By Fred Benson
Who can possibly forget the morning of Sept. 11, 2001?
8:50 a.m.: The call came from a friend asking if I had heard the news about a plane flying into the North Tower of the World Trade Center in New York City. Given the clear skies, I doubted it was an accident.
9:03 a.m.: The reality of what was occurring washed over me as the second plane plowed into the South Tower.
9:37 a.m.: A third hijacked plane was flown at full speed into the western façade of the Pentagon.
9:45 a.m.: White House and Capitol building employees were ordered to evacuate after being warned that there might be a fourth hijacked aircraft approaching Washington.
10:07 a.m.: After passengers attempted to retake control of that last plane, hijackers deliberately crashed it into a field in Pennsylvania.
From my office window, I was able to observe dozens of terrified presidential staff members running away from the White House grounds. As those government evacuees fled, they were joined by workers from nearby business office buildings. The sidewalks were jammed with people, traffic quickly became snarled, and hundreds of families were unable to communicate or reunite for several hours.
For those affected in downtown Washington, there were frayed nerves and inconveniences. But for others in the Twin Towers, the Pentagon and a Pennsylvania farm field, there was only death. The final toll of these attacks was 2,996 dead: 265 in the planes, 2,606 in the towers and 125 in the Pentagon. Of these, 411 were first responders.
At 8:30 p.m., President George W. Bush addressed the nation, calling the attacks “evil, despicable acts of terror” and declaring that America, its friends and allies, would “stand together to win the war against terrorism.”
America was stunned. Most of us could not imagine anything like this happening. Who were these people? Why would they want to kill innocent civilians? These questions have been examined and debated for the past 15 years, leading to three major lessons to be learned from this horrific experience.
First, this carnage was clearly a harbinger of things to come. As we have seen in the intervening years, terrorist activity has increased around the globe and remains a threat to our national and personal security. Because of enhancements to our intelligence and surveillance capabilities, it is much less likely, but not impossible, for something of this magnitude to reoccur. This residual threat to our free society does, however, require that all of us remain observant and report circumstances that could be evidence of terrorist activity.
Second is an issue that is difficult to discuss, but necessary. Bush’s call for us to “stand together to win the war against terrorism” led us to invade Afghanistan to dismantle Al Qaeda and remove the Taliban from power. After 15 years of U.S. military presence in that country, the final outcome of that venture remains uncertain. Further, the 2003 U.S. invasion of Iraq contributed to the destabilization of the Middle East, giving rise to the increasing reach of the Islamic State.
It is understandable, having absorbed the harm done to the United States, that our leaders would want to do something, somewhere, to punish those who so brutally attacked and killed innocent civilians. But the reality is that these are exactly the times when calm restraint most needs to be practiced. Going to war always carries with it a strong possibility of falling short of expectations and/or creating unintended consequences. It should not be ignored by any of us that a far greater number of military men and women have lost their lives in Iraq and Afghanistan than died here on Sept. 11, 2001.
Third, and of great importance, this 15th anniversary of 9/11 should remind us of the debt of gratitude we owe to those who are first responders in our own communities. We often take these dedicated people and the protection they provide for granted. So to them and to all who wear uniforms in the service of this nation, we offer a sincere “thank you” for being on watch for us.
Fred Benson is a resident of Mount Desert and publishes Capitol Commentary, an independent political newsletter.