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After terrorists in hijacked planes brought down New York City’s World Trade Center 20 years ago, a little-known government agency investigated the structural collapse of the 110-story Twin Towers.
Its work helped change building design, wrote S. Shyam Sunder, who headed the study by the National Institute of Standards and Technology. Construction became “more resilient,” he noted – wider stairways with harder enclosures, more fire resistant structural frames, tougher fireproofing materials, more robust emergency radio communications capability.
But while NIST’s findings led to more than 40 major changes to US building and fire safety codes, Sunder wrote, they weren’t aimed at fortifying buildings to withstand the impact of aircraft. “It would be better instead to keep terrorists away from airplanes, and airplanes away from buildings.”
On September 11, passengers on the hijacked Flight 93 foiled the terrorists’ plan to crash it into a target in Washington, DC. As former President George W. Bush said Saturday at a memorial where their plane came down in Shanksville, Pa., “Facing an impossible circumstance, they comforted their loved ones by phone, braced each other for action, and defeated the designs of evil.”
To fight terrorism, the US plowed billions into air security, establishing safeguards familiar to every passenger today.
These precautions made the US safer from one kind of deadly enemy. Not surprisingly, they were useless against another, which health experts had long predicted: the new respiratory virus that spread around the world, carried on planes and through buildings big and small, at the beginning of 2020.
Terrorism is still a lethal threat. The lives lost on September 11, 2001 remain a national heartbreak. For many Americans, it has been a long time since they felt really safe.
Today a raging Covid-19 pandemic is reshaping the US and the world. The new concerns that keep people up at night are about the health of family and friends, overcrowded hospitals, breakthrough infections and the risks unvaccinated children may face.
“Many of us started the summer fully vaccinated and ready to celebrate,” wrote Dr. Megan Ranney, an associate professor of emergency medicine. “I booked tickets for work and family trips, left my mask at home when seeing friends, and took a deep sigh of relief that the worst seemed to be behind us.”
“But now Covid-19 cases are rising at my hospital. My colleagues and I are worried about kids going back to school while so many are ineligible for vaccination. Many businesses are telling their workers to stay home a bit longer. Daily infection rates are more than three times higher than they were last Labor Day in the US – and in the coming days and weeks, we could be met with still higher infection rates as Covid cases that were picked up on Labor Day travels are detected.”
The truth is, “our world is never going back to pre-Covid ‘normal.’ The sooner we accept that, the sooner we can move forward.”
President Joe Biden announced a six-point plan Thursday to get ahead of the galloping pandemic. Ranney wrote that it “doubles down on many of the things that we know work to reduce the spread of the virus – vaccines, testing and masking. But it also leaves some holes,” without paying sufficient attention to improving building ventilation, community outreach to reduce racial health inequities, clearer messaging and better data gathering.
Biden’s public standing is slipping, partly because of the virus. A new CNN poll found that 70% of Americans are very or somewhat worried about the pandemic in their local community, compared to 60% last summer. People are now less likely to endorse Biden’s handling of the coronavirus – 56% approve, compared to 66% in April.
“Americans are plainly unnerved by the pandemic’s persistence, but the administration’s miscues haven’t helped,” observed Peter Nicholas in the Atlantic. “Messages from government officials have zigzagged between dread and overconfidence. A unified government response has frayed as the White House continues to clash with federal agencies eager to affirm their independence in the post-Trump era. Even as Biden vows to let science steer the fight against COVID-19, politics also seems to have influenced his strategy.”
America’s extreme level of partisanship has complicated the picture. “The United States is hardly the only place where some people are afraid of vaccines, angry at pandemic restrictions, open to wild conspiracy theories, and distrustful of experts,” wrote Frida Ghitis. “But there’s one key reason why the world’s wealthiest nation, home to many of the planet’s top public health experts, is the red-hot bubbling epicenter of a pandemic that just won’t quit. The US is one of a few major countries where the people pushing against common sense measures hold positions of power, where they can shape policy, influence large swaths of the population, and weaponize the pandemic for their own political benefit.”
Some red-state governors, eager to win the support of former President Donald Trump’s base and damage Biden, are standing in the way of the steps needed to fight the pandemic, Ghitis noted, and voices in conservative media are spreading misinformation that can prove deadly. “Those who are promoting false cures and pushing against vaccines and masks to improve their political prospects are contributing to thousands of new deaths, destabilizing the economy, and keeping the rest of us from getting back our lives.”
The US now won’t get back to full employment until 2023, predicted Mark Zandi, chief economist of Moody’s Analytics, in the CNN Business Perspectives section. “It appears it will take another 18 months for the economy to be free and clear of the impact of Covid-19,” wrote Zandi.
