9/11: Looking Back, Looking Ahead

It’s been a decade since followers of Osama bin Laden launched the deadliest act of terror ever on American soil. Despite nations’ best efforts to counter it, terrorism is a fact of life in much of the world. Will it always be that way?

On Tuesday, September 11, 2001, residents of the eastern United States awakened to a beautiful late-summer morning. It was one of those days that buoys the spirit and inspires a spring in one’s step. Comfortable temperatures and clear skies welcomed those leaving their homes for the routine commute to work.

They had no way of knowing that 19 men, boarding four early-morning transcontinental flights, were determined to take away the day’s bright potential. By mid-morning, the numbers 9 and 11 appearing side by side would begin to take on a meaning of their own; from that day forward the term 9/11 would serve as a solemn reminder of both horror and heroism.

After successfully navigating airport security systems, the men were positioned to execute their deadly plan. Their tactic was unfamiliar to aviation authorities. Previous hijackings had typically drawn attention to the demands of the perpetrators; a hijacked aircraft would be diverted to a specified destination and set down on a runway so negotiations could begin. The simultaneous commandeering of multiple commercial airliners to convert their thousands of gallons of jet fuel into suicidal guided missiles was unprecedented. These hijackers didn’t want anything other than mayhem and mass murder. Because America was unprepared for such an attack, the new strategy proved extremely effective.

The 9/11 Commission Report outlines the tragic outcome.

9/11 Timeline

At 8:46:40, American [Flight] 11 crashed into the North Tower of the World Trade Center in New York City. All on board, along with an unknown number of people in the tower, were killed instantly. . . .

At 9:03:11, United Airlines Flight 175 struck the South Tower of the World Trade Center. All on board, along with an unknown number of people in the tower, were killed instantly. . . .

At 9:37:46, American Airlines Flight 77 crashed into the Pentagon, traveling at approximately 530 miles per hour. All on board, as well as many civilian and military personnel in the building, were killed. . . .

By all accounts, the first 46 minutes of [United] Flight 93’s cross-country trip proceeded routinely. Radio communications from the plane were normal. Heading, speed, and altitude ran according to plan. . . . The hijackers attacked at 9:28. . . . During at least five of the passengers’ phone calls, information was shared about the attacks that had occurred earlier that morning at the World Trade Center. Five calls described the intent of passengers and surviving crew members to revolt against the hijackers. According to one call, they voted on whether to rush the terrorists in an attempt to retake the plane. They decided, and acted. At 9:57, the passenger assault began. . . . The passengers continued their assault and at 10:02:23, a hijacker said, ‘Pull it down! Pull it down!’ The hijackers remained at the controls but must have judged that the passengers were only seconds from overcoming them. The airplane headed down; the control wheel was turned hard to the right. The airplane rolled onto its back, and one of the hijackers began shouting ‘Allah is the greatest. Allah is the greatest.’ With the sounds of the passenger counterattack continuing, the aircraft plowed into an empty field in Shanksville, Pennsylvania, at 580 miles per hour, about 20 minutes’ flying time from Washington, D.C.”

Nearly 3,000 people died as a result of the aerial assault on New York and Washington. The determined efforts of the brave passengers on United Flight 93 most likely prevented untold additional deaths at either the U.S. Capitol or the White House.

The devastation experienced by those near the crash sites in New York, Pennsylvania and Virginia left people in disbelief, groping for an explanation of what they had seen. Some likened it to a bomb blast or a volcano erupting. Others, looking at the familiar urban landscape through air choked with soot and smoke, compared it to their concept of hell.

The events of the day penetrated the American psyche as citizens watched terror unfold in real time on television. Some would later say that the world changed forever on 9/11. The nation reluctantly came to grips with the fact that terrorism had arrived on the shores of what had been, throughout living memory, a comfortable continent. It was a wake-up call to a startling reality already common elsewhere.

In the inevitable finger-pointing that ensued, some blamed American foreign policy and suggested that the nation had brought the audacious attack on itself. While that debate may never end, one thing is certain: America was introduced to the new face of war, where threats of terror make places of business and even recreation the new battlefields.

