subletting it college students. He hoped to move back there one day.
I had first visited New York with Phillip over Memorial Day weekend 1997. We stayed with some friends of his who lived across the Hudson in New Jersey. I had no desire to patronize the World Trade Center back then. Seeing the Statue of Liberty from a boat was enjoyable enough, but a cluster of office buildings wasn’t exactly akin to viewing the remains of Tenochtitlán.
But, before our 2001 visit, I told Phillip I’d visit the World Trade Center complex – just to say I’d been there. Then, as we made our way to Manhattan’s financial district, I stopped. Literally. In mid-stride.
“What’s wrong?” Phillip asked me.
I was silent for a moment. “Nothing,” I finally said. I don’t know what it was, but I had suddenly developed a sickening feeling as I looked at those two gargantuan structures just a few blocks away. I don’t remember exactly what I said afterwards, but I shifted my focus to an Indian restaurant Phillip had wanted me to try out. My appetite had evaporated, yet we made our way back up to the Greenwich Village area. I grew hungry, though, by the time we reached the restaurant. I couldn’t explain to Phillip why I’d abruptly changed my mind about the World Trade Center. I couldn’t explain it to myself.
As I sat alongside my father in the waiting room, we stared at the TV monitor snuggled high up into a corner. An older couple sat opposite us, and, of course, we all wondered aloud who had wreaked such havoc on us and why. None of us actually cared why. We just wanted retribution.
But, thirteen years on, I know why Al-Qaeda attacked the U.S. in so brutal a manner. It’s not like they all woke up one morning and decided to highjack those planes because they had nothing else better to do with their time and money.
On December 27, 1979, the Soviet Union unexpectedly invaded Afghanistan. Back then, the average American probably couldn’t locate the landlocked nation on a map. It was the U.S.S.R.’s last concerted effort at a land grab. At the time, however, the United States was preoccupied with the Iran hostage crisis. Before then, most Americans probably couldn’t find Iran on a map either. In retrospect, though, the quandary was the U.S.’s first battle with radical Islam. President Jimmy Carter appeared thoroughly inept in his handling of it; a fact that cost him the 1980 presidential election. Ronald Reagan rode into the White House with a promise to help the mujahideen fighters drive out the Soviets. The Cold War was still very active; the U.S. and the U.S.S.R. locked in a never-ending battle of hearts and minds. In March of 1985, Reagan signed National Security Decision Directive 166, which allowed for much-needed financial and military support to the Afghan warriors. Within two years, the U.S. was shipping up to 65,000 tons of arm supplies and covertly spiriting a bevy of military operatives and specialists into Afghanistan via Pakistan. When the Soviets finally left Afghanistan in 1989, the Afghan people expected the U.S. to live up to its Reagan-born vow. We were supposed to stay and help the impoverished country move from its medieval environment into the 20th century. We never did. President George H.W. Bush simply didn’t see it as a priority. Neither did Bill Clinton. People don’t forget something like that.
Blindly supporting Israel.
The U.S. and Israel have one major thing in common: both were founded by White Europeans fleeing religious persecution who ended up displacing the indigenous peoples through violence and intimidation. As of 2013, the U.S. has been providing roughly $3.1 billion annually to support its only true ally in the Middle East. This small nation of 7.1 million was formally established in 1948 and now has the highest standard of living of any country in the region with a 95% literacy rate and an average life expectancy of 79. It’s not that its neighbors are bitterly envious of Israel’s global success. The harassment of non-Jews by Israeli police and government has always bordered on the criminal. But, any criticism of Israel’s actions is met with a harsh rebuke by its supporters. President Barack Obama is repeatedly accused of abandoning Israel; a declaration born more out of political partisanship and racism than fact. Yet, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has received scant criticism about his refusal to acknowledge a “Palestinian state,” or a “two-state solution.” The ongoing battle between Jews and Palestinians is a little like the English-French divide in Canada, but more pointless. Israel’s assault upon Lebanon in 2006 was met with silence, even as news of atrocities at the hands of the Israeli military seeped out, along with images of civilians fleeing to the island nation of Cyprus. The U.S. also remains mum on Israel’s constant push into the West Bank; forcing out entire families and destroying Palestinian property. Other democratic nations always seem to look away.
The United States should have seen 09/11 coming. There were plenty of signs: the 1993 bombing of the World Trade Center; the 1996 assault on the Khobar Towers in Saudi Arabia; the 1998 bombings of the U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania; and the attack on the U.S.S. Cole in October of 2000. There’s also plenty of blame to go around. On September 12, 2001, people kept asking how something so horrifically grand could happen. Didn’t anyone suspect that planes could be used as missiles? Didn’t anyone believe it was imprudent to overlook the expired visas of foreign nationals? Didn’t someone think box cutters and pocket knives could be so deadly? Didn’t somebody alert authorities to the curious behavior of Middle Eastern men at flight schools? Well, yes to all of the above. Various people at various times had already expressed concern about those things. And, it goes far beyond just the infamous “August 6, 2001 Presidential Daily Briefing.”
There’s nothing that can take back the horror of that late summer day more than a decade ago. People launching themselves from the top floors of the World Trade Center towers is one of the most blood-curdling things I’ve ever seen. We’ll never just get over it. And, while I’m no security expert, I know the U.S. should never set itself up for catastrophe through an imaginary veil of isolation.