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20 Years Later: Why we can't throw in the towel

I grew up in the suburbs of New York City, just miles from the World Trade Center. My memories of September 11th, 2001 remain crystal clear.

I was a Dwight-Englewood School freshman, heading into 2nd period history class. Rumors were swirling around the hallways that a plane had hit the Twin Towers. We assumed it was a devastating but accidental plane crash. Terrorism wasn’t even on our radar.

In 3rd period gym class, concern started to mount. My mom worked for a financial institution not far from the World Trade Center, so I was relieved when our gym teacher approached and said my parents were on their way to pick me up.

My parents and I drove home, silent and scared, hanging on every word being broadcast over the AM radio. Whenever we drove under a highway overpass, the devastating news turned to static, before coming in clear again. Even today, hearing static on the radio catapults me back to that moment. There's one point along the drive, near Goffle Road on Route 208, where Manhattan's skyline is in full view. It was something I always looked forward to seeing; its beauty never gets old. But on this day, alarming billows of smoke ascended into the piercingly blue sky.

Seventy-five degree, clear sky days also remind me of September 11th. That’s how picture perfect the weather was when we pulled into our driveway. The juxtaposition always struck me – that such a hellish act of terror was carried out on such a brilliantly beautiful day. In fact, as I sit outside writing this now, the weather is just as perfect. I hate that the thousands of innocent people who died that day aren’t around to experience it.

I spent the rest of the day sitting on the floor and staring at the grisly images appearing on TV. The towers tumbling to the ground in a cloud of smoke. The fire. People running. My mom had crossed the George Washington Bridge into Manhattan moments after the first tower was struck. Police were shutting down the bridge, but she pleaded for them to let her back across, to be with her children. Thankfully they let her. It was also my dad’s 49th birthday. I certainly don’t remember celebrating.

View of the billowing smoke from the George Washington Bridge. Courtesy: Getty Images

The morning of September 12th, I’ll never forget the New York Times’ chilling front page images. I tear up just thinking about them. The Twin Towers in flames. The firefighters. The ashes.

New York Times cover, September 12, 2001. Courtesy: New York Times

Then, on page 7, a chilling photo of a man wearing in a suit, plunging to his death. It’s not fair. Lives—and innocence—were stolen from us.

The Falling Man. Courtesy: AP

Whenever I see a pre-9/11 image of the NYC skyline, it reminds me of my childhood. But now, our iconic skyline had a big hole. A void to be filled - by getting back at the [insert expletives] responsible for the attacks.

Footprint of the World Trade Center, 2004. Courtesy: AP

Cue soundtrack change from Alan Jackson’s “Where Were You When the World Stopped Turning” to Toby Keith’s “Courtesy of the Red, White and Blue”.

Which we did. After searching for nearly 10 years, Navy SEALS finally located and killed Osama bin Laden, and dropped his weighted body to the bottom of the ocean.

But in the 10 years since, it’s almost like our collective memory of 9/11 dropped to the bottom of the ocean along with bin Laden. Most Americans have at least a vague idea of what happened that day, but for many, the significance of it has faded. It’s convenient to treat killing Osama bin Laden as the end of the story.

Unfortunately, it was merely the end of a chapter. The subsequent chapters would probably talk about how one side got complacent, giving the other side an opportunity to regain their strength and rebuild. The current chapter? The Taliban, who funded al-Qaeda, lest anyone forget, controls Afghanistan again.

America seems to feel it’s time to hand in our “world police” badge. Whether it’s due to guilt or fatigue or some other woke principle, people just don’t see the use. They associate “Team America” with colonizing, nation-building, and meddling in others' business. But guess what? When we serve as world police, it’s not because we want everyone eating McDonald’s, scoring touchdowns and shopping at Walmart. As great as all of that is. It’s because we believe that every person deserves to be free. And we’re fighting against the tyrants of the world who don’t. But if we hand in our badge, there’s no question we’ll lose the fight. We don’t have a choice to keep fighting.

So how can we fix this?

First, we need to reflect. Appreciate the freedom and democracy we enjoy every day. To do that, we probably need a refresher history lesson on the nightmares of those who lived in Maoist China, Stalinist Russia, and all the immigrants who fled those places for America. I guarantee they don’t think we should sit back and do nothing.

Then we need to realize that our enemies will never give up. They hate us and our way of life, and want our country to burn to smithereens. Bin Laden stated, “Terrorism against America deserves to be praised…We say that the end of the United States is imminent.” Let’s not let them do that. Let’s wake up, man up, and fight back, so by the time the 30th anniversary of 9/11 rolls around, we’re far better off than we are today.

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