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Ten Years After: Thoughts on 091111

Author: Randall D. Larson

Copyright: 9-1-1 Magazine, Feature Content

Date: 2011-09-09
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What has changed in the ten years since 9/11?

Ten years ago…

On a quiet morning on the second Tuesday of September, 2001, I was nearing the end of my midnight shift as a 9-1-1 communications supervisor for a large California Bay Area metro Fire Department when a colleague from the Police dispatch side of the house called over telling us to turn on the news – a plane had crashed into the World Trade Center. 

As we did so, my five dispatchers and I sat in shock and awe, transfixed at the news footage that glowed in living color from our wall-mounted TV screen.  The news anchor was saying something about what a terrible accident this must have been, but we instinctively suspected this was no accident.  Our suspicions were confirmed in a bursting billow of gray, black, and orange as we witnessed another large airplane approach and imbed itself into the other Tower.

The rest of the day was a blurry cacophony of activity – passing the word on to our fire houses and department senior staff, opening up our City’s Emergency Operations Center to coordinate our own preparedness levels in the event a strike on the West Coast be in the terrorists’ plans, working with our International Airport to account for all and landing of its flights… but central to everything was that television screen (and fortunately our agency had the foresight to install one in the dispatch control room – great for entertainment during slow shifts, remote control close at hand for when the phone rang or radio crackled, but absolutely essential in keeping informed of breaking news such as this Tuesday’s tragedy).  We watched as the screen played the plane strikes over and over, then expanded their coverage when it was announced that another plane had slammed into the Pentagon, and then another crashed in a field in Pennsylvania… and how many more jetliners-made-into-missiles were still up there, and who, and why?

I left work, hours of overtime later, with a sick feeling in my gut, acutely aware that the world had changed.  Life after this day would be markedly different that life before Sept. 11, 2001.

It was a bittersweet morning a week or two later when I assisted FEMA Task Force 3 in their deployment to the World Trade Center.  I was a member of that team, assigned to the Communications and Technical Information group, but for reasons I considered to be exceedingly myopic, my agency did not grant me leave to respond with them.  From today’s perspective, though, I might consider myself lucky not to be dealing with the lingering health issued faces by the responders who did deploy at Ground Zero, including those on TF3.  But I still feel bad that I missed the opportunity to respond with my team and be there to support those who fell with the towers. 

Instead, though, I devoted my off-duty time to assembling comprehensive coverage of the response and its aftermath for the pages of 9-1-1 Magazine. Our Nov/Dec 2001 issue examined the events from all of the response agencies and 9-1-1 centers at each of the three disaster sites, the World Trade Center, the Pentagon, and the field outside Shanksville, Pennsylvania.  That issue of the magazine remains the one I am most proud of, and the thing that I hold up as my personal acknowledgement and tribute to the fallen first responders and civilians who did not survive that day.  (We’ll be archiving selected articles from that issue, and succeeding issues that marked significant memorial anniversaries of that day – the next month, the next year, the five year mark – on our web site to keep the reality and memory of what happened that day close at hand and clear in thought.)

Doing that is something that, sadly, seems to be necessary in our current American state of affairs.  The true gravity of what happened – and why – has been obscured in so many ways by all manner of political and societal divisions, so that much of what is being recognized in this month’s memorial ceremonies obfuscates what it is we’re really memorializing.  It’s been called a “National Day of Service and Remembrance” in which we’re encouraged to do good deeds, rather than a Day of Infamy to be mourned; our military response to Al Qaeda’s attack on our country and our people has been disputed for political reasons and those who have served so bravely are scorned to the extent that extremist groups are now tarnishing the funerals of our fallen servicemen and women with self-righteous messages of hate; the misguided practices of our Airport Security forces seems to have amounted to little more than reverse racial profiling in its ongoing commitment to ensure the frail elderly carry no explosive mouthwash onto America’s airplanes; and arrogant leaders on all sides of our political sphere do their part to besmirch the memory of the murdered men and women of Sept 11th and accuse their widows, widowers, and children of exploiting their heartache while others lead the call to slash budgets and reduce the operational population of America’s first line of defense – its local public safety services.

