Today is the twenty year anniversary of the horrific September 11th attacks. With two decades now having passed since that awful day, a lot of pieces have been published recently about the attacks, their aftermath, and how the tragedy affected the United States and the world community. Here’s a collection of twenty of the most interesting, thought-provoking articles and columns that we’ve seen.
“Survivors Are Still Getting Sick Decades Later”
This photo essay by Hilary Swift and Corey Kilgannon introduces a group of September 11th attack survivors who were exposed to the toxic dust following the collapse of the buildings at the World Trade Center complex. They note:
By some estimates, more than 400,000 people in Lower Manhattan, including those who lived, worked and studied there, were exposed to toxic material from the pulverized towers, leading to health issues that were diagnosed many years later.
The George W. Bush White House, the EPA (then under the control of Christine Todd Whitman) and Rudy Guiliani all made statements or allusions in the aftermath of the attack that the air in Manhattan was safe to breathe, when in fact, it wasn’t. (Whitman memorably said: “I am glad to reassure the people of New York … that their air is safe to breathe and their water is safe to drink.”)
NPI’s founding boardmember Lynn Allen was among those at the World Trade Center on September 11th. She was able to walk out before the complex was destroyed, but was exposed to the toxic dust for hours thereafter. Lynn died of ovarian cancer in 2011. Not a day goes by when we don’t miss her.
“How mass killings by United States forces after September 11th boosted support for the Taliban”
This piece by Emma Graham-Harrison examines how the United States and its NATO allies squandered an opportunity to declare victory after dislodging the Taliban and withdraw combat forces early on, then inadvertently fueled the Taliban’s long insurgency by failing to protect Afghan lives.
“The insurgency was not inevitable. There was a good chance for peace in 2001. Everyone, including the Taliban accepted they had been defeated. But the US and their Afghan allies persecuted and marginalised those who’d lost the war, not just Taliban but tribal and factional rivals of those who had seized power,” said Kate Clark, co-director of the Afghanistan Analysts Network.
“Gifts of Aloha”
This short remembrance by Dean Sensui recounts a visit from a contingent of musicians, dancers and others to New York on the one-year anniversary of the attacks in September of 2002. The accompanying video is available to watch on YouTube. Sensui explained his role in the visit:
Mona Wood invited me to come along to document it. There’s almost ten hours of footage. It was boiled down to this musical montage that barely touches what everyone felt and experienced.
“Barbara Lee, Who Cast Sole Vote After September 11th Against “Forever Wars,” on Need for Afghan War Inquiry”
This interview from Democracy Now between Amy Goodman and the amazing Barbara Lee can either be watched or read using the provided transcript; it delves into Lee’s courageous and historic vote against the authorization for the use of force in Afghanistan as well as what Lee believes needs to happen now to ensure we can learn from the mistakes we made in Afghanistan.
The first call was from my dad, Lieutenant — in fact, in his latter years, he wanted me to call him Colonel Tutt. He was so proud of being in the military. Again, World War II, he was in the 92nd Battalion, which was the only African American battalion in Italy, supporting the Normandy invasion, okay? And then he later went to Korea. And he was the first person who called me.
[…] He said, “I know what wars are like. I know what it does to families.” He said, “You don’t have — you don’t know where they’re going. What are you doing? How’s the Congress going to just put them out there without any strategy, without a plan, without Congress knowing at least what the heck is going on?”
“Just four people on floors above where Flight 175 hit Twin Towers survived: Two are ‘brothers for life’”
This article by Nathan Place of The Independent retells the story of Brian Clark and Stanley Praimnath, two of the four people who were on floors above where United Flight 175 impacted the south tower of the World Trade Center complex.
On 11 September, 2001, Mr Clark was at work on the 84th floor of the World Trade Center’s South Tower.
At 9:03am, Flight 175 struck floors 77 to 85 of the building, with Mr Clark’s office at the top of the impact zone.
“Our room just got rocked, just destroyed in a second,” Mr Clark told the Associated Press ten years later. “And it was for the next 10 seconds after that immediate impact – that was the only 10 seconds of the day that I was afraid. Terrified, in fact.”
There were three staircases in front of Mr Clark. On an impulse, he started heading down Stairway A. He had no idea that was the only staircase that hadn’t been destroyed.
“Foreign Terrorists Have Never Been Our Biggest Threat”
This column from Paul Krugman examines how right wing Republicans exploited the September 11th attacks to push their own agenda (including tax cuts and the disastrous invasion of Iraq) while also sowing division and discord, which would help set the stage for the Trump error in the mid-2010s. An excerpt:
The Republican Party wasn’t yet full-on authoritarian, but it was willing to do whatever it took to get what it wanted, and disdainful of the legitimacy of its opposition. That is, we were well along on the road to the January 6th putsch — and toward a GOP that has, in effect, endorsed that putsch and seems all too likely to try one again.
