- The Washington Times - Wednesday, September 10, 2008


We each have our 9/11 story - where we were, what we were thinking on that Tuesday morning seven years ago when the world changed forever.

I was at work when my wife called me about 9 a.m. to suggest I get to a TV set. I did and was looking at the south tower of the World Trade Center with a gigantic hole in its side.

The news anchors were speculating that this might be an accident when a glance at the cloudless sky made it instantly apparent that it was not because an airliner flew into the north tower.

At 9:43 a.m., American Airlines Flight 77 en route from Washington Dulles International Airport to Los Angeles crashed into the Pentagon.

At 10:10 a.m., the passengers on United Airlines Flight 93 attacked the terrorists on board and crashed the plane in a field in Somerset County, Pa. Though we didn’t know it at the time, it was over.

The government’s response can be best described as “Run for your life!” The news was full of video of panicked employees running from every conceivable building in Washington. I could understand evacuating the White House and the Capitol, but did we really need to empty the Department of Agriculture and the Passport Office?

It never crossed my mind that the Uniformed Services University of the Health Sciences would take the rest of the day off. I was to address medical students in an ethics class there, as I had done for the previous 10 years. I began driving toward Washington.

The first thing I noticed was that the traffic in the other direction looked like evening rush hour had been rescheduled for the middle of the day. So I called offices at USUHS and no one answered. I turned around and went home, arriving in time to see the towers collapse.

I was trying to make sense of what had happened. By 4 p.m., CNN was reporting that this was probably an al Qaeda suicide operation, directed by Osama bin Laden, then a guest of the Taliban in Afghanistan. He had attacked us before and was behind the 1993 attempt to destroy the World Trade Center with a truck bomb.

President Bush had issued a statement about 1 p.m. from a bunker in Louisiana threatening retaliation against “those responsible for these cowardly acts.”

I remember thinking that flying an airliner into a building for religious reasons could be described in a number of ways - atrocious, murderous, fanatical - but that “cowardly” didn’t seem to fit.

It seemed to me that because of the secrecy involved, the plot had been conceived in a criminal conspiracy of perhaps 50 people, including 19 who were now dead.

To bring the remainder to justice would clearly require military operations inside Afghanistan to capture the ringleaders. The Bush administration, it turned out, had bigger ideas.

First, everyone had to agree that we were “at war” with, not just the terrorists, but with terror itself. Virtually every member of Congress was asked to aver publicly that we were at war. All of them did so, despite my pleading with my TV that they were opening a door that would lead to American tanks rolling across some desert to no good end.

Our political leaders, even those who had doubts (and would later apologize for their bandwagon mistake), had to say the word “war” as a sign of how fearful they wanted us to be.

All of this activity naturally was accompanied by a lot of flag waving and hymn singing about “the home of the brave.” That this orgy of patriotism took place while the stock market was crashing and people were refusing to get aboard airliners passed largely without comment.

Before we knew it, we were in Iraq looking for weapons of mass destruction. We all know how far that has gotten us.

What’s the moral of this story?

That we turned out to be more easily terrorized than the people of, say, England or Israel?

That fearful people make bad decisions?

That bravery is as bravery does?

That patriotic posturing is a poor substitute for thought?

That fear and hate are the most effective manipulators of human behavior that exist?

Or maybe the moral is simply that we get the political leadership that we deserve. We’ll know more about what we have learned after this Nov. 4, another date that might “change the world.”

Gordon Livingston is a West Point graduate, Vietnam veteran, psychiatrist and author of “Too Soon Old, Too Late Smart.” He lives in Columbia, Md.

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