Al Jones: A hollow feeling on the 20th anniversary of 9/11
My office in the Met Life building faced north, up Park Avenue. A colleague rushed in on the morning of Sept. 11, 2001.
“A small plane just tried to make an emergency landing on the roof of the Trade Center! It crashed!”
As a small plane pilot, I knew that landing on the World Trade Center roof was a poor choice for any emergency. Let’s go investigate.
When I got to the south side of our building, a huge cross-shaped hole gaped in the North Tower with gray smoke pouring out. That was no small plane. That looked like the outline of an airliner.
Beyond the towers, another airliner flew north up the Hudson on the standard river approach to LaGuardia. It disappeared for a moment, followed by a stunning burst of flame from the South Tower. The jet fuel burned into oily smoke that drifted upward. Shiny pieces of building fell to the ground, glinting as they tumbled in the soft September sunshine.
I can close my eyes as I write this and see it all again, even after 20 years.
Thirty seconds later, the public safety address system clicked on. The New York Police Department called. Leave the building immediately.
Both Trade Center towers collapsed while a group of us from New Jersey walked to the Hudson River. We found the Circle Line taking all comers. We sat in the crowded ferry and watched thick clouds of brown smoke boil into that soft blue sky. The twin columns reached the height of the missing towers before bending to drift towards Brooklyn.
Twelve people in our Grass Valley-sized town died that day. One of my colleagues on the ferry didn’t know it yet, but his brother-in-law, a firefighter, had gone down with the South Tower. A parishioner at our church told my wife, “At least he jumped, so I have a body to bury. Most people don’t even have that.”
For the first time since the 1960s, an intense feeling of national unity filled the months following 9/11. Flags came out that evening on almost every house in our suburban town. Wherever you went, flags decked the homes, rural and urban.
It did not last. After our Special Forces dislodged the Taliban, the ensuing War on Terror had something in it to offend everyone. The Patriot Act snooping. The suddenly surfaced masses of TSA employees. The Iraq invasion that found no weapons of mass destruction, but started a civil war. The failure of the factions in Iraq and Afghanistan to resolve their differences. Most significantly, the continuous loss of American lives.
President Obama wanted to leave Afghanistan, but finally accepted the argument that we were making progress and should stay. By the time Trump became president, that progress resembled World War I, endlessly repeating the same failed strategies. Surge-negotiate-surge-negotiate, rinse and repeat.
Trump’s solution — the Doha Agreement about which our news media reported little — laid two conditions on our principal antagonist: (1) assure that Afghanistan not be used as a terror base, and (2) take responsibility for reaching an agreement with all the other parties on a unified government for the country. In return, we would leave in 15 months.
The Taliban failed in their second challenge. Since Trump’s style does not accept being jerked around, he might have stayed had he won the election. Biden just wanted out, as he had in 2010. He did win the election, so that’s what happened.
The president may have ordered the withdrawal, but the failure to plan a proper departure does not fall on him. It falls on the minions who resisted his order and then, almost in a fit of pique at being overruled, executed it poorly.
In the national unity following 9/11, all of us — taxpayers, travelers dutifully removing their shoes under the tender barking of the TSA, men and women volunteering their lives in our armed forces — relied on our political and military leadership to do the right thing.
They failed us. They sent thousands of American soldiers to die. And they ruined our sense of national unity.
At least in Iraq Saddam Hussein is gone. In Afghanistan, the Taliban won. No wonder the veteran PTSD hotlines are lighting up.
It’s time for some resignations. Elected officials. Appointed officers. Think tank gurus. Anyone who had any part in the brilliant strategy that leaves the Taliban to celebrate 9/11 as Afghanistan’s rulers should go. Now.
They won’t, though. Instead they’ll gaslight us. They’ll bury their failures in an Orwellian memory hole. They’ll keep dining at Washington expense account restaurants and telling themselves how awesome they are. That’s why I’ll have a hollow feeling this 9/11.
Al Jones lives in Grass Valley.
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