“How TV, art, education, bigotry, country music, fiction, policing and love have changed”
This collection of assessments from twenty-three writers and five artists concisely explores the cultural impact of the September 11th attacks on everything from television shows to literature to to music and theater.
September 11th, 2001, was first and foremost a human tragedy, claiming the lives of 2,977 innocent people and leaving, in its wake, incalculable grief. The attack would alter the lives of U.S. troops and their families, and millions of people in Afghanistan and Iraq. It would set the course of political parties and help to decide who would, and who would not, lead our country. In short, September 11th changed the world in demonstrable, massive and heartbreaking ways. But the ripple effects altered our lives in subtle, often-overlooked ways as well.
“I Lost My Father on September 11th, but I Never Wanted to Be a ‘Victim’ ”
This personal essay by Leila Murphy, which ran in The Nation, discusses Murphy’s experience as a member of September Eleventh Families for Peaceful Tomorrows and her discomfort with the official rituals of September 11th grief, “with their overtones of patriotism and vengeance.”
Twenty years after September 11th, the names of the victims still carry weight. Though I have found a way to choose how I use that weight, I still feel uncomfortable with identifying myself as a victim. I feel certain that the United sStates response to the attacks has not resulted in justice—that violence, secrecy, and impunity cannot be the answer—but I have also learned that real grief can only be felt, not relocated to a particular cause. That cause can remain essential, and there may well be a role for people like me in pushing back against the use of our victimhood for war and violence.
“Altercation: On September 11th, Was W. AWOL?”
This article by journalist Eric Alterman critically examines the behavior of George W. Bush and his advisers on September 11th. As Alterman explains, we’ve never gotten a full or an honest accounting of what happened that day from Bush or his inner circle, who were subsequently caught fibbing about the day’s events.
Twenty years later, one could focus on literally hundreds of aspects of the phenomena that the attacks led to.
I want to look at just one rather small question: What the heck was happening with George W. Bush?
I choose this because with all that attention to that fateful day, nobody seems to know the answer to that particular query. Even after 20 years, we have no credible and consistent account of why Bush and his entourage took the actions they did that day.
“I was responsible for those people”
This piece by Tim Alberta, published by The Atlantic (where he is a staff writer) profiles his cousin Glenn Vogt, the manager of the Windows on the World restaurant, which was located at the top of One World Trade Center. Vogt survived the September 11th attacks, while seventy-nine of his employees perished. Vogt is “still searching for permission to move on,” Alberta writes.
On the morning of September 11th, Glenn had a scheduled 9 AM meeting with his assistant, Christine Olender, to plan for the restaurant’s New Year’s Eve celebration.
Glenn was a stickler for being early; a 9 o’clock meeting meant he belonged in his office by 8:45. That morning, however, Taylor—having stayed up the night before, talking with his dad — was late for school. As Glenn walked out the door of their home in Westchester County, Taylor, a sixth grader, yelled for him to wait. He needed a ride. It was that unplanned fifteen minute detour that placed Glenn on the West Side Highway at 8:46 AM, when the North Tower was hit, rather than inside his office on the 106th floor.
“Alum Nick Scown on his new film ‘Too Soon: Comedy After September 11th’ ”
This film review by Merritt Mecham offers a synopsis of Too Soon, a new documentary from University of Utah alum Nick Fituri Scown that debuted on VICE TV several days ago. The film is an exploration of humor in the wake of tragedy, and Scown was inspired to make it after reading The Onion’s September 11th issue, which is the first time he laughed after the attacks.
Overall, what Scown wants to share with Too Soon is “humor’s ability to break the spell of depression and anxiety” and show how a comedian’s job “is to find light in the darkness.”
As he was editing the film throughout the course of the pandemic, Scown observed people flocking to comedy again. “In trying times, whatever terrible news is happening that day, it’s these comedians that we go to to help process that and try to take some of the power away from anger and frustration,” he said.
“The World Trade Center, Before, During, and After”
This essay by Justin Beal, which is an excerpt from his book Sandfuture, profiles architect Minoru Yamasaki (a Seattle native!) and his works, which most famously included the World Trade Center’s Twin Towers.
Neither the Port Authority nor Yamasaki began with the intention of designing the tallest building in the world. The World Trade Center program called for 10 million square feet of office space — more than existed in the entire city of Detroit at the time — and Yamasaki had to figure out where to put it.
“Preserving the Selfless Heroism of the Passengers of United Flight 93”
This article by Paige Williams focuses on United Flight 93, which crashed into a field near Shanksville, Pennsylvania after the passengers voted to fight back and successfully confronted the hijackers, as well as the subsequent construction of the United 93 National Memorial, now administered by the National Park Service.
Locals arrived first at the scene of the crash, expecting to see a fuselage and perhaps even survivors. Instead, they found it “eerily” quiet. The plane’s explosive impact, compounded by seven thousand gallons of jet fuel, had vaporized nearly everything. Those on board had not just died; they had all but disappeared. First responders found a crater marked by the ghostly imprint of airplane wings, at the edge of a smoking, sizzling forest of hemlock.
