Terrorist Attacks on America

On the morning of September 11, 2001, four commercial jets departed from three airports for their scheduled flights. Within two hours each of the planes had crashed. No passengers or crew members survived. Approximately 3,000 people on the ground had also perished. These catastrophic events soon became known as the terrorist attack on America. The impact was felt far beyond the families, friends, and colleagues who had known a victim of the disaster. Witnesses to the events, rescue personnel, and the media agreed that nothing of this kind had ever occurred and that life in the United States would never again be the same. Significant and widespread changes did occur. Heightened concern for security and prevention, economic turmoil, and altered behavior patterns (e.g., a sharp decline in air travel and tourism) were among these changes. This article provides an overview of the events and their consequences, but focuses on the response of individuals and societies to the sudden and unexpected deaths of many people.

The Events of September 11

At 7:59 A.M. American Airlines (AA) Flight 11 departed from Boston to Los Angeles with 81 passengers and 11 crew members. United Airlines (UAL) Flight 93 departed from Newark, New Jersey, just two minutes later; its 38 passengers and 7 crew members were heading to San Francisco. At 8:10 AA Flight 77 departed from Dulles Airport in Washington, D.C., with 58 passengers and 6 crew members en route to Los Angeles. Four minutes later UAL Flight 175 departed from Boston for Los Angeles with 56 passengers and 9 crew members. Within the space of fifteen minutes 266 people were about to meet their demise, with the four planes converted into lethal weapons by hijackers.

American Airlines Flight 11 struck the North Tower of the World Trade Center in New York City at 8:45 A.M. Sixteen minutes later UAL Flight 175 swept into the South Tower. AA Flight 77 crashed into a section of the Pentagon at 9:43 A.M.It was later determined that 184 Pentagon personnel were killed by the crash and ensuing fire. Officials would later say that its original target had been either the White House or the congressional building. UAL 93, the remaining flight, also crashed but did not cause any casualties on the ground. Several passengers, having become aware of the other crashes, resisted their hijackers. The plane came to crash about 80 miles southeast of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania; its original target is still a matter of speculation.

The incredible sight of a passenger jet appearing out of the clear blue sky to strike the North Tower of the World Trade Center was at first taken to be a disastrous accident. It was obvious that the lives of many people were in jeopardy. First responders (firefighters, paramedics, police) rushed to the scene. The emergency rescue operation was already in action when the South Tower was also struck. The powerful impact hurled debris upon emergency personnel and their equipment. Onlookers had then realized that the expanding disaster was no accident: The World Trade Center, New York City, and the United States were under attack.

Smoke billowed from the World Trade Center towers after they were struck by two hijacked planes. The towers collapsed shortly thereafter and rescue efforts continued for weeks following the attack. REUTERS NEWMEDIA INC./CORBIS
Smoke billowed from the World Trade Center towers after they were struck by two hijacked planes. The towers collapsed shortly thereafter and rescue efforts continued for weeks following the attack.

The World Trade Center (WTC), one of the world's most important business districts, was devastated. The area would soon be known as "Ground Zero," often described as a scene from a nightmare with ruins stretching in every direction. Smoky clouds billowed along the streets. Buildings near the towers seemed in danger of collapsing upon the rescue teams and those who were trying to evacuate the area. Risking their own lives, the first responders, burdened by their equipment, ran up the staircases in the attempt to save those trapped in the buildings. Some survivors could be seen escaping from the towers either through their own efforts or with assistance from emergency personnel. However, witnesses were horrified to see people leaping to their deaths from the highest floors before major sections of the towers collapsed.

Millions of people throughout the nation and the world witnessed the tragedy and the chaos through television. Those who were on the scene would later report that no television camera could communicate the intensity and breadth of destruction; nevertheless, television viewers saw enough of the major developments and the individual responses to realize that this was a catastrophe unique in the history of the nation—and one that would have a profound effect on the future.

It was immediately evident that many people had perished at the WTC. Early estimates were as high as 15,000. For sometime thereafter the death toll was estimated at about 6,500. It would prove very difficult to determine both the number of fatalities and individual identities. There was no master list of people (including visitors) who might have been in the towers at the time. Many bodies had been covered by heaps of debris; others could only be identified by fingerprints or dental records; and still others had been so devastated by impact and fire that all forms of positive identification seemed unattainable. The work of recovering the remains of WTC victims would be long and arduous, requiring the use of heavy construction machinery cranes and the painstaking exploration of every possible site within the extensive Ground Zero area.

It was not until five months after the attack that New York City authorities could provide an official count of the deaths: 2,843. The evidence indicated that death had come quickly. No survivors were found after September 12, 2001 (despite some hasty news reports to the contrary). The city's health care facilities and providers had responded immediately and in force. Physicians and nurses made themselves available, ambulances stood at the ready, and blood supplies were increased. As the day drew into night it gradually became clear that there would not be an overwhelming wave of casualties in need of treatment. People who were caught in the attack either died quickly or were fortunate in escaping. Those waiting to provide emergency services reported feeling stunned and helpless as they realized that there were no lives they could save. Rescue workers at the site would continue their efforts vigorously for weeks even though they too realized that there was little hope for discovering survivors.

September 11 was also a day in which fear and uncertainty added to the shock and sorrow. It was generally understood that America had come under attack. An adversary capable of hijacking four jets and causing so much death and destruction in one morning might have other, perhaps even more catastrophic, plans in mind. The federal government acted quickly by grounding all other commercial airline flights, some for several days, and other security measures were put into place. What had happened within the span of two hours had taken many lives and, in the Manhattan towers, destroyed a symbol of American power— but it had also alarmed a nation that it might be in continuing peril from terrorist forces.

