We still don’t know the story of what happened and why.
On the evening of September 10, 2001, New York police officer Adam Hernandez was on patrol in his Greenwich Village precinct when he saw a man smashing car windows with a hammer. It was a random act of violence by an apparently mentally unstable person.
Officer Hernandez did what he had to do. He went over to the man, disarmed him of the hammer, put his arm on the man’s shoulder and told him he was under arrest. Without any difficulty or resistance, he put the man in handcuffs as required by police policy, put him into the back of his squad car, and drove him to the station to book him for destruction of property.
The problem came when he had to bring him before a judge for arraignment. The man had no identification and refused to give his name. This led to a long wait while the arraignment judge decided what to do. Adam tried talking with the man, trying to coax a name or Social Security number or some other method of establishing his identity to see if he had any kind of record. Nothing was working. The tired officer was at the end of an eight-hour shift at the time he made the arrest, but it was four hours before he finally got a last name out of the man and was able to head home on the subway to the apartment on Manhattan’s Upper West Side where he lived in a two-room apartment with his mother.
I knew Officer Hernandez, because my wife and I had moved into the same 11th floor of the building on W102 Street when Adam was only two. Because his mother, an Argentine woman, had run away from an abusive husband before Adam was born, and there was no father in his life, I became a kind of unofficial “godfather” male figure to Adam, who related this 9/11 story to me.
Arriving home at 5 a.m. September 11, Adam said he was so exhausted that he tiptoed through the kitchen and living/dining room where his mother was sleeping on the sofa, pulled the wire out of the phone so it wouldn’t wake him, and collapsed into a deep sleep on his bed in the other room, leaving a note for his mother on the refrigerator saying he’d gotten home late and not to wake him for breakfast.
Marta Hernandez headed out at 7 a.m. to her job as personal secretary to Mexican novelist Carlos Fuentes.
At 8:45, the first jet hit the North Tower of the World Trade Center in Lower Manhattan. Of course, in no time, the news was all over town and Marta knew what had happened. It was shocking, but planes had struck tall buildings in Manhattan before, including a passenger plane that hit the top of the Empire State Building, so this being New York City, life went on.
But 18 minutes later, when a second plane flew in a perfect arc over New York Harbor and the Statue of Liberty and crashed smack on target into the South Tower of the twin 110-story buildings, it was clear that something terrible was happening. The two crashes were either deliberate, or some glitch was somehow causing planes to fly towards the towers. By 9:45, when a third passenger jet plowed at full speed into a side of the Pentagon in Arlington, Virginia, across from the White House and Congress in Washington, D.C., it was clear that the U.S. was under attack!
By that point everyone was glued to the news, or was out on the street watching the blazes and smoke from the two burning skyscrapers. Fifteen minutes after the Pentagon attack, to everyone’s astonishment, the South Tower shuddered and then collapsed, its floors pancaking down on each other and creating a massive cloud of concrete dust that spread rapidly through the streets of lower Manhattan.
Marta had by that point already called Adam repeatedly, only getting a busy signal. Frantic, she then called his precinct to ask about him, where the desk sergeant said sadly that everyone had gone up in the towers, which had just collapsed.
Devastated, she left her office and began slowly walking across Central Park towards home, the smoke from the burning towers clearly visible in the bright blue sky if she looked downtown. He son, she was certain, was in the collapsed buildings and dead. Arriving home, she went into his room, and saw his still form lying on his bed! Running to him, she shook him awake. “Adam, Adam!” she shouted, amid a mix of tears and laughter. “Adam, wake up. Don’t you know what’s going on. The World Trade tower has been hit by two passenger jets and have collapsed. It’s an attack!”
Adam leapt out of bed, switched on the TV, and saw those repeated clips that were being played of the towers falling and of the planes crashing. Frantically he plugged in his phone to find dozens of calls from his precinct demanding that he “Get your ass down here asap!”