Citing weakening economic forecasts, Jill Filipovic wrote, “We know who is responsible… As businesses shutter, parents are forced out of work, Americans have fewer dollars to spend and fewer places to spend them, and life as we used to know drifts ever further out of our reach, let’s be clear about who is responsible: the anti-vaxxers, anti-maskers and their proponents in conservative media and in the Republican Party.”
The point of Trump
As Americans paid solemn tribute Saturday to the nearly 3,000 people killed on 9/11, Donald Trump provided commentary on a boxing match. (Earlier in the day, he commemorated the anniversary of the attacks with visits to police and firefighters in Manhattan and a video.)
As Robert E. Lee’s statue was being removed from Monument Avenue this week in Richmond, Va., Trump praised the defeated Confederate general’s command of strategy, lamenting that he wasn’t alive to lead the war in Afghanistan.
“No one can know what is in the man’s heart as he rails against removing symbols of the racist Confederate rebellion or urges folks to tune in for his boxing analysis on the somber day when America remembers the terrorist attacks of 9/11,” wrote Michael D’Antonio. “But as a performance, these moves communicate Trump’s commitment to those in his base who may not only agree with him on specific issues but, more significantly, love the tone he strikes…
“Trump’s boorishness is the point. As it provokes outrage from the political mainstream, it aligns him with those who may feel alienated in a world that has been upended by economic and social change.”
On September 11, 2001, Kelly McHugh-Stewart was 10 and living in southern Germany, where her father served in the US Army. “That afternoon, helicopters from the Army post flew low above our neighborhood, the loud thud, thud, thud, thud of their blades slicing through the silent streets,” she recalled. “I was scared and remember worrying about my dad. Giebelstadt Army Airfield went on lockdown and I was nervous he would never be able to come home from work.”
She was 18 when a convoy carrying her father, Colonel John M. McHugh, was attacked by a suicide bomber in Kabul. “The attack killed more high-ranking officers than the war had seen in its then-nine years, and the Taliban took credit for it immediately.” McHugh-Stewart’s first child, due soon, will never meet her father.
“Though the United States involvement in Afghanistan ended on August 31, my son will feel the war’s ripples. As he grows up with only stories about his grandfather, the man he’ll share a name with, the Forever War will haunt him in ways that, over the past decade, they’ve haunted me. I’m already bracing for the day he starts asking questions. ‘Why did he have to die?’ he may ask. I wish I had a good answer.”
In the two decades following 9/11, the US military acted “in seven Muslim countries — in Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya, Pakistan, Somalia, Syria and Yemen — at the cost of at least $6 trillion and more than 7,000 American lives,” noted Peter Bergen.
“Tens of thousands of soldiers from countries allied to the United States died, as did hundreds of thousands of ordinary Afghans, Iraqis, Libyans, Pakistanis, Somalis, Syrians and Yemenis who were also killed during the so-called ‘war on terror.’ All of this carnage was traceable back to Osama bin Laden’s decision to launch the 9/11 attacks.” Bin Laden’s goal was to drive the US out of the Middle East, but his attack on New York and Washington had the opposite effect, and it led to his own death at the hands of US special forces 10 years ago, Bergen wrote.
On 9/11, Dean Obeidallah saw “the tragedy unfold as I stood on the corner of 8th Street and 6th Avenue in lower Manhattan. If I close my eyes, I can still picture the crystal blue sky of that September morning shattered by the gray and white smoke billowing from the North Tower of the World Trade Center, the only one of the towers still standing when I walked outside. And then, suddenly, that tower buckled and was gone within seconds, leaving behind only a blue sky and the sense that America would never be the same.
“I didn’t talk about being of Arab heritage for many months. I was a stand-up comedian at the time, and used my middle name Joseph, in lieu of my last name, in the first shows after 9/11 to distance myself further. In time, however, I went from the reluctant minority to a proud and unapologetic one. In between, though, I learned first-hand what White privilege was – because mine was revoked.
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“My skin color didn’t change on 9/11. But the way that I and many in my community have been treated by society since that tragic day 20 years ago has dramatically changed – in a way that was completely out of our hands…
“I can’t tell you how often people, from politicians to pundits, demanded that Arab and Muslim Americans denounce these terrorists from other parts of the world who we had no personal connection to except sharing an ethnicity or faith. ‘Why are we responsible for them?’ is a question I would ask. As I traveled across the country in 2012-2013 making the comedy documentary, ‘The Muslims are Coming!,’ I learned that if we didn’t speak up, many of our fellow Americans truly thought – insultingly – that we agreed with the terrorists.”
