Upon awaking on the morning of September 11, 2001, I learned from a radio news report that the towers were down. Not knowing what else to do, I continued with my usual routine. I took my clothes to the laundromat across the street, where big-screen TV showed pictures of what looked like a dust storm on the moon.
Later that morning I called San Francisco State University to confirm that the job interview I had scheduled for that afternoon was still happening. At first, the assistant said yes. Then she put me on hold, and came back a few minutes later to say that the interview had been cancelled.
A few minutes later, the phone lines went dead, and remained so for the rest of the day.
National Public Radio News went into nearly twenty-four-hour news coverage, assigning all of its reporters and editors worldwide to the same story.
All four of the planes that were hijacked that day were bound for California, and many of the passengers had deep connections to our state. A few days after the attacks there was an outdoor memorial on the UC Berkeley campus. The turnout was good and the mood was solemn, respectful, and almost eerily quiet.
Toward the end of the remembrance, I noticed that to the side of the stage, a student was holding a banner with a peace sign on it. That was the only politicking, if you care to call it that, I saw that afternoon. It was a day for somber reflection, not one for flaunting one's political point of view.
Or so I had thought. A few weeks later the California alumni magazine ran a cover photo of the event with a large American flag — which I hadn't seen — in the foreground and a mass of students in the background. Due to the clever camera angle, the photo made it look like the students were rallying around the flag that afternoon. They were doing no such thing.
The bombers were dead. One of the pilots and fourteen of the fifteen muscle hijackers were from Saudi Arabia, a nation we were told was our ally and friend.
According to the 9/11 Report, although Al Qaeda formed in the late 1980s, it did not appear in publicly available national security documents until 1998, just three years before the attack.
The press was too busy covering Monica Lewinsky and OJ Simpson to keep the public informed about what was going on internationally. Most major news organizations had substantially reduced their overseas staffs after realizing that the public preferred a diet of celebrity scandal and gossip.
We were now in the information age, the age of 24-hour entertainment. History as we had understood it — the complex interplay of competing and ever-shifting international alliances and national interests — had ended, we were told, in 1989 with the collapse of the Soviet Union and the end of the Cold War.
On 9/11 the US suffered its worst security failure since Pearl Harbor, and the worst failure within our borders since the War of 1812. Yet, no one, to my knowledge, lost their job, not even the person at the Al Qaeda desk, if indeed there was such a position, at the CIA. No one was prosecuted for criminal negligence or non-performance of duty in the deaths of nearly 3,000 people.
To the contrary, three years later the public rewarded Bush, our first president since Reconstruction to receive less than a pleurality of the popular vote, with an outright majority of the popular vote as well as his second electoral victory.
The attack came at a time when our democracy was at a low ebb and anti-democratic forces within the republic were on the ascendency.
When empires crumble, it's usually from within. An outside attack is usually little more than a coup de grâce.
The cockpit doors could have been secured on all commercial aircraft, but proposals before Congress to do so went down to defeat. The airlines feared adding a few dollars to the price of a ticket.
The supersonic fighter jets that were scrambled out of Rome, NY, and Long Island could have shot down the hijacked planes. It would have been messy, as they were flying over a densely populated area, but almost certainly not as deadly as what ultimately happened in lower Manhattan.
The picture that emerges is one of a government unable or unwilling to put public safety first, even in a building complex that had already been bombed by Islamic terrorists. The City had even moved the command center for public emergencies into the WTC complex, greatly complicating rescue efforts on 9/11.
We now know that skyscrapers built in clusters will fail together when only one of them fails. Every child who plays with blocks knows this.
Our failure was one of imagination, the inability to prepare for an attack that cost the hijackers perhaps a few hundred thousands of dollars, and that used our own training schools, airplanes, and jet fuel. The four hundred billion dollars a year we were spending on defense proved to be woefully insufficient. I wonder where the money went.
If the Titanic may be said to be the symbolic high point of the British Empire, the moment at which the arrogance of power reached the tragic limit of its absurdity, then 9/11 is the symbolic high point of the worldwide American Empire.
The US response was to invade Afghanistan, killing tens of thousands of civilians, and Iraq, where the number of fatalities surpassed one hundred thousand within a few years.
Sadly, it appears that in the United States, the financial and cultural incentives are to humanize our own people and all but ignore everyone else. The New York Times ran a Pulitzer Prize-winning series of articles profiling the American victims of 9/11, with stories about their childhoods, recitations of their likes and dislikes, and testimonials from friends and family. To my knowledge, the Times has never printed the names of Afghan or Iraqi civilians killed in the War on Terror.
I visited the World Trade Center once, around 1979 or 1980, to attend a hearing at the offices of the New York State Legislature. The subject of the hearing that day was, ironically, destructive cults, many of which spout one-dimensional religious jargon that thinly covered a hateful worldview. It was clear to me then that most in government didn't get it, and that some were even hostile to our attempts to raise public awareness on this issue. They often invoked religious freedom as their excuse for inaction.
I wonder where the "religious freedom" people are today, now that the idea of police surveillance or even outright bans on certain religious groups has become popular in certain quarters.
What those of us who are former members of destructive cults, and who have worked in the anti-cult field, can offer is an understanding of the induction and de-induction processes.
The good news is that almost anyone who no longer has contact with the cult can be de-inducted. The process involves the restoration of the healthy, whole personality structure, and the restoration of access to information originating from beyond the narrow confines of the group.
The bad news is that de-induction is a labor and resource-intensive task requiring a great deal of expertise and experience. It takes many to save one. But saving one life is worth the effort. Just ask any family that has been affected by a destructive cult.