She sat there frozen, her eyes glued to the TV screen. She watched in horror as smoke and debris filled the place where the World Trade Center once stood. A solemn feeling of grief sunk to the pit of her stomach, and tears pricked at her eyes. America as she knew it would never be the same.

American Airlines Flight 11 hit the North Tower of the World Trade Center 8:46 a.m. on Sept. 11, 2001. It collapsed on over a thousand civilians at 10:28 a.m., hundreds being killed on impact. At 9:03 a.m., the South Tower was hit by United Airlines Flight 175. 56 minutes later, it collapsed with hundreds still inside. At 9:37 a.m., American Airlines Flight 77 hit the Pentagon, killing 125 personnel inside the building. United Airlines Flight 93 crashed in Somerset County, Pennsylvania after passengers and crew tried to reclaim control of the plane from hijackers. Everyone aboard each aircraft lost their lives. 

Nearly 3,000 lives were taken that day, including 344 firefighters and 71 police officers. Thousands more were injured. 20 years later, Sept. 11 remains one of the deadliest terror attacks in world history. 

“I had just finished a staff meeting with my first period journalism class when one of my students came bursting through the door, telling me I needed to turn the news on immediately,” retired english teacher and journalism adviser Brenda Gorsuch said. “We saw it all happen on live television. It was quite a day. I’ll never forget it.” 

19 men affiliated with the Islamic extremist group al-Qaeda hijacked four U.S. passenger jets and executed suicide attacks on the World Trade Center and Pentagon. al-Qaeda’s founder, Osama bin Laden, took credit for the attacks, stating that he wanted to carry out what he described as a “decisive blow” to push American military forces out of Muslim-majority states. 

“American involvement in the Middle East preceded the 9/11 attacks,” international relations teacher at the North Carolina School of Science and Mathematics Mark Dubois said. “The Middle East is a source of oil, so the United States has been around for quite a long time. Osama bin Laden claimed that American involvement in the Middle East is part of the reason he did what he did. We made our presence known in the area, having interests there and helping arm some of the actors in that region. It’s not really surprising that it came back to bite us.”

The Bush administration declared a “War on Terror” days after initial attacks. They promised the American people that they would bring bin Laden and al-Qaeda to justice, and prevent future attacks. In a national address, President Bush called on world leaders to join the U.S. in its fight against terrorism. He demanded the Taliban to deliver bin Laden and al-Qaeda leaders to the United States, and when they refused, launched the first of many military campaigns targeting terrorists in Afghanistan. 

“When I first heard about the attacks I was shocked, but I was more concerned,” Dubois said. “I expected that President Bush would respond quickly and forcefully. I expected that the United States would find itself involved in a war pretty soon afterward. George W. Bush declared war on terror. There was no clear enemy. The enemy wasn’t just al-Qaeda or the Taliban. The enemy was an ideology, a tactic. It was terrorism and those who would use terrorism as a means to an end. That’s not an easy thing to fight.” 

As the War on Terror began in the Middle East, millions of Americans were living in a changed country and a changed world. 9/11 was the first attack on U.S. soil since Pearl Harbor, and many lived in constant fear of it happening again. As anniversaries come and go each year, Americans lie in wait for the next deadly foreign attack. 

“We get to live in Henderson County, and not be super worried about an attack like that happening to us,” Blake Redden, Captain at the Charlotte Fire Department said. “But when you work in a big city like Charlotte, you have to accept the fact that any day could be another 9/11. That any day or any emergency could be your last. It really puts my job in perspective.” 

Sept. 11 was the greatest loss of life for first responders ever recorded in the United States. Each year, the New York City Fire Department and the New York City Police Department hold memorial services for the hundreds of emergency responders who lost their lives on Sept. 11. People across the country make a point to honor and appreciate their local first responders and the risks they take to keep them safe. 

“When push comes to shove, we’re the ones running toward the danger when everyone else is running away,” Assistant Shift Supervisor for Haywood County EMS Ronnie Kilby said. “9/11 serves as a reminder that my job is worth it. The public takes a step back and perceives what the first responders of New York City did that day. It heightens my own awareness of what we pay as we clock into work each day. Of the risk that comes with it. Right around this time every year, appreciation for first responders ramps up. But there is a constant feeling of underappreciation when there isn’t a national spotlight on us.”

For many, the 9/11 attacks motivated them to get involved in the U.S. military. According to the United States Service Organizations, 181,510 Americans enlisted in the military in the year following the attacks. 

“I was sixteen when I watched the World Trade Center collapse on live television,” Afghanistan War veteran Karla Quast said. “I knew then that I wanted to get involved in any way I could. I carried a picture of the twin towers up in smoke in my pocket during my early days with the military. I didn’t want to get revenge, I just wanted to protect American lives the best I could. The fight was really important to me.” 

Almost 20 years after the 9/11 attacks, U.S. troops exited Afghanistan on Aug. 30, a little over two weeks after the Taliban quickly seized control of the Afghan government. They demanded the U.S. withdraw from the area before they faced unspecified consequences. For many, the war on terror was lost. 

“Parts of the war were successful, especially in terms of protecting the locals,” Quast said. “But at the end of it all, we’ll look back on it in fifty years and see many if not most elements of it being a failure. I don’t know what the future holds for us and what is left of the fight against terrorism. There were minor victories, but a major victory remains to be seen.” 

Some claim that the U.S. is cruelly abandoning the people of Afghanistan by removing their troops. They believe that withdrawing means surrendering to the Taliban and to terrorism, undoing all the hard work toward building democracy and obtaining more rights for the women of Afghanistan. Others celebrate the end of American involvement in its longest war, one that has taken the lives of thousands of service members. 

“I thought the Taliban taking over Afghanistan was inevitable. It’s what the analysts were expecting. But it happened much faster than we popularly understood. By removing our troops from Afghanistan, we are presumably saving American lives and saving money,” Dubois said. “We are hopefully not causing more unnecessary death and violence, as there are always unintended consequences of war. There’s concern about the strength of our leadership, and our support for allies. But in general, I think the pros outweigh the cons. Many Americans agree. There’s a trend throughout United States history where you can see moments of engagement and isolationism with the world. I think we’re more isolationist right now. There’s war weariness. A generation of soldiers who has had multiple deployments to Iraq, Afghanistan and elsewhere. There’s fatigue, and rightfully so. We’ve been in Afghanistan for a very, very long time.” 

The news of U.S. troops being withdrawn from Afghanistan came as a surprise to a lot of Americans. Many found themselves asking one simple question: What war? A 2018 poll conducted by the Charles Koch Institute found that only 44% of Americans could accurately say how long the U.S. had been occupying Afghanistan. Over the years, many have forgotten or not been aware there was a war in the first place. 

“Because the war on terror has gone on so long, it’s become a war that only politicians and journalists know about,” Gorsuch said. “The news will jump in every now and then with a story, but a lot of Americans didn’t even know there was a war. There wasn’t much new and ‘interesting’ to cover after bin Laden was killed. It’s really just been a huge drain on our federal budget, fighting a war that no one knows about.”

The war on terror is far from over, but today the United States takes a step back to honor those who lost their lives on Sept. 11, and Americans stand with their brothers and sisters against terrorism. 

“Everything happening in Afghanistan is hard to swallow, especially for the brave men and women that risked their lives to make the world a better place,” Quast said. “But we have to remind ourselves that we didn’t fail the victims of the 9/11 attacks. We did make the world a better place, even if it was just a little bit. All we can do is carry those people with us and never forget them.”

By: Emily Chambliss, Editor-in-Chief

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