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Personal Reflections on the 20th Anniversary of 9/11

The sun rises behind the skyline of lower Manhattan and One World Trade Center in New York City as people walk through the Empty Sky 9/11 memorial in Jersey City, New Jersey, on April 24, 2021.

This Saturday, we mark the 20th anniversary of the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. The events of that day and the resulting U.S. policy decisions had an impact in the United States and around the world, including for many of us now working at the Center for American Progress. For some, the course or nature of our lives changed because of the terrorist attacks and their aftermath. This includes those who served or were called to serve, those targeted for discrimination based on the ensuing rise of Islamophobia, and others whose career trajectories were shaped by the events of that day.

To mark this anniversary, we’ve collected a diverse set of reflections from CAP staff and fellows.

Gordon Gray, Chief Operating Officer

The following is an excerpt from “The Association for Diplomatic Studies and Training Foreign Affairs Oral History Project” by retired Ambassador Gordon Gray:

I ended my first week [as the director of the State Department’s Office of Arabian Peninsula Affairs] at the end of the month, August 31st, which was a Friday, with news that Prince Turki [al-Faisal] who was the long-standing head of GID, the General Intelligence Directorate, had resigned; he subsequently served as the Saudi ambassador to the United States. He had been in the GID position for so long, and he worked so closely with the United States, that it was a very interesting development. We were of course trying to divine the reasons behind it. The hoped-for political analysis was overtaken by events because on Tuesday morning, September 11th, the first plane went into the Twin Towers, and then the second one did. Just like all other Americans, I remember very vividly where I was and what I was doing. We had a television in our office tuned to the news channel, and we saw the terrible events unfold. I remember one of my colleagues saying that he hoped it wasn’t terrorism and that he hoped it wasn’t [Osama] bin Laden. I knew it was bin Laden and al-Qaeda because they liked to do operations in pairs, just as they had done in the East Africa bombings; there wasn’t any question in my mind or the minds of many others as well.

Sharita Gruberg, Vice President for the LGBTQ Research and Communications Project

I was a junior in high school and remember watching the TV in horror with the rest of my class. Later that day during class change, a friend on the football team ran up to me and instructed me to get him or his teammates if anyone went after me for being Muslim. I felt the pit of my stomach drop again that day realizing I wouldn’t be able to just grieve as an American but would also have to face anti-Muslim bigotry holding myself, my family, and my community collectively responsible. The following years have been filled with surveillance, profiling, deportations, and increasing Islamophobia.

Mara Rudman, Executive Vice President for Policy

I was eight months out of my position as a deputy national security adviser for President Bill Clinton and had just started working at The Cohen Group, a consultancy formed by former Secretary of Defense Bill Cohen. We were in our morning staff meeting when the initial media reports came in; and from there, we started hearing directly from colleagues at the Pentagon and were fielding calls from the Hill, even as everyone was in lockdown mode. I recall family of some of my work colleagues arriving in our office concerned about finding a safe space and a very uncertain trek home later that day. In the same time frame, Sen. Tom Daschle’s then-foreign policy adviser shared a draft war powers authorization and asked for review and comments, which I shared, about thoughts on what to adjust in the language and why. A few weeks later, I saw Gen. Hugh Shelton, then the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff—who had also served in that capacity for President Clinton—and recall hearing from him directly about what faced him that day.

Larry Korb, Senior Fellow for National Security and International Policy

Having been born and raised in New York City and working in the city on 9/11 at the Council on Foreign Relations, I have several recollections from that horrible day. But these stand out: First, the criticisms I faced, particularly from right-wing media hosts such as Bill O’Reilly, when I defended President Clinton’s attempt to kill Osama bin Laden in 1998 because he was a real threat to our security, rather than a ploy to distract us from impeachment; second, the failure of the incoming Bush administration to focus on the threat from al-Qaida; third, the unwillingness of the Bush administration to appreciate the role Iran played in helping us topple al-Qaida and the Taliban and in forming a new government. Shortly after 9/11, the Iranians, who were the first country to condemn the attacks, invited me and several colleagues to the residence of their U.N. ambassador to tell us we needed to inform the Bush administration that they were willing to help—which we did. Despite this help in early 2002, Bush turned them against us by putting them on the “axis of evil.”

Kelly Kryc, Senior Fellow for Energy and Environment

I was a Ph.D. student at Boston University in 2001. On September 11, I was attending a science conference in Erice, Sicily, and observed the events unfold from afar. It was difficult to get information about loved ones at home. None of us knew how or when we would be able to return to the United States. Despite this, we all felt comparatively safe, which was not the experience my friends and family had. After the conference, I decided to travel solo to Tuscany while waiting to hear when flights would resume—and also making longer-term arrangements with friends studying in the United Kingdom to stay there indefinitely. The outpouring of compassion and warmth from the Italians was like nothing I’d ever experienced while traveling abroad (and haven’t experienced since). People approached me on the street to express their shock and sadness, invited me to join their tables at dinner so that I wouldn’t be alone, and even invited me into their homes. There was an outpouring of love and empathy that I feel fortunate to have been the recipient of. I’ll always be grateful to the Italians for making that time just a little better in the face of so much uncertainty and fear.

