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Friday, September 10, 2021

Two op-eds on September 11

One by  a witness, the second on the consequences

What I saw

By Will Collette

Twenty years ago today, I woke up to a glorious Tuesday morning. As I got into my car to go to work, the sky was a clear deep blue, temperature and humidity were delightful in sharp contrast to Washington’s hot and humid summers. It was a perfect day.

I was alone on my drive to downtown DC. Cathy was in Los Angeles at her union convention, due to fly back later that day.

I headed out, past the Mormon Temple and down Rock Creek Park, our favorite commuting route, a largely unknown way to bypass the bumper-to-bumper traffic on 16th Street and Connecticut Ave. Emerging in the Adams Morgan neighborhood, I continued on to park in Cathy’s designated space in a garage next to AFSCME's building and walked three blocks to the AFL-CIO building where I worked.

Just after 9:30 AM, Building Trades Chief of Staff Bob Ozinga ran into my office yelling “get off that fucking phone….we’re under attack!” I asked WTF and he said, “Look out the window.” From the south windows on the upper floors of the AFL building, Lafayette Park, the White House, Washington Monument and the Pentagon line up in a row. I saw a roiling column of smoke and flame rising from the Pentagon.

Like everyone else, I evacuated into the sheer pandemonium on the downtown streets. Rumors were that bombs had gone off in the Metro. People couldn’t figure out how to get home, or at least get out of range of the inbound plane likely headed for the White House (Flight 93, the one taken down by brave passengers over Shanksville, PA).

I tried to work out in my head when Cathy was due to board her flight for home from LA. I figured she wouldn’t board until around noon our time, given her night time ETA at Dulles.

In all that chaos, I ran into three of Cathy’s colleagues who were distraught about how to get out. I told them to come with me so I could drive them out to suburban Maryland. The radio was not providing much useful (or as we learned later, even factual) information.

I took back routes to reach Rock Creek Park. We made it up to Maryland and I dropped each of Cathy’s staff at home. When I got home, I started calling to find out if Cathy was OK. Phone service was overloaded. Cathy finally got through to me a couple hours later to tell me she was stopped at the check-out desk and told she wouldn’t be flying anywhere since all flights were grounded indefinitely. It took her almost a week to get back.

Like most Americans, I spent the next few days watching endless replays of the plane strikes and the Towers falling. The Bush Administration starting giving their version of events and vowed revenge for this vicious and totally unforeseen event.

I remember thinking “vicious, yes” and “revenge, sure.” But “unforeseen? Bullshit.” I like to read for pleasure and often indulge in thrillers. Two best-selling thrillers I had read EXACTLY foretold 9/11.

One was Tom Clancy’s 1994 bestseller “Debt of Honor” that featured a high-jacked 747 hitting the Capitol during the State of the Union speech. Also in 1994, Dale Brown’s best-seller “Storming Heaven” featured high-jacked airliners used as weapons against US infrastructure.

We later learned that George W. Bush had been explicitly warned on June 29th and August 6th about likely attacks on the homeland by Osama Bin Laden and had done nothing. Further, we learned that the FBI was already on to the hijackers while they were still taking lessons at flight schools.

A month after 9/11, the US invaded Afghanistan at first to destroy al-Qaeda and punish the Taliban for allowing al-Qaeda to operate. Our NATO allies joined in, though the “mission” had morphed into changing Afghanistan from top to toe into a client state that served our interests.

I remember thinking that this is what happens when the country is run by people who don’t read books. Clancy and Brown had predicted the use of airliners as missiles and dozens of histories told of the Afghan people’s refusal to be conquered. Since Alexander the Great through the Soviet and now the US occupation, Afghanistan has been the “graveyard of empires.”

While waiting for the announcement that we would be permitted to go back into DC and to our jobs, I stewed in anger at the terrorists who murdered so many people as well as our lapse in intelligence and judgement that allowed us to be taken by surprise.

When we were finally allowed to come back to work later in the week, there were Humvees at every major intersection with nervous looking kids from the DC National Guard manning 50 cal. machine guns. It’s a truly weird commute when you are targeted and tracked by a 50 cal.

Much of downtown was barricaded to traffic. You could walk to most places under the watchful eyes and tactical machineguns of troops stationed everywhere. 

This was surreal, but it got worse. You needed an ID and a pass to go from building to building and in some instances (at the AFL-CIO for example), floor to floor.

We were told in the harshest terms to stay away from south–facing windows (like the one in my office) and absolutely forbidden to go on any south facing balcony under penalty of being shot without warning by sharpshooters.

A week after 9/11, letters filled with anthrax started arriving across DC. Five people died and 17 more were infected. We all looked at every piece of mail suspiciously.

