On the 10th anniversary of the 9/11 attacks

Ten years ago this morning, I was awakened at dawn by a phone call from my grandmother in Queens, N.Y.

“I just wanted to make sure you all were OK,” she said.

“Uh, sure, why wouldn’t we be?” I asked groggily.

“They bombed New York and Washington,” she replied.

I turned on the television. Five minutes later I was in my car, speeding toward the newsroom, carrying images that remain burned in my brain to this day.

We all share them. Some of us dwell on them, some don’t. But all our lives have changed because of them.

We worked feverishly that day, trying to glean every nugget of information we could from sources everywhere from lower Manhattan to Oakland City Hall. It was the only time in my career that I’ve helped put an extra mid-day edition on the street without prior planning, a pell-mell blur of instant journalism.

For maybe 30 seconds each hour, each of us would suddenly stop, transfixed by the latest video clip, some new vantage point from which to watch those inexorable, murderous trajectories. Then we would wipe our eyes and go rushing back out the door or onto the phones.

Our stories in the following few days reflected on what it might bring. War? Domestic distrust? Impinged civil liberties? I’ve never been unhappier to have helped make accurate predictions.

We lost something that day. In some ways, ours has become a lesser nation.

That’s not to say we didn’t rise to the challenge. We were grievously attacked; we responded, and our enemies have paid dearly.

But think of the lexicon we’ve had to teach ourselves in the decade since. “Improvised explosive device.” “Up-armored Humvee.” “Threat level orange.” “Full-body scanner or pat-down search?” “PATRIOT Act.” “Ground Zero mosque.”

Maybe it’s that last one that bothers me most. I just saw it most recently just the other day in an e-mail update from Terry Jones, the execrable “man of God” from Florida who made a public name for himself by burning the Koran.

It’s not a mosque; it’s a community center with a prayer space. It’s not at Ground Zero; it’s two blocks away, about as far as the Off-Track Betting facility and the strip club.

More importantly, it’s in America, where we shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion.

And real Americans don’t burn books, damn it.

I’ve spent a big chunk of my professional life in the past 10 years investigating an organization called Your Black Muslim Bakery, a cross between a (dis)organized crime family and a religious cult of personality. Now defunct, its members engaged in kidnapping, extortion, torture and murder. My life was threatened as I reported on one of them this year.

Its name aside, the bakery had no more to do with Islam than the sub-humans who hijacked the planes. None were godly men; they were arrogant thugs – in one case driven by greed and power, in the other by hateful ideology – who murdered to make a point.

But we reward their evildoing and disgrace our national heritage when we paint others with the same brush.

Real Muslims don’t murder. Real Americans don’t automatically assume they do. And we shame the memories of our cherished dead – those who died that day, and who have died since – by letting terrorists’ blind hatred drive us to blind hatred.

They were wild-eyed zealots. We mustn’t be.

Our nation lost an “it can’t happen here” innocence that day. We’ve struggled ever since with how to cope. Let’s mark this 10th anniversary as a fitting moment to graduate into the adulthood of our new age, and return to the principles of inclusion, equality and freedom for which we’re supposed to stand.

Josh Richman

Josh Richman covers state and national politics for the Bay Area News Group. A New York City native, he earned a bachelor’s degree in journalism from the University of Missouri and reported for the Express-Times of Easton, Pa. for five years before coming to the Oakland Tribune and ANG Newspapers in 1997. He is a frequent guest on KQED Channel 9’s “This Week in Northern California;” a proud father; an Eagle Scout; a somewhat skilled player of low-stakes poker; a rather good cook; a firm believer in the use of semicolons; and an unabashed political junkie who will never, EVER seek elected office.

  • Elwood

    Never forget!

    Never forgive!

  • RR, Senile Columnist

    In this instance, JR, your writing is disappointingly commonplace.

  • John W

    I liked Josh’s comments.

    I will never, ever forget that day — either the shocking events or the heroism of the people on Flight 93 and the First Responders and others who kept going back into the buildings to rescue people until the towers fell. I was fortunate to attend the ESPY awards in Los Angeles after 9/11, and they had the wives of those guys on Flight 93 as honored guests. When they were introduced, the outburst of emotion was like nothing I’ve ever seen. Same thing at the opening ceremony of the Salt Lake City winter Olympic games in 2002. I’m no fan of George W. Bush, but there are things about him I won’t forget: the look of resolve in his face and stride as he walked from his helicopter to the White House after AF One finally returned him to D.C.; his arm around the fireman at Ground Zero and his comment with the bullhorn to the crowd that the people who did this will be hearing from us; and his spectacular perfect ceremonial opening pitch at the World Series in NY. It occurs to me that the “Let’s Roll” group on Flight 93 should be awarded not just the nation’s highest civilian honor, but also the highest military honor (the Medal of Honor). Once they were informed about what happened with the other planes and knew what they must do, they became soldiers engaged in a military mission against an enemy force and saved countless lives, not to mention either the Capitol or White House.

    Ronn Owens on KGO, who is Jewish and very hawkish about issues dealing with Israel and Islamic radicalism, came out firmly against the so-called “Ground Zero Mosque” when he heard about it. Then, he visited Ground Zero and the site of the community center. He completely reversed his position.

  • Jason B.

    I commend Mr. Richman for this poignant, thoughtful and beautifully written essay about the events of Sept. 11, 2001 and their wide-ranging legacy, ten years later. Sadly, let’s not forget that the first anniversary in 2002 was manipulated into a strong drumbeat leading to the Iraq war. Even most political pundits and other so-called “experts” have forgotten that President Bush appeared before the United Nations on September 12, 2002 essentially to call for U.N. backing for the Iraq war. We need to use these anniversaries to think rationally, not emotionally, as we make important decisions that affect individuals in our nation (including people of all faiths) and people around the world.

  • Sara and Meg WHO ??!!!

    #4 – “…think rationally, not emotionally, as we make important decisions . . . ”

    Unfortunately, in the presence of compelling falsehoods (the WMD sham – for example) even the more rational amongst us may find reasons to remain supportive of extreme actions.

    Which, for me, raises another far less noble cause we should not forget. That being the relative ease with which so many untruths were foisted on the American public and the world.

    “Lies . . . damn lies . .. “