KT McFarland: 20 years after 9/11 it's like we've been gut-punched again. Still, don't count Americans out

Biden administration has been almost ‘criminally incompetent’: KT McFarland

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September 11, 2001 began as a glorious day in New York – crystal clear, with the crisp cool air of early autumn. I had just dropped off my two youngest children at school and was on a bus on my way to lower Manhattan. 

As I looked out the window, I saw black smoke billowing from one of the Twin Towers. Within a few minutes I saw the second plane hit the other tower.  I knew then this was no random accident of pilots getting off course and hitting the tallest buildings in the city. We were under attack.

My initial reaction, like so many New Yorkers, was to find my family. I tried calling their schools but cell phones weren’t working. The same thing happened when I called my husband’s office near Grand Central Terminal. 

When I finally found a phone booth, there were long lines. I was quicker on foot and started walking back uptown. 

Stores and offices were being evacuated, for fear of bombs. Mayor Rudy Giuliani was closing Manhattan’s tunnels and bridges and streets were shutting down to make way for emergency responders.  People were told to go home and stay home.

When I reached my daughter’s school, I learned her homeroom teacher had left to search for her husband at his office in the Twin Towers. The principal was closing the school, but many of the parents couldn’t be reached to come pick up their children. I took some of my daughter’s friends to our house for safekeeping.   

Everyone has their own unique September 11th story, but we all shared a common sense of being gut-punched. Who were these people who attacked us? Why did they hate us? Were we now at war, with an enemy that deliberately attacked innocents? Would we ever be safe again? What would this mean for our nation? Our families? Our children?  Confusion and despair hung over us like a shroud, just as the dust cloud created by the Towers’ collapse lingered for days.

FILE – The second tower of the World Trade Center bursts into flames after being hit by a hijacked airplane in New York in this September 11, 2001 file photograph. The Brooklyn bridge is seen in the foreground.  REUTERS/Sara K. Schwittek
(REUTERS/Sara K. Schwittek)

Those iconic pictures of the Towers burning, and then collapsing, still have the power to terrify many of us. But what happened in the days and months and years that followed September 11th, 2001 has came to define us. 

In the days after September 11th, while we were still shell shocked and grieving, seemingly helplessness in the face of a surprise attack, a different narrative emerged. We started seeing what the American people were made of. 

It was common people doing uncommonly brave and noble things — naturally, instinctively, without being told what to do or even how to do it. That is what Americans do – we might be pushed down, but we get back up again. We innovate, we improvise, we show unimaginable courage, and creativity and grit. We don’t scare easy. We don’t shrink from evil, we fight it…and ultimately defeat it. 

-The firefighters, police and paramedics who rushed into the burning towers to save people, heedless of the risk to themselves. The Fire Department Chaplain who remained to pray over the bodies of the dead, only to be killed himself when the Towers collapsed. 

-The people who helped guide their fellow workers down long flights of stairs in the dark. The man who carried a wheelchair bound colleague on his back for 50 flights, and then went back into the towers to rescue others. 

– The New Yorkers who dropped everything and immediately converged on lower Manhattan to help first responders with rescue and recovery.

-A makeshift Armada of tourist boats, commuter ferries and private vessels sailed converged on New York Harbor and evacuated half a million people trapped in lower Manhattan.

FILE – The final beam to be cut down at the World Trade Center is driven away on a truck shrouded in black as New York and New Jersey Port Authority Police salute during a ceremony to mark the end of the recovery effort on the site in New York, May 30, 2002. The beam was the ceremonial last load to be taken from the site. The World Trade Centers collapsed when attacked by hijacked airplanes September 11, 2001. REUTERS/Mike Segar MS
(REUTERS/Mike Segar )

– The thousands of New Yorkers who just a day before would have been too impatient to wait for the light to change before crossing the street, lined up by the thousands at hospitals to wait hours to donate blood. 

Our adversaries should take note – America has been gut-punched in the past…Pearl Harbor…Sputnik…the Berlin Airlift…Saigon…Sept. 11th…and now Kabul. Every time our enemies danced with glee, predicting with great confidence our inevitable decline. They were wrong every single time. 

-The passengers and crew on United Flight 93 who stormed the cockpit of their hijacked aircraft, driving it into the ground rather than let it fly to Washington and destroy the U.S. Capitol. 

And then there were Americans from around the nation especially in the Armed Forces. Within a week President George W. Bush sought and received authorization from Congress to go to war against those who had killed Americans. 

Two weeks after that a small contingent of American special forces went into Afghanistan to destroy al Qaeda. Ours was a high-tech military, not equipped nor trained to fight a band of terrorists in the most primitive, barren part of the world. But our forces adapted quickly. 

