Thursday, May 23, 2024

Where They Are Now: The Characters Who Defined 9/11

– 1 –
George W. Bush
U.S. President

A day after the terror attacks of September 11, 2001, the late political commentator Charles Krauthammer wrote: “We no longer have to search for a name for the post-Cold War era. It will henceforth be known as the age of terrorism.”

But eras only last as long as we allow them to. The onset of the age of terrorism was after 9/11 because one man decided that it would be. George W. Bush, until then caricatured by the media as an unserious man who would get lost in a library, determined the Twin Towers attack to be a defining moment. Previous terrorist attacks by al-Qaida against US embassies in Africa and on a naval ship in Yemen went unpunished. This time, Bush said, there would be a response.

“You’re either with us or against us,” he said a week after the attacks.

Perhaps the most famous picture of Bush came three days after the attack, when he was standing atop the still-smoldering rubble in Manhattan and he tried saying something. Someone from the crowd shouted, “I can’t hear you!” Bush grabbed a bullhorn from a firefighter standing and shouted back, “I can hear you. And the people who knocked these buildings down will hear all of us soon.”

But politicians rise and fall. Bush reached an astronomic popularity rating of 85 percent in the weeks after the attack. But he lost half of it when he attacked Iraq and was blamed for the bungled response to Hurricane Katrina that devastated black neighborhoods of St. Louis in 2005.

Today 75, he has seen his fortunes rise during Barack Obama’s presidency and then fall again when Donald Trump got elected and repudiated his policies.

– 2 –
Rudolph Giuliani
Mayor of New York City

Just before the planes hit the Twin Towers, it appeared as if Rudy was at the nadir of his political career. He had months before been forced to abandon a Senate race against Hillary Clinton after a cancer diagnosis and lost a battle with a billionaire cosmetician to keep Albany from imposing term limits on his office. In fact, September 11 was primary day to replace him after eight years.

But leadership matters. And when the city needed someone to take control, Rudy showed up. He showed compassion. He embraced family members waiting for weeks for news of their loved one. He took command of the months-long search operation. He absorbed information and passed it on to the public.

For those who remember 9/11, Rudy will always be the face of it.

Giuliani’s political foes, though, worked overtime. A request he put in to the state legislature for a three-month extension of his mayoralty to oversee the rebuilding was popular among voters, but was met with a resounding no by lawmakers. And his presidential bid, launched in 2003 for the following year’s contest, collapsed before the first vote was cast. The most memorable phrase of that primary came from Joe Biden, then a Democratic candidate, who said about Giuliani, “Three things he mentions in a sentence: a noun and a verb and 9/11.”

Giuliani’s second life is still in the midst of unfolding. He served as President Trump’s personal lawyer, but got bogged down when he promised to find dirt on Biden in Ukraine. He later lost his law license over claims that the 2020 election was rigged.

– 3 –
Marcy Borders
Grown Zero’s
“Dust Lady”

Of the many iconic photos of that day, one stands out. It shows a woman caked in dust. She became known simply as “the dust lady.”

Marcy Borders was a 28-year-old employee at the Bank of America branch in the World Trade Center’s north tower. A single mother who lived in Bayonne, she was captured by a photographer for Agence France Presse and was on newspaper covers worldwide the next day.

Her daughter, Noelle Borders, recalled that she was sleeping when her mother came home very late that night due to the difficulty getting out of Manhattan.

“I didn’t see my mom until the next morning. She was cleaned up: she didn’t have no dust on her,” the younger Borders said. “She was on the front page and, honestly, when she first saw that picture, she was scared. She thought, ‘Oh, my G-d, the world knows who I am. Whoever attacked the World Trade Center is going to come after me because now I’m the face of it.’ For a long time…she was scared.”

Borders was later diagnosed with stomach cancer, which she believed to be from her experience that day. She died in 2015.

– 4 –
Bob Beckwith
Firefighter who stood with President Bush at Ground Zero

Bush’s bullhorn speech at Ground Zero, in which he declared that the world will soon hear America’s response to the attacks, is considered by historians to be among the top ten speeches by American presidents.