Throwing on his wrinkled uniform, he ignored the elevator, running down the 11 flights of stairs and out onto Broadway, where he flagged down a cop car. “I have to get to my precinct in Greenwich Village,” he shouted. He was then relayed rapidly from one squad car to another until he got to his precinct station. Walking into the assembly room of his station, he saw rows of stupefied cops sitting facing him in the doorway, their eyes aimed up at the TV screen mounted above the door frame. They were watching the same horror he had viewed in his apartment, but knowing many of their fellow officers had been in the North Tower.
I recount this story because Adam also told me another one. Like many police and firefighters in New York City, Adam spent over a month in the rubble of the Twin Towers, digging by hand through the debris being pulled out and hauled away, primarily tasked with trying to find bone fragments or other identifying material that could allow as many as possible of the victims to be identified by name. Tiny fragments of bone the size of fingernails were found, which DNA analysis could usually link to individual people. But Adam also saw something else — a work team near him clearing the rubble discovered an intact but crushed orange aircraft “black box.” He said he watched as that important item was carefully brought out of the rubble site and deposited in a black government SUV, which drove off with it.
Now, I’m pretty certain that there were four of those boxes in that rubble. The things are made of steel designed to withstand a fire of 1,800 degrees Fahrenheit, hotter than the fires caused by burning jet fuel in the two buildings, and are supposed to remain intact even in a head-on-crash between two jets each flying at each other each at over 500 miles per hour. They might not have still had obtainable data, but they had to have been there. Fully 66% of the 2,733 who died in the World Trade Center buildings were identified, mostly by those tiny bone fragments located by people like Officer Hernandez. That those workers wouldn’t have found all four of the black boxes, working and with recoverable information about flight details and voice communication or not, is hard to believe. That they found none of them is inconceivable. And yet that is what the Transportation Safety Administration and the FBI are claiming.
Now put all that aside for a moment.
What happened on 9/11 was a watershed moment politically in America. Never since the War of 1812, when a British force came up the Potomac River and burned the New White House to the ground had such an attack on the U.S. occurred. There was Pearl Harbor of course, but Hawaii was at the time just a U.S. colony, not a part of the United States itself. That surprise attack, which destroyed part of the U.S. Pacific Fleet at anchor in Pearl Harbor, was sufficient to overcome anti-war sentiment and allow Congress to pass a declaration of war on Germany, Italy and Japan.
The attack on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, which killed more people, mostly civilians, than the one on Pearl Harbor, resulted in the U.S. launching two illegal wars: The first was the War on Terror, which effectively began on September 14, 2001, when Congress passed an Authorization for Use of Military Force (AUMF) resolution against terrorism in what was considered a global battlefield, including not just Afghanistan, but even the domestic United States. The second was a War on Afghanistan, which began on October 7 when the U.S. launched a massive bombing campaign on that nation of 40 million mostly desperately poor people — a war which only just ended 20 years later, earlier this month when the U.S. gave up and pulled the last troops out of the country.
Not content to batter and slaughter one of the poorest nations in the world, none of whose citizens had been involved in the 9/11 attacks or any other attack on the U.S. or U.S. interests or citizens abroad, Congress also on October 26 of 2001 passed into law the Uniting and Strengthening America by Providing Appropriate Tools Required to Intercept and Obstruct Terrorism Act (USA Patriot Act). It might more appropriately be called the Attack on the Bill of Rights and Constitution Act, as it effectively gutted the Constitution and its Bill of Rights in the name of protecting the nation from terrorism, granting stunning police state powers to law enforcement at the federal, state and local level.
The U.S. destroyed the Al Qaeda organization which had operated a few training camps in Afghanistan before the 9/11 attacks, and drove survivors, including leader Osama Bin Ladin, into Pakistan and other countries. The U.S. also quickly ousted from power and drove into the rugged hinterland of Afghanistan the Taliban government it accused (with no evidence) of having knowingly allowed Al Qaeda to plan and organize the 9/11 attacks. The Taliban regrouped quickly and began a 20-year war of resistance against the U.S. occupation, ultimately wearing the U.S. down and forcing it to give up the effort and leave the country.