Once on the ground, we led a contingent of northern Afghan tribesmen to hunt down and destroy Al Qaeda. By December 2001, just three months after the attacks, our forces had pushed the remnants of the terrorist group to the mountains on the Afghanistan Pakistan.

Many mistakes were made after that, poor decisions by our political and military leaders who lengthened the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq before bringing them to a tragic end.

But it’s worth remembering what the brave men and women who were on the ground in these countries, the ones who actually fought the wars, did when they were in the war zones. 

On my trips to Afghanistan, I met Army reservists from the American Midwest who patrolled a provincial town but also taught local farmers how to build solar power and irrigate their fields.  I met American workers who helped Afghan war widows set up small businesses in their homes, making clothing and jewelry to sell abroad. 

I toured schools for young Afghans – who became the first members of their families to know how to read. 

I met Navy SEALS enroute to destroy a nest of jihadists who had been raiding villages and kidnapping children.  There are thousands of stories like this, of common Americans doing uncommonly brave and noble things.

Fast forward to September 11, 2021. Today feels a lot like it did immediately after September 11th, 2001. 

We’ve been gut-punched again. 

After 20 years of war to help Afghans fight off the Taliban; after hundreds of billions spent to build schools, hospitals, roads for the Afghan people; after a generation of effort, our military and political leaders quit the country in an unimaginably chaotic and incompetent fashion. 

They knowingly left Americans behind, and abandoned tens of thousands of Afghans who stood loyally with us for decades. Terrorists have the upper hand and the Taliban now have our military equipment and bases.

Once again, we are left wondering about our future, our place in the world, our national purpose. While history doesn’t repeat itself, it does rhyme. 

Although we were united after September 11th, today we seem hopelessly divided. Our leaders would rather score points against their political opponents than find a way to work together for the common good. Our president is busy blaming everyone but himself for what is so obviously a political, military, and humanitarian fiasco.

Yet the strength and beauty of our democracy is that we can replace our officials come the next election, and I suspect the American people are in the mood for a major, historic change come 2022 and 2024. 

Feckless incompetent leaders parading as patriots are rarely reelected. 

We may make mistakes in whom we elect, but we have the means to correct those mistakes the next time around.

In the meantime, it is worth remembering what we have also witnessed in these last few weeks as we quit Afghanistan. Once again it is common Americans doing uncommonly brave and noble things.

-The hundreds of brave soldiers and marines who became human shields while thousands of our citizens were evacuated.

-The American pilots who sat on the Kabul runway for hours, in 100-degree heat, ready to take off at a moment’s notice.

-The pilots who overrode recommendations, and packed their planes with refugees, flying thousands to safety. 

-The retired Special Forces, Green Berets and Navy SEALs who refused to let their fellow Americans and former Afghan fall prey to the Taliban.  They got no help from the U.S. government, which in some cases trying to obstruct their rescue missions. Some organized evacuation flights. Others headed back to Afghanistan, crept into Kabul and rescued their former colleagues and brought them to the airport checkpoint. Once that route was shut, still others spirited American citizens across the border out of Afghanistan. 

That is the fundamental truth of our founding fathers understood, that often gets lost in the minutiae of politics of the moment. 

They understood the nature of Americans. We are so busy building our own lives that we tend to leave the governing to our elected officials.  People around the world often confuse that with the idea that Americans are soft, lazy and spoiled. But underneath that layer of seeming unconcern is a backbone of steel. We are often slow to act, oftentimes we only act when forced to. 

But when that happens, we prove our mettle. The can-do spirit, the self-reliance built into our national DNA, our resiliency. We improvise, we innovate, we may break a few rules, but we do not accept defeat.

Our adversaries should take note – America has been gut-punched in the past…Pearl Harbor…Sputnik…the Berlin Airlift…Saigon…Sept. 11th…and now Kabul. Every time our enemies danced with glee, predicting with great confidence our inevitable decline. They were wrong every single time. 

Rather than accept defeat, we got up off our knees, dusted ourselves off and climbed our way out of the tragedy… to greater achievement, prosperity and purpose. That’s what our adversaries never understand about us.  Defeat doesn’t doom the American spirit, it reinvigorates it.

I am reminded of what Japanese Admiral Isoroku Yamamoto said to his colleagues after as they celebrated their utter destruction of the American fleet at Pearl Harbor.  He said, “I fear all we have done is to awaken a sleeping giant and fill him with a terrible resolve.”   

Four years later the United States almost single handedly defeated the combined forces of Japan, Germany and Italy. 

Our adversaries shouldn’t count us out this time. And neither should we. 

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