Next June will be the end of an era. When the Class of 2019 graduates, no grade at Radnor High School will have a majority of students born before September 11, 2001. The students who traverse Raider Road next September will have only known a post-9/11 world. Even the current Seniors are unlikely to possess an independent recollection of the attacks, having only heard stories of how our lives changed that day.
Students at Radnor do not remember the first plane, American Airlines Flight 11, hitting the North Tower of New York’s World Trade Center at 8:46 am. Students at Radnor do not remember the second plane, United Airlines Flight 175, hitting the South Tower at 9:03 am. Students at Radnor do not remember the third plane, American Airlines Flight 77, hitting the Pentagon. Students at Radnor do not remember the fourth plane, United Airlines Flight 93, crashing into a field in Somerset County, Pennsylvania when heroic passengers and crew likely saved the U.S. Capitol Building, while trying in vain to regain control of the aircraft.
Seventeen years ago this day, 2,977 people lost their lives. They were fathers and mothers, sons and daughters, firefighters and police officers, friends and neighbors.
President George W. Bush was in Florida, reading a book to a class full of second graders (each of whom is older than today’s Radnor seniors) at the time of the attack. After he was flown to a secure military base in Louisiana, he spoke to the nation:
Freedom was attacked this morning by a faceless coward, and freedom will be defended…make no mistake, the United States will hunt down and punish those responsible for these cowardly acts…the resolve of our great nation is being tested, but make no mistake, we will show the world we will pass the test.
America passed the test.
On September 12th, 2001, all Americans understood that United States needed to bring al-Qaeda to justice and tighten security to prevent further attacks. We were scared, but determined.
America invaded Afghanistan on October 7th after the Taliban refused to turn over al-Qaeda leaders. By mid-December, the Taliban was removed from power and an international coalition had secured a former terrorist safe haven.
Congress passed the Patriot Act on October 26th in an effort to detect and prosecute terrorism and other crimes. Among the provisions of the bill was an expansion on the use of National Security Letters, which allowed the FBI to search telephone, e-mail, and financial information without a court order. Additional access was granted to business and library records. The Patriot Act also allowed for roving wiretaps and increased surveillance of U.S. citizens.
In 2002, Congress passed the Homeland Security Act, in an effort to organize and optimize the agencies that work in cooperation to fight terrorism among other threats. The Department of Homeland Security was born.
In 2003, America invaded Iraq because of what most people believed was the imminent threat of that nation’s weapons of mass destruction and ties to terrorism. Although Iraq’s despotic leader was overthrown quickly due to an insurgency, the war lasted until 2011.
Although the attacks are more than a lifetime ago for a majority of Radnor High School students, controversy and concern continue to swirl around the basis of this war and other choices made in the name of national security. But they were a product of their time. It is all too easy – comforted by nearly two decades of fading memories – to forget the real and palpable fear of the immediate aftermath of the attacks. It is all too easy – secure in the knowledge that no more major attacks on American soil occurred – to rail against the response of the United States in 2001. Some say that George W. Bush forced through unlawful and unnecessary homeland security measures and started misguided and unwinnable wars on the basis of deception and hubris. These myths suggest that if we had simply done nothing, we would be at peace.
But they are just myths and unprovable theories of an alternate reality. In the aftermath of 9/11, America was justifiably consumed by fear; nonpartisan experts asserted that a next attack could be imminent. President Bush and Congress realized that while we can not predict and stop every attack, the likelihood of another attack increases dramatically when terrorists have safe havens. To prevent attacks at home, we needed to bring the fight to them and destroy safe havens for terror. The wars in Afghanistan and Iraq were long and painful. We made mistakes and suffered terrible losses in blood and treasure. The perception of lost liberties and privacy is tough to bear. We don’t know what would have happened if we took a different path. However, we do know that the actions that were taken resulted in terrorists killing “only” three more Americans in the U.S. during the entire remainder of President Bush’s term.
To some people, innaction is always the easiest option. The path of least resistance is appealing. But as President Ronald Reagan explained, we must say to our enemies, “there is a price we will not pay, there is a point at which they must not advance.” It might have been easier for us not to go into Iraq and Afghanistan, just as it would have been easier for Flight 93’s heros, like Todd Beamer and his fellow passengers, to stay in their seats and not save hundreds of lives in the U.S. Capitol by fighting back.
Whether you think back to our collective response to 9/11 with pride or shame, we owe it to the people who died on that day – and who were wounded or killed while answering their country’s call in the months and years that followed – to remember their sacrifice. As 9/11 inexorably moves from living memory towards the realm of history books, we must recommit ourselves to remembering what happened, how we responded, and those we lost. We honor their legacy by living without fear, debating and then applying our current views for the appropriate measures to ensure safety, and continuing to be a beacon of freedom to the world.