Going Forward

That first evening, in a brief televised address, President George W. Bush told his stunned, grieving countrymen, “Today, our nation saw evil, the very worst of human nature.”

It is my hope that in the months and years ahead, life will return almost to normal. But our resolve must not pass. Each of us will remember what happened that day, and to whom it happened.”

President George W. Bush, Address to a joint session of Congress and the American People, September 20, 2001

Witnessing the perpetration of evil on such an enormous scale laid bare our vulnerability to murderous intentions—indeed the very worst of human nature. But while the effects of evil were so graphically displayed, a specific reason for the day’s events was not so easily discerned.

Syndicated columnist George F. Will, in an article published within a day of the attacks, wrote: “The real aim of terrorism is not to destroy people or physical assets, still less to score anything remotely resembling military victories. Rather, its purpose is to demoralize.

Terrorism acquires its power from the special horror of its randomness and from the magnification of it by modern media, which make the perpetrators seem the one thing they are not—powerful. Terrorism is the tactic of the weak.”

Americans were encouraged to get on with their lives and not let the threat of terror demoralize them. Of course, that’s much easier said than done.

Terrorism not only creates fear but forces us to acknowledge that humans are capable of such depths of hatred. The Hebrew Scriptures describe the depravity that can take root in the human heart (Jeremiah 17:9). In the Summer 2001 issue, just prior to the events of 9/11, Vision analyzed this topic in a full-length article titled “The Violent Heart.” As that article points out, even individuals claiming an allegiance to God can perpetrate and justify murder (John 16:2–3).

The fact is that while the events of 9/11 were sudden and disturbing, they were not unique. Human history is replete with examples of atrocity—reflections of the face of evil. Fear of being harmed has been a fact of life for the vast majority of humanity through the ages. But the technological sophistication of aspects of modern society enhances the threat. According to George Will, “the complexities of urban industrial societies make them inherently vulnerable to well-targeted attacks that disrupt the flows and interconnectedness of such societies. The new dependence on information technologies multiplies the vulnerabilities.”

Will continued: “The grim paradox is that terrorism, a particularly primitive act, has a symbiotic relationship with the sophistication of its targets. And opportunities for macro-terrorism directed against urban populations and their water, food-handling and information systems multiply as societies become more sophisticated.”

In the 10 years since 9/11, a variety of steps have been taken to prevent further attacks. Air travel safeguards and security measures have been adopted, cooperation between government agencies has been enhanced, protocols and procedures have been installed, and billions have been spent battling terrorism. There have been calls for international cooperation; intense diplomatic efforts and military campaigns have been waged. Everyone in the West has been advised to be alert: “If you see something, say something.” And together these measures have significantly reduced the likelihood of additional terrorist attacks.

The first responders of today live in a world transformed by the attacks on 9/11. . . . A rededication to preparedness is perhaps the best way to honor the memories of those we lost that day.”

The 9/11 Commission Report (2004)

Still, the fear of being vulnerable to the evil intent of others lingers. On September 11, 2011, with the disaster a decade in the rearview mirror, many people will pause to reflect on the tragedy, determined never to forget. Some will attend remembrance ceremonies to recall what took place. Others will recollect the courage and bravery displayed by rescuers as a way of displacing the contempt they feel for the cowardice of those who would target civilians. There will be the somber sounds of bagpipes and drums in New York. A government official will lay a wreath at the Pentagon. Prayer vigils will take place, moments of silence will be requested, and the refrain “God Bless America” will be heard in many locations across the country.

A New World Order

The Judeo-Christian Scriptures that speak so bluntly about the wicked potential within the human heart also reveal the antidote. The Hebrew prophet Isaiah portrays security as a byproduct of right education (Isaiah 54:13–17). Freedom from terror and elimination of fear are identified with righteousness, or right living. That righteousness comes from God and is the heritage of those who yield to Him.

On the 10th anniversary of 9/11, let’s remind ourselves that God’s desire is for people of all nations to turn to Him and learn righteousness (Acts 10:34–35). Isaiah shows that enduring peace is a result of people responding to God’s teaching (Isaiah 2:1–5). That same God promises in Revelation 21:4–5 that in the new order to come on the earth, He will wipe away the memory of evil and its effects from all eyes.