The Patriot Act and the 2001 AUMF, however, two decades later both remain in force. These two laws have allowed a U.S. Supreme Court majority dominated by profoundly anti-libertarian-minded Republican-appointed justices to argue that the U.S. is still technically “at war” and that this means the president has virtually unlimited dictatorial powers to rule by executive order — something that presidents from Republicans George W. Bush and Donald Trump to Democrats Barack Obama and Joe Biden have used to an unprecedented and shameless extent over that period, particularly through the use of Presidential Executive Orders.
Although some leading Democrats in Congress, worried about the possible return to the White House in 2025 of the twice-impeached former President Trump, have lately begun moving to try and pass some kind of legislation limiting the president’s powers, it is noteworthy that they have not sought to repeal the Patriot Act, or to put an end to the 2001 AUMF and the so-called War on Terror. One reason is likely that current Democratic President Biden and his White House cabinet and staff want for themselves the executive powers granted by those two legislative measures, particularly as they look at polls showing that the 2022 Congressional elections could well produce Republican majorities in both the House and the Senate.
Hanging onto the AUMF and the ironically named Patriot Act is a fool’s bargain though, and a betrayal of all of their oaths of office for Biden and the Democrats to allow those two anti-democratic measures to remain in force simply for their own short-term political advantage. Until both measures are tossed into the dust bin of history, no one can with a straight face claim that the U.S. is remotely a democratic nation.
It became a common trope in the U.S., both in political speeches by U.S. leaders and by a corporate media that for the most part has uncritically parroted the government line about the threat of terrorism, that “9/11 changed everything.” Indeed in the maudlin and shallow news reports leading up to and on the date of 9/11 this year, that line is still being repeated. It is correct, but not in the way these people in government and media have intended, and not for the better.
It’s not that the world has become a more dangerous place. Except for the U.S.’s aggressive pressures along the borders of Russia and China, and the new nuclear arms race, including in space, with China and Russia, the most dangerous thing the world faces is climate change, not terrorism. Meanwhile, the biggest threat to peace in the world today, if one judges that by what country is killing the most people, and dropping the most bombs, and starting the most illegal wars, as well as selling and otherwise providing the most lethal weapons to other countries or to people trying to overthrow their own governments by force, it is the United States.
What has changed is that over the last 20 years: the American public has become less interested or even aware of the destructive behavior of their own government, less concerned about the ballooning size of the U.S. military — which now receives and spends half of the entire discretionary federal budget — and less trusting of the federal government or anything it says.
What has also changed, and this is a huge issue, is that mainstream journalism is still where most Americans get information on which they base their voting and their political views. Those increasingly corporate and concentrated media that remain have almost ceased to perform the traditional role of watchdog over government. Instead they have become rank providers of entertainment, purveyors of opinion instead of knowledge, and propaganda vehicles for government. This is particularly true when it comes to international affairs, where the U.S. government position is accepted as truth, whether it’s about alleged “poison gas” attacks in Syria, Russian “aggression” in Ukraine, Iranian “support for terrorism” in the Middle East, describing the Taliban victors in Afghanistan as “terrorists” instead of as national liberators, or portraying Israel as a victim of Palestinian terror, and not as a brutal occupier and enforcer in captive Palestinian territory.
Speaking personally, I can say until 2001 happened, I was often invited onto news programs — even in early 2001 before the September attacks, when I was featured in a story I did about government spying on the CBS Evening News with Dan Rather. But since those attacks, not only have I, and other journalists critical of the government, become persona non grata in corporate media. I have found myself more recently listed on the FBI-run Terrorism Watch List — a list which by the FBI’s own admission is unvetted, includes over a million names, and consists of anyone whose name was “nominated” by any federal agency, and which offers no way to challenge that listing, or even to find out what federal agency did the dirty work of making a false accusation.
The sad truth is that the tragedy of 9/11 — an attack that was orchestrated by a man, Osama Bin Ladin, who was initially trained and funded by the U.S. CIA as part of a concerted campaign to violently oust the Soviet Union from Afghanistan where it was supporting a Communist-led government that was, among other things, guarantying the rights of women — has been successfully used by powerful people of both parties in Washington as an excuse and opportunity to destroy civil liberties, concentrate power in the Executive Branch of the government, stifle public debate on the behavior of police and the military, expand intrusive spying and monitoring of the entire citizenry, and to continue to expand the budget of the military to levels not seen since World War II in constant dollars.
