Everyone I know remembers where they were when they heard news of the planes crashing into the twin towers of the World Trade Center twin towers, a third plane hitting the Pentagon and a fourth aircraft crashing into a field in a field in Pennsylvania on September 11, 2001. I was at work as the Resident Agent in charge of investigative operations for the United States Customs Service in Lake Charles, Louisiana.
We were a small crew just getting to know each other. A world away from New York, we searched for some explanation of what we saw broadcast on every television station. Unable to each our regional headquarters for guidance, I reached out to a friend stationed in Washington, DC. The message was brief and clear – America is under attack. With little to guide us, we did what investigators do . . . gather as much information as we could to determine our next move. At 9 p.m. that night, President Bush addressed the nation. The president spoke of terrorism, America’s foundation, and the resolve of the American people.
Some of us knew agents assigned to the New York field office. I had assisted the New York office with an investigation a year of so earlier and was eerily aware of how close that office was to the twin towers. It would be several days before we learned that our folks in the New York field office were okay.
In the weeks that followed, the entire country came together. Customs agents from across the country began assignments as Federal Air Marshals aboard flights from coast to coast. All state and local law enforcement became the eyes and ears; the boots on the ground. Soon there was talk of a response. A “War on Terror”.
“Terrorist attacks can shake the foundations of our biggest buildings, but they cannot touch the foundation of America. These acts shatter steel, but they cannot dent the steel of American resolve.”President George W. Bush
Not long after that fateful day, the Customs Service was abolished and the United States Department of Homeland Security was established. The FBI, an agency not part of Homeland Security, was tapped as the federal agency responsible for investigating terror threats. Secure borders became paramount. Homeland Security’s focus became Immigration enforcement, marking the beginning of a division now burned into the American psyche.
We had all been part of the War on Drugs and knew the reality of a fight against an enemy without a singular identity. We remember, and still live with, the scourge of drugs and the devastation that war left behind much like we remember and live with the loss and failures of the War on Terror.
We have not healed from either of these wars. We see the complexity of the fallout from these wars – the prison industrial complex; police involved killings; a rise in domestic terror; and partisan politics. We have become a country so divided by partisan politics that we have begun to lose all sense of reasonable debate and have resorted to terror tactics in our political debate. In fact, we have become a country willing to abandon democratic rule for personal gain.
That self interest; that retaliatory fairytale we call the War on Terror, ushered in a near autocratic shift in America’s governance beginning just a short eight years later. Terror, I argue, is not the exclusive practice of Muslims or non-Christians. January 6, 2021, in my view, was a terror attack with far fewer deaths but with consequences just as far-reaching.
Our memories are selective . . . and short. To truly heal we must also conjure memories of, and not forget, the losses suffered greater than 20 years ago.