“September 11th forged forever friendships between strangers who connected through tragedy”
This article by Nancy Dillon tells tells the stories of Olivia Vilardi-Perez and Brittany Oelschlager and Barabara Constantine and Anita Watson. Vilardi-Perez and Oelschlager each lost a father on September 11th and later connected at a camp for family members of the lost. Vilardi-Perez credits Oelschlager with saving her life at a low point, when she was contemplating suicide.
“Brittany saved my life that night. I wanted to kill myself, and I called her, and she saved me. She reminded me I have a godson and people who love me and asked, ‘Did I want to put them through what I went through?’ That shook me to my core. I kind of put all my stuff aside and cried myself to sleep,” she said.
“Still seeking September 11th perspective, twenty years after forgetting about baseball and covering real life”
This reminiscence by Seattle Times sports enterprise reporter Geoff Baker recounts his experience covering the attacks (he was tasked with going to the Pentagon on an assignment for the Toronto Star) and his thoughts on the annual commemorations of that event that have transpired ever since.
Nobody is just a statistic. And on this twentieth anniversary of a day of death, that’s what I’ll stick with. And hope that others can join me in finding perspective that remains elusive long after one of the darkest moments in this nation’s history.
“Some of the most iconic September 11th news coverage is lost. Blame Adobe Flash.”
This report from CNN’s Clare Duffy and Kerry Flynn discusses how some of the online video from September 11th was made largely inaccessible/unplayable due to the discontinuation of Adobe Flash, formerly known as Macromedia Flash, a proprietary technology that used to power online video sites (like YouTube) and was used for years beforehand by news websites to embed videos into web content, or by gamemakers to power online games.
Adobe ending support for Flash — its once ubiquitous multimedia content player — last year meant that some of the news coverage of the September 11th attacks and other major events from the early days of online journalism are no longer accessible.
For example, The Washington Post and ABC News both have broken experiences within their September 11th coverage, viewable in the Internet Archive. CNN’s online coverage of September 11th also has been impacted by the end of Flash.
“I was eight in New York during September 11th. How did it change me — and my generation?”
This reflection by Benjamin Oreskes draws on the experiences of his mother, correspondent Geraldine Baum, who was an eyewitness to the collapse of the World Trade Center on September 11th and reported on the tragedy for The Los Angeles Times. Oreskes himself is now a reporter for the Times.
The reality is I remember very little about that cloudless Tuesday 20 years ago. I’m not sure if I remember or if my mom later told me, but that night, when she got home, I thought she was a ghost because of the dust that coated her clothes and hair.
I felt fear. I know that. But what else? Was I confused? Distressed? Here’s where my parents’ recollections replace my own.
“‘Did my service make a difference?’ Post September 11th vets face unique challenges, questions after fall of Afghanistan”
This article by the Chicago Tribune’s Alison Bowen focuses on the experiences of servicemembers who were deployed to Afghanistan (and subsequently Iraq) after George W. Bush, Dick Cheney, and Donald Rumsfeld decided to launch invasions of those countries in 2001 and 2003 following the attacks.
Mark Doyle, a Chicagoan who was in Afghanistan as part of a forensic accounting team and later started Rags of Honor, which employs homeless veterans through a screen-printing operation, said many of his employees mention the difficulty of finding purpose.
“There wasn’t ever a clear mission,” he said.
“What was all the sacrifice for? That is what’s troubling all these people. Did my service make a difference?”
“‘And then I felt the building shake.’ Idahoans share memories on twentieth anniversary of September 11th”
This piece from Scott McIntosh (an opinion editor at the Idaho Statesman) weaves together stories from Idahoans who experienced September 11th, both in New York and Northern Virginia and in places far away, like McMurdo Station, Antarctica, Saint Martin in the Caribbean, and Checkpoint Charlie, Berlin.
“I could smell the smoke in my apartment for days afterwards. And so everything about that day was just so personal to me. And so every year I’m not sick of it and I’ll never be sick of it because I’ll always stop and remember, I always take the time to stop and remember what that day was, and remember what was lost and remember how lucky I was to make it through OK.”
“Works of art that commemorate and shed light on September 11th”
This compilation by The Globe and Mail’s Marsha Lederman presents several artistic works that Lederman describes as succeeding in helping us remember, and maybe even understanding things we weren’t quite able to grasp before. It ranges from literature and film to streaming theatre available on demand.
Creating a work of art around a recent horrific event comes with a complicated set of implicit rules and potential minefields. Do not exploit the victims for your art, do not tie up loose ends in any sort of neat-and-orderly way, do not cross the line into maudlin sentimentality. Make the viewer feel uncomfortable, but for the right reasons.
A day for remembrance, but also a day for good deeds
On behalf of the board and staff of the Northwest Progressive Institute, our heartfelt condolences to everyone who lost a friend or family member on that dark day, and our thanks to everyone who has contributed to helping take this day back from the terrorists and spreading kindness in its place.