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15 Years Later: A Reflection

The entire mentality of the United States towards foreign affairs changed in a single day on September 11, 2001. Categorizing nearly everything as pre- or post- attack, the events of 9/11 have completely altered the way that Americans perceive the rest of the world.

Over the past 15 years, the world has grown used to increased travel security and living in constant expectation of terror attacks. While the immediacy of the attack has faded on a global scale, those exposed to the catastrophe will never forget that day.

Former Bay Area resident Chris Carpita was on a plane on September 11. After visiting his father in France and running his first marathon, Chris was returning home to Denver from London on a nine-hour flight. He described himself as “a seasoned flyer — [he] flies all the time, and notices things. Normally on a long flight, you never turn: you take off and land. [A few hours into the flight, the pilot] made a couple big circles way up in the sky [above the Arctic]; it was extremely unusual.”

Carpita remembers the plane getting very quiet. The passengers were as confused as he was. The British captain’s voice echoed on the loudspeaker, saying that there was something wrong with the American air traffic control system — possibly a technical glitch.

Ten minutes later, passengers heard the pilot’s voice again. “There had been some hijacking of aircraft in the U.S.” and the flight would be unable to land in America. The pilot began to list dozens of possible airports in Canada and Greenland, as travelers panicked and terrifying rumors circulated throughout the plane.

Eventually, the pilot decided to turn around. They had enough fuel to return to London, he said. Still not knowing what was going on, the flight reversed direction and, after a few hours, began its descent above the London airport.

As soon as the plane landed, the sound of cell phones ringing cut through the air, previously frozen with apprehension. Carpita heard people saying that the White House had been attacked, that Los Angeles was on fire, that America itself was destroyed. Once inside the airport, he approached a British Airways employee, who was unable to look him in the eye. Sobbing, she repeated, “I’m so sorry. I’m so sorry.”

Carpita was finally able to make contact with his father using a pay phone, and learned what had happened in New York while he was on the plane. He was stuck in London for four days until a flight home became available, and he knows that on every September 11 for the rest of his life, he will remember the panic and disbelief he felt upon hearing the news. Most of all, however, what will linger in his memory are those few hours suspended in the air, not knowing what had happened to his country.

Brandon Griffin, a current resident of Los Angeles, attempts to put the events of September 11 behind him. However, like Carpita, haunting images from that day will stay with him forever. Watching from his Manhattan apartment, Griffin remembers “the jumpers started happening intermittently. I maybe saw 20-plus, including one using a jacket as a parachute, and four people jumping together holding hands. It was unimaginable and horrific…”

Griffin recalls watching the South Tower’s glass shatter as it buckled and the scream of a fighter jet along the Hudson River as the North Tower followed. He remembers the stench of electrical fires in the days following the attack and the missing person posters littering the walls of the city. I-beams lodged themselves haphazardly in otherwise pristine financial district buildings. Day after day he would see first responders in dress heading to funerals for their fallen comrades.

Nobody hid their emotions. “[I remember] the compassion that fellow New Yorkers expressed to one another,” recalls Griffin. While the attacks killed thousands, the trauma dealt to the people of New York was immeasurable. The distress that such an event carries with it can destroy psyches. Emotional baggage and post-traumatic stress disorder are often overlooked as consequences of the attacks.

Justin Model, New York City resident, remembers September 11 like it was yesterday. He was “tempting…in an office, and CNBC was on. All of a sudden [the television] showed that the World Trade Center was hit…and [his] whole world started shaking.” Model describes the “old barbecue smell” which pervaded the city in the following week, accompanied by a sense of immediacy which he had never experienced before. “This was the first real-world catastrophe in a 24-hour news cycle. I had to stop watching the TV but I couldn’t stop…I couldn’t get away from it, even if I wanted to.”

Model’s shock stems from the realization that the Twin Towers were “a place that [he] had been to…many, many times over the years — [he] had looked out of the windows at the world.” This place, and the world that he knew, was “destroyed within 35 minutes.”

Illustrated by Mia Szymkowski.
Illustrated by Mia Szymkowski.

The subsequent War on Terror has been one of the most integral aspects of the 21st century so far. Years of violence went on and the conflict became normalized. A generation of children grew up at war with no country in particular, just ‘the terrorists,’ or even worse, hearing some politicians blaming Muslims. The animosity shown today towards people of the Islamic faith has reached unprecedented heights as a result of the conflict. Donald Trump’s proposed ban on Muslim immigration has garnered widespread support amongst his following, contradicting the very foundations of America

For Christine Antoun, President George W. Bush’s reelection was the last straw. She had grown tired of “the almost anti-intellectual movement that allowed someone like Bush to become president in the first place. Apparently, people believed he would be a good guy to have a beer with — never mind his ability to run the country.” After the 2004 election, Antoun and her family moved to England, giving them a fresh perspective on global politics. “Back in the U.S. after 9/11 it felt like the public debate was shut down; anyone who dared to question Bush and the government’s decisions…was somehow un-patriotic and not supporting the troops.” Mirroring the Trump campaign today, it seemed to Antoun that “the culture of fear [had become] widespread and was leveraged by politicians, which…has contributed to a blind acceptance that restricting human rights is necessary to fight terrorism.”

Hateful rhetoric is not the only long-term effect of the War on Terror in the United States. Professor Neta C. Crawford of Boston University calculated the monetary cost of the wars to be about $4.5 trillion as of 2014; this does not take into account any expenses of 2015-2016, including fighting the so-called Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL). According to the Department of Defense, 6,774 soldiers died in Operations Iraqi Freedom (Iraq War) and Enduring Freedom (Afghan War), with an additional 52,042 injured in combat. These numbers seem irrationally high when weighed against the spoils of war; the United States has reaped next to no benefits from over-investment in the War on Terror and has lost the trust of a majority of Americans.

The toppling of regimes and the brewing of tension in the aftermath of war have profoundly impacted the Middle East as well. Recruitment rates for jihadist groups skyrocketed after the invasions. Reflecting on the character of the American War on Terror after 9/11, Griffin “feels [the American] response was exactly what [the terrorists] were hoping for, and it’s been the basis for the unrest we have felt since then.”

The attacks of 9/11 are undeniably some of the most devastating events in American history, but in the words of local Peter Kidder, recalling that fateful day “is a chance to both mourn the loss of all the people that died, [and] to remember what makes this country great, which is the unity and diversity of the American people.” Above all, remembering 9/11 gives us “a chance to renew our calling to bring America together.”

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