It was done with the president’s hands around the shoulders of Bob Beckwith, a member of the New York City Fire Department. Photos of Bush and Beckwith, who turns 88 next week, appeared on the covers of many newspapers the day after the September 14, 2001 speech.

“I see the president on the corner,” he said last week, “and he’s headed for the microphones across the street, but he did a hard right and he comes right in front of me and he puts his arm up. I said, ‘Oh my G-d.’ I pulled him up on the rig; I turned him around. I said, ‘Are you okay, Mr. President? He said. ‘Yeah.’ So, I start to get down and he said, ‘Where you going?’ I said, ‘I was told to get down.’ He said, ‘Oh no, you stay right here.’ And he put his arm around me.”

Beckwith has since met Bush many times. He has donated the uniform and helmet he wore on that day to the 9/11 memorial museum.

– 5 –
Osama bin Laden
Terror chieftain and
head of Al-Qaida

Bin Laden is now swimming with the fish in the Arabian Sea. Or he’s alive somewhere, if the stubborn conspiracy theorists can be believed. The terrorist behind the 9/11 attacks was taken out by a Navy Seals 4 team on May 3, 2011, just ahead of the tenth anniversary of his dastardly exploit, and his body was dumped in the sea to avoid his grave becoming a shrine.

Bin Laden was born to a wealthy Saudi family with interests in everything from oil and construction to shipping. He started his terrorist group after the 1979 Soviet occupation of Afghanistan and even received help from the CIA, who thought that the Middle Eastern maxim that “the enemy of my enemy is my friend” was actionable reality.

When the radical Taliban group overthrew the government of Afghanistan in 1996, they invited bin Laden to set up a base there. That is where al-Qaida plotted the 9/11 attacks, sending twenty young men to the United States to take aviation classes with a focus on controlling planes while in the air, not on takeoff or landing.

Documents and videos taken from his Abbottabad, Pakistan villa after he was killed found that he was pleasantly surprised that the Twin Towers were toppled; he had not expected that. But regardless, the act proved to be his final one. He was the subject of the world’s biggest manhunt until it ended ten years later.

– 6 –
Pervez Musharraf
President of Pakistan

When America woke up to the reality that terrorism posed and declared a “war on terror,” it first needed a battleground. What ensued was a real-time lesson in Middle East realpolitik. Pervez Musharraf, the president of Pakistan, who was the Taliban’s closest ally, turned on them within hours after Bush dangled billions of dollars in US aid in front of them.

Musharraf was a relative secularist in the Muslim country. Educated in Britain, he rose to power through a military coup and remained a general even while in office. This allowed him to impose the new US alliance after the attack, but he proved to be an unreliable ally. He nearly precipitated a war with India — a fellow nuclear-armed nation — when terrorists he allowed in Pakistan staged a raid on India’s parliament in December of 2001.

Musharraf allowed US forces to mass on his territory to invade Afghanistan in October of 2001, despite the outrage from his Muslim constituents. He continued the alliance throughout his years in power.

Musharraf scraped on in his position until 2008, when he stepped down to avoid impeachment amid a showdown with the Supreme Court and he fled to London. He attempted to return five years later, but was arrested and later sentenced to death.

He’s still alive, thanks to a court ruling that the sentence was political

– 7 –
Tony Blair
British prime minister

The “special relationship” that the US has with Britain has been pulled and clawed at, tested and retested in the years since World War II. But none more so than during the Tony Blair years that lasted from 1997 to 2007. His policy of absolute alignment with the US on foreign policy was popular at home when he stood with Bush after the 9/11 attacks and declared that an attack on America was an attack on the entire NATO alliance.

But it frayed when he offered British forces to attack Iraq in 2003, an invasion Bush claimed was crucial to world security in the post-9/11 era when you couldn’t trust dictators such as Saddam Hussein when they said that they are not pursuing nuclear weapons.

Bush may have waged the war on terror, but Blair’s speech to the House of Commons on October 2 of that year was widely praised as the intellectual bones to it.