Loss, Sorrow, and Recovery

The impact of these deaths on family and friends could hardly have been more traumatic. There had been no expectation and therefore no preparation for the sudden loss of loved ones. It seemed beyond comprehension that a husband or wife would not be returning home from a day's work at the WTC. Even the families of firefighters and police, aware of the dangers of the profession, had to struggle with the fact that their worst fears had become real. "There is a big hole where my life used to be," was a feeling expressed by many family members. What researchers now call traumatic grief is especially intense and devastating. The hammer blow of a violent and unexpected death increases the difficulty of moving on with life. Even people with strong coping skills are likely to feel overwhelmed and isolated.

For many of the affected families the situation was even more stressful. They could not even be sure that their loved one had died. As already noted, the nature of the catastrophe made it very difficult to recover and identify the remains of the victims. Some would never be firmly identified, leaving families suspended between hope and despair. Determined efforts were made to find possible victims who were listed as missing. Photographs of missing WTC employees and first responders were posted on improvised street bulletin boards and circulated throughout the city. Desperate hope that their family members had somehow escaped the catastrophe kept many people in a state of high tension that limited their ability to deal with the ongoing needs of everyday life.

Furthermore, even acknowledgement of the death often was not sufficient to enable family members to direct their energies to the reconstruction of their own lives. There was a powerful need to conduct a proper funeral and memorialization. Paying last respects to the deceased would provide a sense of closure and the starting point for the long and difficult process of recovery. Unfortunately, many bodies were not recovered. The efforts of firefighters to recover the bodies of their comrades were demonstrated day after day as, along with others, they labored in the Ground Zero ruins. Their impassioned search for both their own friends and all victims made clear the strong impulse to honor the dead. When human remains were discovered from time to time the workers would conduct their own improvised memorial service: an American flag placed on the site, and a moment of silence.

Family members felt the same need for closure, especially as hope for a miraculous survival became increasingly dim. Practical needs also became increasingly pressing. It was difficult to conduct the business of family life with a member who has absent yet not officially considered deceased. Financial matters were particularly stressful; for example, no income, but also no insurance or other death benefits. After some time, the city of New York decided to issue death certificates upon request to families who had almost certainly lost a person in the WTC attack. One by one, next of kin had to make the painful decision to obtain a death certificate and thereby accept the loss but also have the legal and economic foundation to rebuild their futures.

The nation and much of the world shared in the grief experienced by families of the victims in New York City, the Pentagon, and Pennsylvania. The fact that they were not alone in their sorrow provided a measure of consolation although all had their private ordeals to endure. Numerous memorial services were held in local churches and national venues. Church attendance increased throughout the United States in the wake of the disaster as people sought meaning and comfort. There was also consolation in the heroism of the people who had braved the WTC inferno or resisted the hijackers over Pennsylvania. These demonstrations of character and courage became a model for many others.

The grief and the outpouring of compassion continued for weeks. The smoke still rising from Ground Zero was a constant reminder of the tragedy. There was also a subtle personal response on the part of many people. Perhaps Mayor Rudolph Giuliani of New York City was the most prominent person to express this response publicly when he mentioned that he had to face his own mortality issues while trying to do what he could in an official capacity.

America on the Attack

The national grief process was abruptly interrupted a month after the attacks. The government declared war on international terrorism, identified wealthy Saudi expatriate Osama bin Laden as instigator, and launched a military campaign against the al-Qaeda network and the Taliban regime in Afghanistan.

Media images of tearful families and memorial services were soon replaced with air strikes, Department of Defense press conferences, and speculations on the whereabouts of bin Laden. Energies bound up in shock and grief were released in the opportunity to go into action against an enemy who would slaughter innocent people. The Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941 was often mentioned as the only previous event that had been at all comparable in scope and casualties but that, at least, had targeted military forces. The nation overwhelmingly endorsed this response to the terrorist threat and a surge of patriotism supplanted the earlier renewal of interest in religion.

The national transformation of grief and passivity into purpose and action had an invigorating effect. It also, however, provided the opportunity to turn away from uncomfortable reflections on personal mortality.

Integrating September 11 into American Life

In a sense, September 11, 2001, is not over. It is in process of becoming part of the continuing and enduring story of American life. The destruction and eventual rebuilding of the World Trade Center will command attention. The first responders with their self-sacrificing heroism will take their place among the people most admired in American history. The issue of national security versus individual rights will almost certainly remain salient. The debate is already well under way: How far and in what ways should security measures intrude upon privacy and freedom? This issue has been of concern since the establishment of the republic, but has been given heightened prominence since the attacks of September 11.

The violence of September 11 was the most destructive but not the first terrorist attack on American personnel and interests. A bomb placed in the WTC garage in 1993 caused only limited damage but killed six people. American embassies and military resources were attacked in Saudi Arabia, Kenya, Tanzania, and Yemen. Attempting to prevent further attacks by diplomacy, covert operations, and military force could become a long-term priority for the nation. These efforts will be influenced by the way in which the United States perceives and is perceived by people who hold radically different views of life. Few of the numerous commentators could offer credible insights into the minds of terrorist leaders, their beliefs, and grievances. There was also little evidence that terrorists understood the American experience and perspective on life. Whether the gap in mutual understanding will be reduced or increased is likely to have a profound impact on terrorist and counter-terrorist activities in the future.

On the personal level it remains to be seen if American life will continue with resilience along its traditional path, shift into a more cautious and security-conscious pattern, or cultivate a broader and deeper sense of the human condition in all its mortal vulnerability and seldom-realized potential.

See also: Death Certificate ; Grief: Traumatic ; Grief Counseling and Therapy ; Terrorism


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