Twenty years affords much space for reflection, producing memories and views molded by the passage of time. Revisiting the first hours and days following the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, reveals the instant, harrowing uncertainty so many felt. A review of The Journal Gazette's editorial pages the following week also reveals some deep and measured responses.
Sylvia Smith, The Journal Gazette's Washington editor at the time, could smell the still-smoldering fires at the Pentagon from her home 3 miles away. A neighbor, in a backyard conversation, told her the terrorists who flew planes into three buildings and a Pennsylvania field were not like Americans. “We don't grow those kind here,” the neighbor told Smith.
“Sadly, it's not true,” she wrote in a Sept. 16, 2001, column. “Our nation is littered with too many bloody examples of passion and conviction gone amok until it's twisted into something unrecognizable.”
Smith wrote that “passion, conviction, dedication and unwavering belief” can be wonderful things to witness until those responsible “stop celebrating the idea or thing they love and instead devalue everything.” She called out remarks from TV evangelist Jerry Falwell, who blamed the attacks on the “pagans, and the abortionists, and the feminists, and the gays and the lesbians.”
“I point the finger in their face and say 'you helped this happen,' ” Falwell said at the time.
Patrick Ashton, then a sociologist at Indiana University-Purdue University Fort Wayne, recognized the peril in some of the heated responses.
“Perhaps the greatest danger to Americans and the world is the current call for retribution,” Ashton wrote in an op-ed published five days after the attacks. “Talk radio is filled with fantasies of grisly vengeance. ... The danger is thinking that meeting violence with violence will ultimately solve anything.”
Ashton, former director of Peace and Conflict Studies at IPFW, cautioned that lasting security would come not from a violent response, but from “isolating terrorists from their sources of support by dealing constructively with the underlying grievances.”
Our letter-writers responded thoughtfully, as well.
“The people who did this are not true Muslims, they are a fanatical cult,” wrote Bob Rowe of Fort Wayne. “We should avoid a knee-jerkreaction against the millions of Muslims who are good and honest people.”
Bryan Peterson was still new to his job as a Fort Wayne firefighter.
“I feel as though I have lost members of my family and not just fellow countrymen,” he wrote in a letter to the editor. “Those were the people who answered calls for help when no one else was there to hear them.”
Our editorial board's observations two days after the attacks hold up well today, particularly in light of the just-completed withdrawal of U.S. forces from Afghanistan:
“Fighting terrorism promises to be an arduous, emotionally draining task requiring discipline, patience and an ability to tread the fine line that separates retaliation from revenge,” the editorial stated. “The talk of war is completely justified, but comparisons with Pearl Harbor are mistaken. A war against terrorism more closely resembles Vietnam than World War II – a three-dimensional chess match more than a football game.”
Twenty years later, those words seem prophetic.