Incredibly, there has been no real investigation into how 9/11 was even allowed to happen (the 9/11 Commission put nobody under oath, had no subpoena power, and accepted FBI and CIA statements and the statement of other witnesses at face value). Left unanswered, or even unasked, are things like: How did 19 Arabs, nearly all of them from Saudi Arabia like their leader Bin Ladin, manage with minimal flight training to hijack four jumbo jets simultaneously and to successfully fly three of them precisely into the two World Trade Center towers and the Pentagon — a feat that most pilots say would have required a high degree of skill? Why did the steel and concrete towers even collapse as if by controlled demolition explosions? (The burning aircraft fuel would not have been hot enough to melt the steel supports and most of the fuel burned off quickly in those crashes.) Why did nearby Tower Seven, which was not hit by a plane at all, collapse in the same manner over nine hours later? Why was the U.S. air defense system shut down nationwide when those planes were hijacked, so no air defense could be mounted? How (or why?) did the flight recorders of the planes that hit the WTC vanish? (See my report on that issue in Counterpunch magazine.) Why was nobody in government sacked at a minimum for gross negligence over the attacks? (The CIA Director, FBI Director and the Pentagon Leadership all kept their jobs, got promotions, and in CIA Director George Tenet’s case, even got a medal from President Bush!)
There are many other questions too numerous to list about that fateful day and days that followed, none of which has been answered. They must be answered if we are to ever get back what democratic rights and governance we had in the U.S. before 9/11.
I personally am not inclined toward conspiratorial thinking. I believe that the idea that some “permanent government” in the U.S. orchestrated the attacks on the Pentagon and the headquarters of U.S. capitalism in lower Manhattan is fanciful and unlikely. I don’t believe it because it would have required a vast conspiracy and someone would by now have blown the whistle afterwards, if not while it was being planned. I do think it is possible that certain key people in government may have known that some kind of attack was planned and decided to let it happen. I cannot prove this though. It’s just a theory.
What I can say with confidence, based simply upon my own reporting in my Counterpunch story, is that the true story of what happened on 9/11 is not the one officially put out by our government, and used to justify the just ended 20-year war on Afghanistan.
Some 170,000 Afghans have been killed by U.S. military action in America’s War on Afghanistan. The Watson Center on the Costs of War at Brown University estimates conservatively that at least 50,000 of those killed were civilians, mostly in air strikes, drone strikes and night raids by U.S. troops. Many of them were elders, women and children. Not all of the rest were Taliban, as the Taliban fighters never numbered more than 35,000 fighters at their peak and during the early years of the war they numbered only in the low thousands. So it’s a good guess that actually the majority of the rest of those killed in the war were not fighters at all, but civilian men — what the Pentagon antiseptically calls “collateral damage.”
The Taliban fighters themselves, alive and dead, have never been called anything by the U.S. media and by the U.S. government other than “terrorists,” though what they actually were was defenders of their country from an outside invader. U.S. media coverage of the 20th anniversary of 9/11 in the U.S. have said precious little about all these Afghan deaths or about the suffering of their surviving families. Meanwhile, by the time the last uniformed American had gotten on a plane and hightailed it from Afghanistan on the night of August 31, the death toll of American soldiers, Marines and airmen in that pointless war, who have been the focus of a lot of the media coverage this weekend, had hit 2,821.
Adam Hernandez is still a NYPD officer. He suffers from permanent lung damage, a result of the work he did in the dusty, smoking ruins of the collapsed Towers — damage caused by the presence of large amounts of asbestos dust and other contaminants in the dust of those collapses. He loves his job but plans to retire in two more years when he can receive his full pension for 40 years of service to the City of New York.
Dave Lindorff has written for The Nation, Salon, London Review of Books, and Counterpunch. He is founder of ThisCantBeHappening.net. Author of four books, he was a 1990s Hong Kong/China correspondent for Business Week. He is the winner of a 2019 Izzy Award for Outstanding Independent Journalism.
Photo by Keith Goldstein / Getty Images.