Rudy deLeon, Senior Fellow for National Security and International Policy

The following is an excerpt from “Remembering 9/11: Looking Back 10 Years, It’s Still Personal” by Rudy deLeon:

In April 2001 I completed a 26-year federal career, with the last eight years and 100 days in the Pentagon working for President Bill Clinton and his administration. … Five months later, on September 11, 2001, I had just started a new job at The Boeing Company. At 9:30 a.m. my schedule had me picking up a colleague at a Pentagon City hotel. The hotel, part of an urban shopping mall built in the mid-1980s, is probably 300 yards from the southern side of the Pentagon building, with the major highway I-395 in between.

At 9:37 a.m. I stepped out of the car to greet my colleague, but turned instead to the sound of a low-flying aircraft. My first reaction was that a military fly-over of Arlington National Cemetery was about to occur. Instead, there was an immediate sound and flash. The sound was that of a pot falling off a stove and onto the floor—that was the aluminum aircraft hitting the Pentagon concrete. The flash was the ignition of the fuel from the plane, producing an orange ball that extended several hundred feet upward from the southwest face of the Pentagon. Aviation fuel does not explode, it combusts.

Within seconds, we were standing in front of the Macy’s and moving toward a walkway-tunnel that is normally used by Pentagon workers, visitors, and joggers. Exiting, we emerged in the south parking lot of the Pentagon, greeted by the fireball that is now black smoke and the sirens of the Arlington County Fire Department. Construction workers in the parking lot pointed to the route of the commercial aircraft down Columbia Pike and into the building.

Just like that, America had changed.

Maggie Siddiqi, Senior Director of the Faith and Progressive Policy Initiative

Since the 9/11 attacks, we have seen cycles of backlash against Americans who are Muslim, Sikh, Middle Eastern, North African, and South Asian. I saw this firsthand when working at the Islamic Society of North America’s D.C. office around the 10th anniversary of 9/11. Right-wing activists protested in front of mosques and advocated for “anti-Sharia” bills that would criminalize Islamic prayer and other acts of worship. Rep. Peter King (R-NY) held hearings to investigate our community writ large.

In the years since, we have continued to be targeted—by policies such as President Donald Trump’s Muslim ban and by rising white supremacist violence. Twenty years after 9/11, we ought to be clear-eyed that hate is never justified in the aftermath of a tragic event, nor does it simply dissipate with time; it is cyclical and fomented for political gain by right-wing fearmongers. As we mourn the lives lost to hate on 9/11, we must honor their memories by preventing anyone else from facing hate in their name.

Steve Albert, Fellow for National Security and International Policy

I was a high school freshman when my teacher’s cellphone rang with news I will never forget: A plane had struck the World Trade Center. As I watched history unfold, the gravity of the events sunk in, but I did not fully appreciate the impact 9/11 would have on my life. After college, I joined the military, deploying four times and spending more than 500 days in combat seeking out those responsible for these atrocities.

Today, my two daughters and the most-junior members of our armed forces have one thing in common: They only know a post-9/11 world. As we reflect on the past 20 years, it is our obligation, our duty, to share the memory of those who were lost on that day and in the years that followed, along with the ideals of freedom and justice they fought to uphold.

Opinions, conclusions, and recommendations expressed or implied are solely those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of the Air University, the U.S. Air Force, the Department of Defense, or any other U.S. government agency.

Elisa Massimino, Senior Fellow for National Security and International Policy

The following is an excerpt from “9/11 at 10: A Long Walk Home” by Elisa Massimino:

Several days [after 9/11], I was part of a standing-room-only crowd gathered at the Stewart Mott House across from the Supreme Court. Groups as diverse as Phyllis Schlafly’s Eagle Forum and Norman Lear’s People for the American Way had come together in an emergency session to mourn the loss of life, call for unity, and urge fidelity to the values of human rights and civil liberties on which the country was founded, and from which we knew there would be strong temptation to stray. As our nation’s leaders grappled with how to respond to the attacks, this ad hoc group quickly unified behind a statement of principles we urged the government—and the American people—to embrace.

[W]e are still dealing with the consequences of the failure to adhere to these principles. … One of the tragedies of [the post-9/11 period] is that so much of what was done in the name of fighting terrorism actually exacerbated it.

Guthrie Graves-Fitzsimmons, Fellow for the Faith and Progressive Policy Initiative

I was in my 6th grade World Cultures class when the 9/11 attacks happened, and it was the world event that shaped my understanding of the United States’ place in the world. My first involvement in faith-based organizing and activism was during the anti-war movement after 9/11. Even at a young age, I couldn’t fathom how former President George W. Bush—also a member of the United Methodist Church, which teaches that war is “incompatible with the teachings and example of Christ”—could betray our values by starting not just one but two wars that have dragged on for the majority of my life. Watching religious leaders confront the president inspired me to pursue a career at the intersection of faith and public policy.

Zahir Rasheed, Research and Press Assistant

I was 4 when the towers went down, so I don’t remember much from that day. What I do remember is growing up in the shadow of 9/11 for the past 20 years as a young Muslim American, constantly being asked to explain or apologize for terrorist acts committed by those who hijacked and twisted my religion for their pursuit of political power. I remember middle school classmates in 2011 taunting me about my “dad’s” death following the operation that killed Osama bin Laden, as if I could somehow share any relation or empathy with someone who was responsible for such widespread human loss and suffering.

Now, 20 years later, terror has taken on a different form, as we saw on January 6, but has not been met with the same scrutiny. Many responsible for perpetuating the environment I faced have instead created an environment in support of the rhetoric and goals of domestic terrorist actors and those willing to use them for political gain. Hate has no home here, no matter what form it takes.