Matthew T. Carroll. Getty Images.
Matthew T. Carroll. Getty Images.


Remembering 9/11, Reexamining American Foreign Policy

Today marks the 22nd anniversary of the 9/11 attacks. So much has been written about this horrific day it is difficult to reflect upon it without merely repeating what others have already said. But sometimes repetition is necessary. 

As the chasm of time between that morning and today grows inexorably wider, we run a very real risk of falling into a somnambulant sense of security. But if 9/11 taught us one thing, it is that events so significant as to send a hyper-power spinning off its axis tend to occur on the most ordinary of days. 

I used to work on the 55th floor of Two World Trade Center. I can still recall the magnificent views of all Manhattan below us, while Tower One, like a twin sentinel, seemed so close you could reach out and touch it. You really felt like you were working in the epicenter of the world’s economic engine up there. And, in a way, you were. I was fortunate, as it turned out, to accept a job across the Hudson in Jersey City before the attacks. And so, my colleagues and I watched from the high floor of a skyscraper on the west bank of the Hudson as the second aircraft, a UAL 767, hurling at eye-level with the throttle wide open, slammed into the second tower. 

We soon evacuated our own building and made our way outside to the pier along the river and watched as the hell unfolded. The surreal moment was made all the more so by the clear azure sky that belied the sinister events unfolding beneath it. When the buildings came down, and those on the dock shrieked, cried, and gasped a collective “No!”, a co-worker said quietly, “My brothers are up there.” They both died. Our former house attorney who’d just a few months before excitedly accepted a job at Cantor-Fitzgerald, and had been trapped at the top of Tower One, was also dead. As were eight people from my small commuter town. 

We feared for the life of my brother-in-law, a New York firefighter, but fortunately he was spared — 348 of his fellow FDNY brothers were not. One can only imagine the PTSD he endured as he donned his dress blues to attend funeral after funeral. These surviving firefighters should be considered war veterans.

My memories are fading now, and that is a healthy thing. One cannot dwell on terrible events. But at the same time, a nation can, and should, learn from them. And I think 9/11 should prompt us to reflect on some things about our country. Some are sublime, others not so much.

The first is to never underestimate the capacity of the American spirit to overcome daunting situations and engage in acts of self-sacrifice for the greater good. The passengers aboard flight 93 knew quite well they were going to their collective doom when they stormed the cockpit and sent the jetliner nose-down into a Pennsylvania field, far from its intended target. “Let’s roll!” are two words more powerful than any rambling manifesto Osama Bin Laden might have read while he, by revealing contrast, cowered in an Afghani cave. 

As Scripture tells us, self-sacrifice is the greatest act of love. So long as the nation produces such ordinary citizens who, when needed, act with extraordinary courage and concern for others, the nation will endure. So in this sense 9/11 reaffirmed our belief in Americans, even as we sometimes doubt America itself.

But 9/11 also imparted more disquieting lessons and that is our national leaders’ capacity for self-delusion. During his State of the Union address in 2002, George W. Bush famously asked, “Why do they hate us? … They hate a democratically elected government … they hate our freedoms … our freedom of religion, our freedom of speech.”

That was partly true. But this hatred of the generic infidel on the other side of the world was not enough to prompt Bin Laden and his suicidal minions to plan and carry out so intricate an operation. Sometimes it is best to learn from the source what their issues are. In Bin Laden’s case, he was very clear: He resented the presence of the U.S. military on what he considered sacred Saudi and Somali soil. Right or wrong, he saw it as a foreign occupation by non-believers. 

America’s continued military presence in the region came courtesy of an earlier struggle against Saddam Hussein, one that was, in the end, about keeping the world’s oil supply safe. An oil supply that would not have mattered nearly as much had we not been so dependent on it. If anything, the horrible events of 9/11 should have driven home the need for energy independence.

We also learned the hard truth that many in the world do hate us. Much of it, however, has to do with envy — millions of people do not risk death by crossing our border because America is an undesirable place to live. There’s also the common psychological reaction to power; no one ever roots for Goliath. 

In some ways, 9/11 was the culmination of decades of U.S. foreign policy. The global goodwill justifiably earned by American fighting forces during WWII has slowly soured. Indeed, the US has been in a state of perpetual war with one enemy or another since 1950. And in some instances — because of poor decision-making in DC rather than the admirable efforts of our troops in the field — we have left places in worse condition than we found them, along with the unintended consequences of turning those who were once indifferent to the US into enemies. Thus, we need to be circumspect in how we exercise our awesome power. 

To coin a phrase by the CIA, not me, 9/11 was “blow-back.” And if we continue along a path that cares most for what best suits the military-industrial complex — as former president and five-star general Eisenhower warned us — 9/11 will not be the last such event. In a time in which thousands of nukes are live across the world, we need to seriously examine the question, “Why do they hate us”? And, as important, listen to the answers. The reason nearly 3,000 people died on 9/11 is because the perpetrators did not have the capacity to kill three million. Will that always be the case? It’s a question worth asking.

If this in any way sounds like a justification for the events that occurred 22 years ago, then you completely miss the point. Because what ultimately matters is do others justify it? And if so, then how do we make them no longer see the US in such a light? Given the fact that we are at it again, spending billions to prop up a losing campaign in a far off land against an old foe (one with a lot of nukes), I wonder if this less appealing moral of 9/11 will ever be absorbed. If not, then we are in for more down the road. Remember, no one who woke up that peaceful morning and breathed the clear, crisp late summer air could have imagined how the world would have changed by sundown. It happens that fast.

The United States has both the blessing and curse of historically unprecedented power. It must therefore be used wisely, deployed sparingly, and with the understanding that actions will have consequences if we are not careful. Even if those consequences are cowardly acts of mass murder, so long as cowardly mass murderers exist, so too does the danger. 

Fortunately, we have a counterweight here to the fools who are running this nation into the ground. That is called the spirit of the everyday American. A spirit we watched in real-time through countless acts of heroism and self-sacrifice on that otherwise terrible morning. We saw it in passengers taking down their own plane to save the lives of others. We saw it in New York firefighters making their way up the smoke-clogged stairwells into danger and what many knew would be their last mission, while injured and bewildered citizens were headed down the other way to safety. We saw it in how Americans, Left and Right, set aside their differences to join hands and express to the world with one voice: We Are Americans. We are a nation of good people.

Yet we still have the capacity, when pushed, to respond to such brazen affronts with a single-minded fury that Yamamoto understood sixty years earlier, while orchestrating another surprise attack on our nation. We are still a “sleeping giant,” not to be trifled with. Indeed, once we get rolling the only enemy who can defeat us is ourselves. And that, perhaps, is a lesson for the rest of the world to ponder.

Brad Schaeffer is a commodities trader, columnist, and author. His newest book LIFE IN THE PITS: My Time As A Trader On The Rough-And-Tumble Exchange Floors comes out in December. 

The views expressed in this piece are those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The Daily Wire. 

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