Cathy and I had left Rhode Island in 1979 for new jobs in DC but always felt like Rhode Islanders and believed in our eventual return. We loved our jobs. We loved the travel that came with those jobs. But after George W. Bush got “elected” by the Supreme Court, we felt the time to go home was getting near. We bought our home in Charlestown in November 2000 and rented it out.

After 9/11 and the anthrax attacks, life in DC stopped being fun. Travel was a nightmare. Security was so tight as to be unbearable. George Bush was taking us into the “war on terror.”

The last straw was the DC snipers, John Muhammed and Lee Malvo, who terrorized the metro area for three weeks in October 2002. One of their first victims was a woman shot while gassing up at the gas station I regularly used. That was it for us.

Cathy took her retirement. We sold our house in Kensington MD and moved into the house we had already bought here. I was hired by the Laborers Union regional office in Providence. Goodbye DC, Hello Charlestown. And no regrets.

Please read on. My colleague Mitchell Zimmerman, whose work appears nationwide and frequently in Progressive Charlestown, reminds us that we were hardly the only victims of 9/11. I share just about all his thoughts on the subject, but he expresses them much more eloquently than I can.

The victims of our post-9/11 wars deserve remembrance, too

Countless innocents died in the 20 years of war our country launched in the name of our 9/11 dead.

By Mitchell Zimmerman 

Few who offer their prayers this September in the hallowed plaza where the Twin Towers once stood will be aware that the September 11 memorial echoes a 1987 Holocaust “counter-memorial” in Kassel, Germany.

Like our memorial, the German monument consists of a hollow in the shape of what had once been there, into which water flows. But the scope of the remembrances evoked by the two memorials are revealingly different.

We Americans want only to recall our innocent dead and to honor them. Unlike the Germans, we spurn acknowledging the evils done in their name that came to be intertwined with our losses, the catastrophe we inflicted on other innocent nations.

In 1939, the Nazis destroyed a forty-foot pyramidal fountain in Kassel, Germany because it had been built by a Jew, the entrepreneur Sigmund Aschrott. The elimination of “the Jews’ Fountain” was soon followed by the elimination of Kassel’s 3,000 Jews themselves.

The installation of the counter-monument
Forty-five years later it was proposed to rebuild the fountain. But simply rebuilding the original fountain would have erased the memory of its destruction. So artist Horst Hoheisel designed a new fountain: “a mirror image of the old one, sunk beneath the old place in order to rescue the history of this place as a wound and an open question.”

It’s part of the way Germans have accepted responsibility for the crimes of the Nazi era. The small monument conjures the sadness of loss, and the responsibility of a people for acts that can never be made right.

The mass murder of Americans, the crime of September 11, 2001, spawned a larger tragedy for others. Treating the 9/11 “war on terrorism” as license for war on Afghanistan as well as on Iraq, our government invaded both countries, overthrew their governments, and occupied them.

Far-seeing people like Rep. Barbara Lee warned that war on Afghanistan was the wrong response to the 9/11 attacks, and they were right. But using the attacks as a pretext to attack Iraq was arguably even more absurd and criminal.

“In the weeks immediately after 9/11,” Bush White House anti-terrorism adviser Richard Clarke confirmed, the president told “the Pentagon to prepare for the invasion of Iraq… Even though they knew at the time from me, from the FBI, from the CIA, that Iraq had nothing to do with 9/11.”

As a delegation from our British allies secretly reported to their government before the invasion, “the intelligence and facts were being fixed around the policy” of going to war.

Even by relatively conservative estimates, America’s post-9/11 wars have caused nearly a million deaths. They’ve also made millions of refugees and inflicted malnutrition, birth defects, and other health disasters on generations of children in Iraq and other war zones.

It would represent no insult to the memory of the innocents murdered in America, 20 Septembers ago, were we to acknowledge and memorialize the carnage and catastrophe we unleashed in other countries. To our 9/11 memorial, America should add a wall on which we engrave the names of the million innocent men, women and children slain in those futile wars.

I don’t think that’s likely anytime soon, but the proposal may be useful. As Hoheisel says, “That’s how a counter-monument works. People get angry, they write letters, but you have a discussion. Out of this void, the history begins to come out.”

Mitchell Zimmerman is an attorney, longtime social activist, and author of the anti-racism thriller Mississippi Reckoning. This op-ed was distributed by It was also sent to me by Mitchell along with photos of the Aschrott counter-monument.

Mississippi Reckoning is another one of my favorite books and will (I promise, Mitchell) be reviewed by me for Progressive Charlestown in the near future.