“If September 11th hadn’t happened, would things be different?”My 12 year old recently asked me this question. Both our adolescent sons are inquisitive and always asking tough questions (usually at inopportune times!). I can’t talk about September 11th without reliving that day.
I didn’t always take note of the weather, but on September 11th, 2001, I distinctly remember seeing that beautiful, blue sky through the trees that lined Basset Road on my commute into North Haven. Little did I know the horror that was unfolding in the skies as I drove in.
I was in my office when a coworker told me that “a plane hit the World Trade Center.” My first thought was that it must have been a small, prop plane, like the ones that fly out of Meriden-Markham Airport. I vaguely remembered how something similar may have happened to the Empire State Building.
I heard a buzz outside my office, and I went out to find a group of coworkers huddled around a radio. A second plane had hit the other tower of the World Trade Center. This was no accident, and these were no prop planes. America was under attack. Then, a third plane hit the Pentagon. A fourth, likely also headed for the nation’s capital, crashed in Pennsylvania. There were multiple reports of fifth and sixth planes that afternoon, although luckily they proved to be false.
In 2001, social media was still in its infancy, and the internet could be slow and glitchy. Even so, I remember realizing that I was likely living through the most historical event of my life, and I was huddled around a radio as the best source for news. In that moment, we were no different than people who had lived through Pearl Harbor.
I’ve tried to explain to my children the combination of shock, sadness, anger, and paranoia in the days and months that followed. How odd it was to not see any planes in the sky as all fights were grounded for days. The horror as more and more calls and messages from doomed passengers on those flights and people in the towers came to light and were reported. How we all were on edge, waiting for the next attack. Then came the letters laced with anthrax, although those were subsequently determined to be domestic in origin. I remember the first time I visited New York after the attacks, in August 2002, and seeing all of the pictures of the missing in Grand Central Station.
Yet, amid all of those emotions, we saw the best of America. We saw heroism and bravery even as the attacks were being carried out. A group of passengers on Flight 93 fought back, and bravely sacrificed themselves and likely saved countless other lives in the process. The courageous police and firefighters and other first responders who rushed to the towers and selflessly saved others, and continued to search the rubble for survivors. To this day, we continue to see sickness and death due to exposure to the toxic brew that the destruction of the towers produced.
“If September 11th hadn’t happened, would things be different?” I still hadn’t answered the question. Certainly, our ill-fated war in Iraq would not have happened. A war that I supported, because I believed Iraq had WMDs that could not fall into the hands of terrorists. And when those WMDs didn’t materialize — proving the skeptics correc t— I remember feeling uncomfortable adopting the dubious new rationale that we “were fighting them over there, rather than here.”
And then there was the war in Afghanistan, the war that mostly everyone agreed was just and necessary. The country that had provided safe haven for Al Qaeda to carry out the attacks seemingly received their just due. And yet, here we are, two decades later, giving it back to the Taliban. It’s a bipartisan legacy of failure.
“If September 11th hadn’t happened, would things be different?” For the country, maybe not. Maybe it was inevitable. But for the sons and daughters who can’t ask their father or mother this question, because they died that day, or in the wars that followed…yes. Things would be different.
Chris Shortell is a Wallingford town councilor.