A harsh lesson in history

September 10, 2011|Stuart Samuels

Most every American who is old enough to remember can instantly recall what they were doing on Sept. 11, 2001. The video images from the events of that day are indelibly burned into our consciousness like a nightmare on a continuous loop.

As for me, I was on vacation while working for another Maryland newspaper. Instead of being involved in shaping coverage and assigning local stories as the media tried to understand the impact of the terrorist attacks, I stood transfixed like millions of Americans, mouth slightly agape, staring at the television images that went from tragic to horrific.

For a journalist to miss out on the biggest story of a generation, the Pearl Harbor of the early 21st century, only added frustration to anger over the attack. But I quickly realized that such thoughts were selfish; the newspaper got out fine without me, thank you, and blind anger was not what was needed. Something much more transformational had occurred as the world had once again turned before our eyes.

As we rode back on Interstate 95 from New England a few days later, the smoke from the attack could still be seen from the highway; it looked like a nuclear weapon had exploded across the river in Manhattan. We, like many Americans close enough to drive to New York, felt compelled to go to the scene to help, if possible, and bear witness to another date that would live in infamy. By then, however, radio reports were urging people to stay away from downtown Manhattan, not to turn the scene into a morbid tourist attraction.

So we silently drove by the cloud of smoke corkscrewing into the sky in the distance, merely imagining the carnage buried beneath the twisted rubble of the twin towers of the World Trade Center, the image of frantic people jumping out of the building to their deaths still fresh in our minds.

Now, a decade later, Americans are wondering if we are safer now than we were then (we are, but not safe enough), after spending trillions of dollars on homeland security measures and waging two wars. We're also asking ourselves on this day if the 10th anniversary is somehow a special time to reflect on how the events of that day changed our lives and the nation's future.

The late Osama bin Laden, the architect of the 9/11 attacks, thought the 10th anniversary was significant enough to reportedly try to plan a special reminder for America that al-Qaida could still strike close to home, according to documents seized in his compound when Navy SEALs paid him a surprise visit in May.

The nation is now on heightened alert after a "credible, but unconfirmed" report of a terrorist threat in either New York or Washington, D.C., surfaced late last week. Security has been enhanced as communities hold events to remember the 2,977 victims who died as a result of the attacks in New York, on the Pentagon and aboard ill-fated Flight 93 that crashed in Shanksville, Pa., after doomed passengers took on the terrorists.  

There is no doubt that it could happen again as CIA Director Leon Panetta reminded us last week, but we have learned a great deal since 2001, although nagging questions remain.

Air travel is safer, albeit much more inconvenient, but even state-of-the-art full-body scanners can't detect explosives sometimes. Intelligence agencies are reportedly more readily sharing information despite their parochial turfs, although one worries about whether we have given up too many of our civil liberties in the process.

And while emergency responders are better equipped after billions of dollars in federal expenditures, many still can't communicate with each other across departments and jurisdictions, or statewide. We have also taken the costly fight to our enemies around the globe — a policy that still divides us to this day amid the sobering realization that American children born in 2001 have never known their nation at peace.

We also have learned the hard way that a single-minded suicidal terrorist, either foreign or homegrown, can do lethal damage to our infrastructure and fragile economy — and technology can't do much to stop that in advance unless Americans remain "hyper vigilant." We all should follow the advice popularized in New York: If you see something, say something.

As was the case after Dec. 7, 1941, the events of Sept. 11, 2001, stripped us of our naivety and complacency, at least in the short term. Today, there are signs everywhere that we have returned to normal, which is what our leaders advised us to do at the time with catch phrases like, "If you change your life, the terrorists win." People have gotten on with their everyday lives; some, who can afford it, are even shopping again.

But it still is disturbing to read reports that the "new normal" includes a growing number of school kids who have never even seen the videos of the planes crashing into the twin towers. More disturbing is the reality that only a small percentage of Americans and their families are bearing the brunt of the fighting and dying for all of us — apparently with little awareness or appreciation among some of their fellow citizens.

In the final analysis, for the families of the victims of the terrorist attacks, every day is 9/11. So should it be for us all.

Stuart Samuels is night city editor of The Herald-Mail. He can be reached at 301-733-5131, ext. 2336, or by email at

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