“Understand what we are dealing with,” he urged Britons. “Listen to the calls of those passengers on the planes. Think of the children on them, told they were going to die. Think of the cruelty beyond our comprehension as amongst the screams and the anguish of the innocent, those hijackers drove at full throttle planes laden with fuel into buildings where tens of thousands worked. They have no moral inhibition on the slaughter of the innocent. If they could have murdered not 7,000 but 70,000, does anyone doubt they would have done so and rejoiced in it? There is no compromise possible with such people, no meeting of minds, no point of understanding with such terror. Just a choice: defeat it or be defeated by it. And defeat it we must.”

Blair left office when his popularity took a beating in the wake of the Iraq war. He is officially still listed at the envoy for the Quartet — the US, EU, UN and Russia — to promote peace in Israel and the Palestinians, though you have to be of age to remember 9/11 to know of the Quartet.

– 8 –
Mullah Omar
Leader of the Taliban

Mohammad Omar did not commit the 9/11 attacks, but his refusal to expel bin Laden from Afghanistan afterward led to the overthrow of his radical Islamist government in 2001.

Mullah Omar is believed to have been illiterate. He rose to power as a religious leader during the mujahideen war against the Soviets, and later led a group of his students at the madrasah to take over Afghanistan. He was crowned emir of the new theocracy. Rumors that bin Laden funded the swift takeover gained popularity after Omar invited him to move his base to Afghanistan after his expulsion from Sudan.

After the 9/11 attacks, Omar issued a condemnation of it, likely to head off an invasion of his fiefdom. But that did not help. Bush demanded that he hand over bin Laden or face a conquest. The Taliban government was overthrown and Omar fled. He was declared dead by the Afghan government in 2015 on intelligence that he had died two years previously.

– 9 –
Ariel Sharon
Israeli prime minister

One of the first moves by the US after the attacks was to shut down the entire airspace. The only other country to follow suit was Israel. Prime Minister Ariel Sharon had spent his life fighting terrorism, and he was now ready to share his experience with the US, a novice on these matters.

But Sharon kept a close watch on what Bush was doing. The president’s call that “you’re either with us or against us” was picked up by dictators as a chance to get in the US’s good graces by mumbling words of standing with America.

One of those was Yasser Arafat, the murderous terrorist who was brought out of political oblivion eight years before in hopes that he would reform and become the Palestinians’ George Washington. His support was especially valuable as the US sought Arab support for the war against Afghanistan.

“Don’t try to make peace with the Arabs at our expense. We won’t accept it,” Sharon said in a speech to the Knesset. “Israel will not be Czechoslovakia,” he said, referring to the small country sacrificed by Britain and France to appease Hitler in 1938.

Sharon had just become prime minister six months before as the great rightwing hope. Within years, he would gravely disappoint his supporters as he turned leftward, violently disbanding dozens of Jewish communities in Gaza before succumbing to a massive stroke a year later. He died in 2014.

– 10 –
Richard Cheney and Donald Rumsfeld
US vice president and defense secretary

As chief of staff to President Gerald Ford in 1975, Donald Rumsfeld invited Richard Cheney, then a freshman congressman from Wyoming, to join the administration. The roles were reversed 25 years later when Cheney, as Bush’s vice president, pushed for Rumsfeld — “Rummy,” as Bush referred to him — to be defense secretary.

The two were a great pair. Cheney had been the secretary of defense during the Gulf War of 1991 under Bush’s father and had an expansionist view of US power. Rumsfeld concurred, though he had a habit of expressing it in colorful ways.

Take this: “Reports that say that something hasn’t happened are always interesting to me, because, as we know, there are known knowns; there are things we know we know. We also know there are known unknowns; that is to say we know there are some things we do not know. But there are also unknown unknowns—the ones we don’t know we don’t know. And if one looks throughout the history of our country and other free countries, it is the latter category that tends to be the difficult ones.”

The “known unknowns” became a legacy of Rumsfeld, who titled his book with it. He died three months ago.

Cheney was seen as the brain behind Bush’s war on terror, which included some rough techniques to get information from terrorists and housing them in Guantanamo Bay, a US-owned island in Cuba, until they could be brought to trial. It’s twenty years later and some of them have still not been tried.



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