9/11 at 20

Two decades after a day we'll not forget.

Through the vagaries of my reading habits and propensity to go down rabbit holes, I’ve managed to crank out two posts this morning reflecting back on April 2003 on the 20th anniversary of the 9/11 terrorist attacks that launched the so-called Forever Wars.

Given how many twenty-year reflections have already poured out and will doubtless post today, I doubt I have anything unique to contribute. I was on my way to my office at Troy State, which is on Central Time, when I heard news that the first plane had struck the tower and had the initial impression that it must have been a small plane. By the time I arrived and had my first cup of coffee with Steven Taylor, it became clear that something far more sinister had happened. We spent most of the day watching the events unfold on television (classes were soon canceled) and the next few days talking through the events with students, putting on a panel discussion for the school, and the like. I moved to the DC area just ahead of the first anniversary.

Otherwise, we’ve reflected quite a bit on the events of that day and our reaction to it over the years. Mostly, as it turns out, by our late co-blogger, Doug Mataconis. (I’m not much of an anniversary guy.

FILED UNDER: National Security, Terrorism, , , , ,
James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm veteran. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. CSK says:

    I was eating breakfast in Amherst, Mass., having just helped my parents move into their new home, when I heard about the first plane crashing into the WTC. I too thought it was a terrible accident involving a small plane. I quickly found out otherwise.

  2. EddieInCA says:

    I was working in Hagerstown, Maryland. I knew something was wrong before I became aware of what had happened.

    Every day, when I got to work, I would log in to AOL Instant Messenger, and have chat with my younger cousin, Frank, who worked at WTC1. When Iogged on at 8:50, he wasn’t online. I called him, but it went immediately to voicemail, which was additionally odd.

    About one minute latet, my sister in law texted me “Turn on CNN”. The moment I saw the video, my first thought was “Frank.” His office was on the 91st floor, right where the first plane hit.

    The neighborhood in Queens, where Frank lived, and where I grew up, named a street in his honor. He was a very good young man. 20 years, and I miss him every day. I almost raised him. His dad died when he was two. It just sucks. Still.


  3. Gustopher says:

    It’s possible that we will never forget, but we really should.

    9/11 was fetishized from the beginning, and that fetishization continues to this day. My niece will doubtless be posting her “never forget” pictures on Facebook, despite not being old enough to remember.

    It reminds me of the Field of Blackbirds. In 1389, the Serbian army stops the Ottomans in Kosovo, at amazing cost to themselves. It becomes part of their mythology, and the origin story Serbian nationalism. 600 years later, Serbs are massacring Albanians who lived in Kosovo when that nationalism is encouraged by Slobodan Milosevic.

    Or Ruby Ridge, but for people who aren’t white supremacists.

    I lived in New York at the time. I was working a mile or so north, and we all went out and crowded the street to watch towers burn. I breathed in ash for the next month. It wasn’t great. On the plus side, those were really hideous buildings, but that’s not much of a plus.

    Part of being strong is recognizing that sometimes things are unfair, and that you have to take a loss. You can work to prevent a future loss, you can roll with the punches and move on, or you can dwell on the loss until 600 years later you’re killing Albanians on the Field of Blackbirds.

    We’re not a strong country, we’ve been going for the Field of Blackbirds. We shouldn’t pass this legacy on to the next generations. This year, we should commemorate the end of the war. But then, let it fade. Briefly mention it at 25, and then forget about it, and let it be a weird footnote at 50.

  4. Andy says:

    I’m not much of an anniversary person either (fortunately for me, neither is my wife).

    But I always remember Vince Tolbert – a Navy Officer I knew and served with who died at the Pentagon. I have another friend who worked in 90 West and is still traumatized by her experiences that day. And I also remember all the friends and colleagues who died or suffered lasting physical, emotional or moral damage as a consequence of our post-9/11 actions.

  5. HarvardLaw92 says:


    Sincere condolences. He sounds like he was an amazing young man.

    Our offices are within a mile of the site, so most of us watched the day play out in real time. None of us will ever forget it.

    In many ways the financial industry and my segment of the legal profession in NYC were / are a sort of small family. Between Marsh, Cantor, Morgan, Sidley Austin, AON, FidTrust, etc. it seemed like everybody in the office knew someone or usually several someones lost in the towers. I mostly remember the sense of terror at the outset, followed by what seems in retrospect like being in a daze. I still only vaguely remember getting out of Manhattan. Little flashes here and there, but most of it just stubbornly refuses to be seen again. After that, I just remember the funerals. All of us attended so many of them, feeling like they’d never end and the world wouldn’t ever stop being grey again, which it never really did. We had the world before 9/11, and the one after.

    I’m with you. It still sucks. It never really stopped.

  6. DrDaveT says:

    I wish I could remember that day with appropriate emotions. Unfortunately, everything that happened in response — the Patriot Act, the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq, the endless security kabuki, the same people who are today fighting on the side of COVID in the name of freedom falling all over themselves to trade away some liberty for an illusion of security… Those have purged from my mind the momentary sense of unity and common purpose and fortitude in the face of adversity.

  7. EddieInCA says:


    A few more random thoughts:

    A. I drove down from Hagerstown, MD, where I was working, that same afternoon, trying to be there for my family, and try to find out something about my cousin. I knew there was no chance he was alive if he was in his office when the plane hit. But my family, his wife, and others had hope. I ddn’t sleep for close to 41 hours.

    B. My cousin, Orlando, who lived, and still does, in Gateway Plaza (right next to Ground Zero), thinking he was going to die when the towers came down as he huddled in the hallway of his building with most of his neighbors.

    C. That same cousin, telling me of his escape to Jersey via a ferry late in the afternoon of the 11th, describing the various body parts he saw. No humans attached to them, just a hand here, a leg there.

    D. The smell. The afternoon of the 11th, I couldn’t be closer than Chambers street. But the smell started around 14th street as I made my way downtown. I can’t describe the smell, but it’s burned in my brain. I’ve never smelled that before, and not since.

    E. The posters of the missing victims. They were everywhere downtown.

    F. Two days later, how normal everything was above 42nd Street. It was more somber than usual for sure, and maybe a few less people, but life pretty much returned to normal uptown fairly quickly.

    G. The heroism and bravery of the people working that smoldering, toxic pile – trying to find survivors and remnants.

  8. liberal capitalist says:

    I’ve got to say that I agree with some of the articles this week:

    1) Most everything we have done to respond to this has been wrong
    2) Our country may be permanently damaged due to our mismanagement of this response.
    3) 20 years of hate and war and 6 trillion of spending likely gave birth to the MAGA culture.

    An accounting: https://www.vox.com/22654167/cost-deaths-war-on-terror-afghanistan-iraq-911

    As for memories:
    * I was in an Arabic restaurant when all this went down. Needless to say, it cleared out very somberly as information developed.
    * Working for a very large tech company, people were trying to dial coworkers in New York with no success. I remembered that SMS likely would still work (as in 2001 we were not text-centric). I was able to get through, verified coworkers safe and blasted the entire company that they were well.