You remember where you were that day. You remember what you were doing when you heard the news, when you looked at your television screen, or as I did, looked up and saw the smoke.
For better or worse, the 9/11 attacks have become that rarest of things — an iconic American event, something we can all talk about and usually agree on. There are so few of them left. The displays of solidarity prompted by that heinous strike turned out to be shallow — dust and rubble deep. They have been replaced by a bitter divide in the American body politic not seen since this country’s Civil War.
It is now fashionable to talk about “lessons learned” from 9/11. But at the deepest level, such a catastrophe does not “teach.” As I wrote about the Holocaust more than 20 years ago, a calamity like 9/11 exhausts. It defies. It negates. And it raises disturbing questions about being human: How could people sink to such barbarity? What accounts for the rage that the men with box cutters must have felt toward America and its people? Why had we as a nation not seen it coming?
On another level, I learned several things about myself that day. The first was the power of denial. At 8:45 a.m., I was at an elementary school on Baxter Street in downtown Manhattan about to vote in the New York primary. I saw a cluster of people near the school looking up. So I did too, moments after the first airliner had flown into the North Tower.
I had spent the previous decade writing about a still relatively obscure man named Osama bin Laden and the spread of his group’s vicious, perverse interpretation of Islam. I had covered al Qaeda’s earlier attacks on outposts and symbols of American power — on a U.S. Marine compound in Beirut in 1983, on the U.S. embassies in Africa in 1998 and on a U.S. warship off the coast of Yemen in 2000.
As the threat intensified, I had traveled to the Panjshir Valley in northern Afghanistan to report on the anti-Taliban movement of Ahmad Shah Massoud, commander of that beleaguered country’s resistance. I had also been a guest of the Taliban, which was attempting to convince me that U.S. intelligence was wrong, that they did not have vast camps at which tens of thousands of angry young Muslims were being trained in bomb-making, surveillance and other insurgency skills.
I had been thrown out of Kabul after their disinformation effort had failed. I was obsessed with al Qaeda, and nearly drove my New York Times colleagues to distraction, ranting on and on about the militants’ intentions and their growing capabilities.
In January 2001, with the encouragement of a small cadre of American officials like Richard Clarke, the president’s counter terrorism adviser, I had researched and co-authored several articles about the threat that al Qaeda and other militant Islamists posed to America. It was a groundbreaking series that would only later win a Pulitzer Prize.
But as I stared up at the North Tower that morning, I did not initially let myself acknowledge what should have been obvious, especially to me. Yes, it was a crystal-clear autumn morning in New York — a stunning day without a cloud in the sky. But it could have been an accident, I told myself. An inexperienced pilot in a Piper Cub might have lost control of a plane and crashed into New York’s tallest building.
Only after I saw the second plane fly into the South Tower did I acknowledge the obvious: al Qaeda had done this. We were a city, a nation under attack, and soon to be at war.
I often reflect on my initial refusal to see the obvious, on my inability to imagine that such evil would touch my country and those I loved so directly. Perhaps it was a failure of imagination. Or was I, the daughter of immigrants, imbued with an unrealistic optimism that had taught me to see the best in people? I had lived and worked in the Middle East for two decades by then. I had warned about the spread of this explosive extremism. Yet I had failed to learn the lesson of my own earlier reporting in Europe — the potentially horrific consequences of failing to confront evil at a less-than-lethal stage.
In an afterword to his monumental study of the tragedy that unfolded that September day, Philip Zelikow, the executive director of the 9/11 Commission, wrote that America had suffered from a “paradox of prevention” — the failure to tackle a threat that was preventable but then dimly perceived. Despite the countless acts of courage and heroism by first responders, fellow New Yorkers and other selfless Americans that I would witness in the days that followed 9/11, what stays with me is the cost of not having tried even harder to combat the danger I had sensed and feared for so long.
Judith Miller is a contributing editor of City Journal, an adjunct fellow at the Manhattan Institute, a Fox News contributor, and a contributing editor to Newsmax magazine.
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