Kimberly Rex: When people say ‘Never Forget’ 9/11, this is what I hear
Rafia Zakaria: For American Muslims, 9/11 anniversary opens much older wounds
How you mess with Texas
Ayelet Haimson Lushkov, an associate professor at the University of Texas at Austin, is outraged by Texas’ new SB 8 law, which “bans abortions once a fetal heartbeat is detected at around six weeks and effectively outsources enforcement to private citizens empowered to sue anyone ‘aiding and abetting’ an abortion.” The US Supreme Court declined to stop the bill from taking effect, but the Biden administration went to court Thursday to block it, saying the law violates the Constitution. Lushkov wrote that she also objects strongly to other measures adopted by her state’s Republican-controlled government, including new restrictions on voting rights.
“But the answer is not to cut Texas loose from the rest of the country, or to leave the state,” she noted.
“The new wave of legislation from this Republican government, should be seen not as representative of all Texans, but rather as an attempt to assert dominance from the right onto a reality that is very much in flux. People of color drove 95% of Texas’ population growth in 2020… the diverse new influx may well make the political landscape more fluid than it has been in nearly two decades…
“We have a fast-growing economy, diverse and energetic populations, wonderful cities, world-class universities, good food and the live music capital of the world. We even play some football. If you want to help, come take advantage of all Texas has to offer. Come live here, learn to know this brash and complicated state, invest in state-level races, organize for causes you believe in and, at the very least, make this state a place you care about all year round, and not only when we make the news. That is how lasting change is made. That is how you mess with Texas.”
“After witnessing the earth-shattering 9/11 attacks on US soil, many of us felt we would never be the same again,” wrote Keith Magee. “The world order had somehow changed, and so had we as Americans.”
“Soon, thousands of US soldiers would be deployed to Afghanistan in pursuit of a set of illusory goals – often unclear to the long-suffering people of that distant country, the American public and even American and allied leaders.”
The lesson of the war, he wrote, is that “we cannot simply impose our system of government on countries with vastly different cultures, histories, belief systems, outlooks and ambitions. Biden was right to withdraw US troops… If we want to uphold the blessings of democracy, perhaps America should be looking inward – building up our own nation.” And “if we believe that a strong, stable democracy is the best form of government, then we need to start by making sure that we actually have one that inspires others.”
In Afghanistan, the Taliban named Sirajuddin Haqqani as acting interior minister, underlining “just how hard-line the new Taliban government is going to be,” wrote Peter Bergen. “Haqqani is the first member of al Qaeda to be elevated to a cabinet position anywhere in the world. He is also on the FBI’s most-wanted list. The Bureau has a $5 million reward for information leading to his arrest, while the US State Department is offering up to $10 million. The only terrorist with a higher price on his head is al-Qaeda’s current leader, Ayman al Zawahiri.”
Nhial Deng watched the chaos at Kabul’s airport on TV and “empathized with the many Afghans who were fleeing their country amid violence.” At the time, the 22-year-old South Sudanese refugee was packing up “and saying goodbye to friends at the Kakuma refugee camp, in Kenya, the only home I have known for the last 11 years.” Deng wrote, “Although the number of refugees in the world continues to grow at a disturbing rate, their lives remain a mystery to many people. More than anything, the world should know that we are not villains, and we are much more than victims — we are humans.” Read his compelling account of fleeing war and building a new life.
Julian Zelizer: What 9/11 tells us about unifying America
Shannon Watts: The other serious back-to-school threat
Joe Lockhart: Biden has every right to dismiss Kellyanne Conway
Caroline Polisi: Elizabeth Holmes’ surprising defense
Lincoln Mitchell: Is Larry Elder a gift to Gavin Newsom?
A new FX series, “Impeachment: American Crime Story” reaches back past Trump’s two impeachments to the aftermath of President Bill Clinton’s affair with Monica Lewinsky, a White House intern. SE Cupp noted that this version of the infamous story is different because it is finally “Monica’s moment.”
“Over the years, Lewinsky has impressively and gracefully maneuvered the impossible circumstances of her accidental life – the one where she was cruelly mocked and ridiculed, painted as a slut, defined by a single year of her life and forever associated with another man’s scandalous actions.”
“How anyone could emerge from all of that a whole and healthy person is unimaginable. And yet, Lewinsky has devoted her second life, the one that is entirely her own, to combating cyber bullying, child bullying and sexual harassment. Not without deep scars, however.”
The series’ first episode, wrote historian Nicole Hemmer, “revolves tellingly around a network of women who laid the groundwork (some more willingly than others) for Clinton’s impeachment. By mapping that network, the series transforms a key episode in American history from one about the flaws of men into one about the agency of women. Seen from this vantage point, it becomes a story of power, politics, social relations and sex that is as much a product of the 2020s as it is a reflection on the 1990s…”
“It is not a whitewashed retelling, a story in which women, now in the spotlight, are relentlessly noble. They are flawed – some vindictive, cutthroat and scheming – and at other times uncertain or oblivious. But they are fully realized characters who exist not only to advance a storyline, but to be the story. Because Clinton’s impeachment was always as much about this network of women as it was about the men who too often were treated as its only stars.”