- Jon Sopel
- North America Editor, BBC
It’s almost cliché, hackneyed even. As soon as a major event occurs, people say they will never forget where they were when they found out what was happening.
But I suspect that almost everyone around the world in their 30s remembers where they were when they heard, and then saw in real time, the most audacious and terrifying terrorist attack unfolding in America.
In the last few days, I have been talking to people who not only remember where they were but how their lives changed.
We spoke to Max Giaconne, who was 10 years old (and only four days at his new school) when the teacher told him he had to go to the principal’s office. There was his mother crying. His father worked at the World Trade Center.
Ann Van Hine was driving when she heard on the radio about the attacks on the Twin Towers, and then an order calling all firefighters.
She knew in that moment, with a terrible foreboding, that her husband would run towards the Twin Towers when everyone else tried to escape.
I also spoke with Andy. Like Max, he was in elementary school, but not as a student.
Andy Card was President Bush’s chief of staff; and he had to interrupt the commander-in-chief, who was reading to the schoolchildren, to tell him that a second plane had crashed into the Twin Towers.
His comments were succinct and brief: “The United States is under attack,” he told the president.
I remember the day vividly.
As a correspondent for the BBC in Paris, he reported on Eurotunnel attempts to stem the flow of illegal immigrants through the English Channel (some topics remain stubbornly familiar).
We were driving from Lille to Calais for the evening news when my producer called to say we needed to find a TV as something incredible was happening in New York.
That afternoon my cameraman and I sat down and edited our article for the news. But we were unable to concentrate as we watched live the horror that was unleashed on the other side of the Atlantic.
A motorized man went to my house in Paris to collect my passport and bring it to Calais. Who knew where we would end up next.
Some things about that day, that period, I remember vividly. I remember the powerful sense of clarity that it brought to so many people.
Even if the democracy we live in is imperfect with some deceptive and scheming politicians, would we prefer to live in societies with freedom of expression, due process, rule of law, sexual equality, and fair and elections?
Or are we with those who would crash planes into buildings, who would stone homosexuals to death, who would deny women an education?
It might be simplistic, but in a world that is made up of almost imperceptible different shades of gray, this looked like black and white.
But the other night I saw the awesome BBC report 9/11: Inside the president’s war room (“9/11: In the President’s War Room”) which, incidentally, shows Andy Card. And somehow, 20 years later, he had forgotten the chaos, the utter panic, the disbelief that engulfed America and its leadership.
The rulers of the richest country in the world and with the most fearful machinery mylitar were cowering in the bunkers, not knowing what would happen next or what to do, fearful that there would be a second wave of attacks.
It’s only part of the story though. Beside her was an iron determination, a purpose for unity. 20 years ago, Americans stood together; and most of the world with the US.
This was vividly exemplified when Queen Elizabeth II broke protocol (something not taken lightly in the royal family), ordering the Coldstream Guards to play the US anthem (Star spangled banner, “The Starry Flag”) during the changing of the guard ceremony.
There was an iron determination: the events of September 11 would be avenged.
Long lines were visible outside the gates of the army recruiting offices. Democrats and Republicans put aside their petty partisan bickering to focus on the bigger picture.
And when George Bush stood on the rubble of the Twin Towers with a police megaphone in hand and said that he had listened to the Americans and that the perpetrators of that crime would soon hear from the United States; spoke for the nation.
Within weeks, a multinational force was assembled, led by the US, to oust the Taliban (which had allowed al Qaeda leaders who planned the attacks to establish schools in the country) from power.
It was relatively straightforward from a military point of view.
They sent me from Paris to move to northern Afghanistan. I watched on the outskirts of Kunduz as the B52 bombers made daily raids to dislodge the Taliban from their last remaining stronghold in the north.
This would be the beginning of a series of American entanglements.
And one thing they all seemed to share was the lack of long-term success.
The “liberal interventionism” advocated by both President Bush and British Prime Minister Tony Blair saw the Taliban expelled from Afghanistan, and Saddam Hussein overthrown in Iraq.
But what followed became known as the “forever wars”, messy entanglements where victory (if that’s measured by a smoothly functioning, always bloody democracy, is out of reach.
When President Obama came to power, there was a different approach.
In Libya, the Americans would support the overthrow of Colonel Gaddafi, but at a distance.
With the Syrian civil war, the US huffed and puffed, but chose to stay out.
In Egypt, the US supported the overthrow of President Mubarak. But when the Egyptians elected the Muslim Brotherhood to power, the Americans made their displeasure clear and the generals reentered.
In other words, the Americans had attempted an invasion, but it went wrong. They had prolonged the “light intervention”, but it did not work either.
Staying out of a conflict drew criticism and supporting the expansion of democracy only worked if voters opted for governments that were friendly to the United States.
It’s a pretty sad story of foreign intervention.
The reasons for Donald Trump’s victory in 2016 (with his proclamation of “America first”) are varied. But one of them was certainly the growing cansance of Americans at the cost of these military entanglements.
And this is the backdrop to the commemorations taking place in New York this weekend. 20 years ago, Americans were united in the face of tragedy.
Today, with relative peace and considerable prosperity, they are bitterly divided.
So until 2021. How incredible that to commemorate the 20th anniversary of 9/11, the Taliban have formed a new government.
The preeminent superpower appears to be suffering from a crisis of confidence. And a crisis of competition over the form of its withdrawal from Afghanistan (ordered by Joe Biden) and the Kabul debacle.
I met Ann Van Hine in Battery Park at the southern tip of Manhattan. She is appalled at how much Americans have turned against each other.
She believes that the unity shown 20 years ago is possible again today. As we speak, I realize that we are looking out over New York Harbor, towards the Statue of Liberty.
The “Lady of Liberty” symbolizes the United States opening its arms to the world.
But 20 years, America feels much sadder and introspective.
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Eddie is an Australian news reporter with over 9 years in the industry and has published on Forbes and tech crunch.