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Monday, September 12, 2011

New York City, 10 years later: Pessimism vanquished, but terror threat remains

NEW YORK — On a picture perfect September day in 2001, the Grim Reaper visited New York to spread carnage and to shock and stun the very foundations of American society. Passenger aircraft, hijacked by Al Qaida terrorists, slammed into the World Trade Center Towers, the Pentagon, and a field in Pennsylvania, in a combined assault which killed over 3,000 innocent people, mostly civilians.


Now, a decade after the heinous attacks, the shadows of September 11th still haunt the United States. The near surrealistic events of that day are etched in the memories of those of us who witnessed the attacks first hand, although in my case not in lower Manhattan but across the bridge, seeing the city skyline as a tableau under attack, viewing the twin towers as two billowing smokestacks into the azure blue sky, and then watching the events on TV as if the entire event were somehow a nightmare that could be switched off with the remote. It couldn’t, it wasn’t, and the real fright only set in the following day.

I recall September 11th with a kind of suspended animation; after routinely dropping off our daughter at grade school and seeing an acquaintance who was a New York Fire Department Captain (he would die later that day on duty), I drove towards the city to hear the first reports “of a plane apparently hitting the World Trade Center.” Minutes later a flood of reports on WCBS radio said this was not an accident. A second plane had struck the Towers, and then….well we know the rest painfully well. Three hundred forty-three members of the New York Fire Department were killed in the line of duty that tragic day.

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Being just miles from what became known as Ground Zero, most people were too stunned by disbelief to be scared; we always felt “it couldn’t happen here.” Terrorist bombs be they in Belfast, Beirut, or Bombay, were always “somewhere else.” This was the USA after all. The attacks on America became the Pearl Harbor of our generation, sixty years after that day of infamy in Hawaii. But the aggressors of Pearl Harbor had a home address; Tokyo. The state entity was Imperial Japan.

New York Police Department tactical officers stand guard near the New York Stock Exchange on Sept. 9.     Getty Images/Justin Sullivan
The nineteen Al Qaida hijackers, mostly fundamentalist Egyptians and Saudis and their leader Osama Bin Laden had no such formal state connection nor return address save for the rural vastness of the wretched Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan then ruled by the Taliban.

America’s response had to be decisive, precise, but measured; President George W Bush, contrary to popular myth did not rush into the Afghanistan military mission as was being begged for across much of the political spectrum, but wisely allowed a brilliantly coordinated CIA campaign using local Afghan insurgents to topple the Taliban regime.

Securing the American homeland in the aftermath of the attacks was no less a daunting task, given years of neglect in domestic security; this too was accomplished quickly and effectively.

Fast forward to 2011. Without question the United States is better protected and prepared today than in September 2001, though that does not discount another attempt or attack, but not likely of the

magnitude of a decade ago. We can thank both domestic law enforcement (NYPD/FBI) as well as the aggressive pre-emptive actions of the men and women of the U.S. military overseas. Rudy Giuliani, the feisty former New York Mayor became synonymous with the rescue, recovery and comeback efforts for the Big Apple in the frightened aftermath of the attacks.

In recent comments to the British media, Giuliani — dubbed “America’s Mayor” — stressed that complacency and political correctness could hamper preparedness to preventing new attacks. He added moreover that the difference between Pearl Harbor and consigning September 11th to history, was that while the Axis powers had been defeated by 1945, such was still not the case with the Al Qaida terrorists.

Thinking back to that tragic day and the ensuing pessimism of post-September 11th America, it’s amazing how far we have come. New York’s traditional optimism, brashness and commercial verve are back; but so too are the subliminal thoughts about that dark day a decade ago. After respectful commemoration ceremonies, may the skirl of the bagpipes of the NY Fire Department continue to haunt the terrorists. Never Forget!

John J. Metzler is a U.N. correspondent covering diplomatic and defense issues. He writes weekly for

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