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Confusion, fear, anger and finally understanding 20 years later


As I think back to the morning of Sept. 11, 2001, my primary memory is one of confusion.

I was the editor of an afternoon newspaper in Kansas and was almost finished with the front page. I’ll be forever grateful to the publisher who convinced me to tear it up and start over.

Like most Americans, I didn’t know anything about Osama bin Laden or al-Qaida, and couldn’t imagine how or why anyone would do such a thing.

During an address to a joint session of Congress on Sept. 20, President George W. Bush told us who had committed the attack. And, he attempted to explain why.

“They hate our freedoms: our freedom of religion, our freedom of speech, our freedom to vote and assemble and disagree with each other,” Bush offered.

So, young men were convinced to end their own lives in fiery airplane crashes because they despised town hall meetings in New Hampshire or caucus votes in Iowa?

But, I understand his reluctance. It’s a fraught question. Whatever actions our nation may have taken in the past to provoke those in the Middle East, they did not involve the nearly 3,000 innocent men and women who showed up for work that morning and lost their lives.

Looking at the speech now, it all seems incredibly empty and sad.

“Our grief has turned to anger, and anger to resolution,” Bush warned. “Whether we bring our enemies to justice or justice to our enemies, justice will be done.”

We did kill bin Laden 10 years later. But I’m not sure how we could ever bring justice to suicide bombers. Whatever justice they receive will come from a higher power.

In the speech, Bush laid out a series of demands that he knew the Taliban could not meet as a pretext to going to war in Afghanistan; just as he would later deliver a list of demands that Saddam Hussein could not meet as a pretext to going to war in Iraq.

And, the president established an impossible definition for victory, ensuring the two-decade slog that was to follow: “It will not end until every terrorist group of global reach has been found, stopped and defeated.”

The speech was filled with all the Texas swagger that made our 43rd president so endearing. We would win the wars to come, Bush assured us, not only because of our superior military force. We also had God on our side.

“The course of this conflict is not known, yet its outcome is certain,” Bush crowed. “Freedom and fear, justice and cruelty, have always been at war, and we know that God was not neutral between them.”

Twenty years later, I’m less confused. Now, I understand not only who did it, but who will try to do it again, and why. They are equally convinced that God is on their side. And, they are determined that all of us must be on God’s side and must follow his dictates as they interpret them.

The wars are over, but the threat has not been eliminated. We have hardened our defenses against hijackers and bombers, but remain vulnerable in other areas. We need to learn from past mistakes and move forward with both vigilance and a dose of humility.

The scars of 9/11 remain. My confusion from that morning later gave way to anger and sadness, in that order. That part hasn't gone away in the last 20 years. I suspect it never will.

Walter Rubel can be reached at waltrubel@gmail.com

Walt Rubel