For one short moment, after 9/11/01, we came together as a nation, put aside our political and ideological preferences and embraced each other to nurse the fresh wounds of terrorism.  Sadly, that didn’t last long.  Blame throwing, name calling, and an insidious kind of political-correctness that sought to make friends with the very kind extremists we were now warring against became the new reality.  While I believe we were absolutely correct in not condemning all Muslims for the actions of a small, violent branch of fundamentalist extremists that continues to call for jihad against America and will remain unsatisfied until they have imposed their religion and sharia law upon the entire Western world, perhaps we have gone too far in seeking compromise with those who clearly still seek to destroy us.  A disheartening example of this was seen, ironically, in New York City’s 9/11 Memorial Event, which not only excluded first responders from participating (see Editor’s Desk), but Mayor Bloomberg’s team went on to banned Christian and Jewish clergy from speaking and participating in prayer at Memorial Ceremony, even while Muslim Imam Feisal Rauf, of the Ground Zero Mosque, was specially invited to speak (the controversy over that, however, forced Bloomberg to renage the Imam’s invitation.  Not so the first responders).  It seems that the only residue of spiritual faith present at the ceremony will be the shadowy reflections of the terrorists whose twisted religious intolerance brought about the attacks in the first place.

We’ve moved from a nation of peoples gathering in grief and unity to a nation that seems farther apart now that it’s been in decades.

We’ve become a land of partisan conflict.  Democrats viciously hate Republicans and vice versa.  Liberals fiercely hate conservatives, and vice versa.  Moderates hate all moderates who are less or more moderate than they are.  Many Republicans hate Obama with the same hysteria that Democrats hated Bush a few years ago.  Witness this: a company is selling a violent video game which allows players to vicariously kill members of the opposing political party; not unlike an earlier game created by the other political party allowing players to launch an armed revolution against our current President.  Are these vicarious amusements no more innocuous than the latest version of Grand Theft Auto, or are they a disturbing trend that blurs the attitude of terrorists who struck at our hearts on 9/11 and that of our current wave of political hostility?  It’s not just an acceptable difference of opinion – as evidenced by ongoing examples in news stories, radio, TV, and YouTube soundbytes, twitter and Facebook postings, this has become a zealous enmity that has reached levels of furious anger, and the resultant posturing by politicians and partisans alike threatens to demean the sacrifices of our civilians, responders, and soldiers during and subsequent to 9/11/01.  Give me your tired and your poor, but send those who believe not as I do to the pit of the abyss.  Hate lives in America’s current climate of partisan bias.

What does all this mean for public safety?  After 9/11, we reoriented our national public safety consciousness to one of national Homeland Security-driven preparedness and recognized that not only large cities could suddenly find themselves, like Shanksville, in the midst of a terrorist attack.  Funding via grants and donations allowed many of our state and local public safety services to ramp up and acquire the means to prepare for and then manage a 9/11-level event, and a swarm of vendors provided an abundance of technological treats with which those funds could be spent on.  In a large sense, we’re still no closer to achieving real operational interoperability in our coordinated communications than we were on that Tuesday morning, when word to evacuate the Towers failed to reach those who desperately should have been able to hear it.  At the same time, advances in coordinated training between allied agencies of all disciplines via the National Incident Management System has served to escalate our first line of defense – local public safety first responders and their support infrastructure – to operate as coherently and effectively in a large mutual aid environment as the responders did at the Pentagon on that Tuesday morning ten years ago.  

Memorials, especially War Memorials, are part of the fabric of American society since the first monument was erected in 1799 in Lexington, Massachusetts to memorialize colonists slain in the American War of Independence and some of the most profoundly poignant words were spoken in dedication of a Soldiers’ National Cemetery in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania in 1863.   I make a point of visiting them with reverence and gratitude.  The Port Authority of New York and New Jersey has distributed artifacts from the World Trade Center to fire department and community memorials throughout the country.  If you have one in your community, spend some time there and pay your respects often.  If not, view a memorial web site or connect with others on social networks; but put aside political and religious enmities as you do so. 

Beyond the artificial pretentiousness of political-favored ceremonies, each of us should make their own 9/11 memorial a personal one.  A pilgrimage to an attitude of acknowledgement and respect.  The events of that day had an effect on all of us who watched it, its images and its emotions are seared into our psyche and our souls.  Take the time to remember what happened, and why, and support those who continue to fight for public safety and our national security no matter what or whose political agendas may try and cloud what they are doing. 

Remember how it felt on that Tuesday morning ten years ago; the hurt and outrage, the community and purpose we had as a nation.  Think about the dedication and devotion of our public safety responders who charged in to ensure others got out of the smoking Towers and the crushed hallway mazes of the Pentagon, and who were still striving to rescue others when the Towers crumbled and crushed and fell to the ground.  Honor those among us who steadfastly serve to ensure it doesn’t happen again.  And try to be tolerant and understanding of your neighbors’ right to disagree with you.  Be the better example.  Do unto others as you would have others do unto you.



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