What remains twenty years on

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10 September 2021

What remains 20 years after the bloodiest attack in history? First and foremost, an immense sense of loss. In those terrible hours of September 11, 2001, the lives of three thousand people were cut short. Mothers, fathers, children and friends were torn forever from the embrace of their loved ones. Lives cut short by a murderous madness that made real something hitherto unimaginable: turning airliners into missiles to sow death and destruction. In the 20 years since that tragic morning on the East Coast of the United States, young people have grown up orphaned and parents continue to mourn children who never came home. What strikes us, today as then, as we scroll through the names of the victims are the more than 70 nationalities to which they belong. It was thus an attack on the United States, but at the same time on the whole world, on all humanity. This is how it felt in those frantic hours and perhaps even more so in the days that followed as the immense scale of the tragedy became clearer. “Never Forget” is the admonition that stands out today at the Ground Zero Memorial. Two words that have been repeated countless times over the last 20 years to underline the fact that memory cannot and must not fail when the pain is so great.

What also remains from that day as an indelible mark is the sense of sacrifice, the witness of those who gave their lives to save the lives of others. It is moving to consider that one tenth of all the victims of September 11 were firefighters. In New York, an entire generation of firefighters died that day. They died saving lives. They climbed the stairs of the Twin Towers as people descended in desperation. They knew what they were getting into, climbing those stairs filled with debris and shrouded in smoke, but they didn't stop. They knew that only their courage, only their sacrifice could save those trapped in the skyscrapers torn apart by the planes. If the already tragic death toll did not take on an even more catastrophic dimension, it is thanks to them, to those firefighters and other rescuers who embodied the power of good in the face of unbridled evil.

Part of the bitter legacy of September 11, 2001, and this on a global level, is the sense of insecurity and fear that we are now somehow used to living with. Since that day, taking a plane is no longer a ‘normal thing’. On the other hand, the subsequent terrorist attacks of Islamist origin, which followed that dreadful attack in 2001 by Al Qaeda, have lent support to the theorists of the ‘clash of civilisations’. In this 20-year period, xenophobic and anti-migrant movements have grown, a side effect of an instability that was precisely one of the objectives of those who brought the attack to the heart of the United States. Unfortunately, as has tragically emerged in recent weeks in Afghanistan, America and the West were unable to offer a strategy equal to the epochal challenge posed by the ideologues of global terrorism. Twenty years after September 11, the Taliban — who had given refuge to Osama Bin Laden — are once again in power in Kabul and isis has returned to strike in a grim and, in many ways, surreal remake. Today, therefore, there are far more questions than loose knots concerning the future, while the costs, first and foremost in human lives, of the reaction to those terrifying attacks are very high.

So, what is the legacy of September 11? Twenty years later, we still remember the motto ‘United We Stand’, which became, even visually through flags and posters hoisted in the streets of Manhattan, the spontaneous response of New Yorkers to the horror experienced on September 11. Over the years, that motto has taken on an ever broader and deeper meaning. Standing together in spite of attempts to ‘tear down’ our common humanity. Today, that call for unity, for “human fraternity” — as Pope Francis tirelessly reminds us — becomes the only winning “strategy”. It is a strategy that requires foresight, courage, and patience in the conviction, as John Paul ii stressed immediately after the attacks, that “even if the forces of darkness appear to prevail, those who believe in God know that evil and death do not have the last say”.

Alessandro Gisotti