9/11: A Pivot Upon Which We View Our Future

Jann S. Wenner, writing in September 2001, considered what lay in store for America.

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The following article, written by Rolling Stone Editor and Publisher Jann S. Wenner on September 21, 2001, appeared in the October 25 issue of the magazine. It is republished here to mark the tenth anniversary of the 9/11 terrorist attacks.

New York City is our home. It's been our home since 1977, when we moved the magazine here from San Francisco. The editors, writers, and designers – our salesmen and women, those who take care of our distribution and manufacturing, the entire staff that creates Rolling Stone – come to work every day in an office tower next to Rockefeller Center that is four and a half miles north of where the World Trade Center stood. Most of us live in the city, some within a couple of blocks of the financial district, some close enough to it to have wondered why that airliner was flying so low on the beautiful new morning of September 11th.

We have been hurt deeply, robbed of friends and family: Gina Pinos in our marketing department lost her fiance, firefighter Jimmy Pappageorge of Engine Company 23... "My friend was on the plane that crashed into the Pentagon." ... "Please mention Paul Skrzypek, my roommate of five years." ... "My high school classmate Terence McShane, who was with Ladder 101, who leaves behind his wife, Cathy, and three little boys." ... "My uncle's brother Ray Downey, chief of rescue operations, special operations command, FDNY, still missing." ... "The husband of my best friend, Marian. I was the bridesmaid at their wedding. September 11th was their anniversary." ... "My friend, Terrance Aiken, who was on the ninety-seventh floor." ... "My best friend's son." ... and so on.

On that Tuesday, the best of who we are was turned against us. Our open borders and immigration policies were exploited; our beneficent technology turned into tools of terror: the WTC towers, modern wonders of American engineering; four fully fueled Boeing jets, the most popular aircraft in the world and a testament to the superiority of American technology. The video images of the second jetliner knifing into the tower, the sharklike final turn, will be with us forever. The cold transaction of steel into steel, brought about by men armed with knives and razor blades.

There is cause for young and old to be worried about the future, about our economy, about our safety, about the men and women who are being called into service to protect us. This is a story that we will follow. September 11th is a pivot upon which we will view our future and our past.

It is too soon to have a clear perspective, but some things strike us immediately.

Discussing our enemies as men who live in caves – who should be "hunted down" and "smoked out" like animals – underestimates the true nature of those who conspired to attack the World Trade Center. President Bush's offhanded imagery seems inappropriate and harmful. "Wanted, dead or alive" – a reference that he must have known would be widely reported and quoted – does not prepare us for the complexities and subtleties of what's ahead. This phrase can hardly be reassuring to allies overseas who want to see America act with calibration and certainty, not with frontier justice and swaggering crudeness.

It may make us feel better to refer to these people as "madmen" and "cowards," but as horrific as their actions are, this is what they most assuredly are not. They are not cave-dwelling animals. These are people who sacrifice their lives for what they think is righteous (which is generally how we might define courage). They are on a long-term mission and have grievances that we ignore at our own risk.

When the vice president, Dick Cheney, uses the image of Osama bin Laden's head "on a platter," we may find that emotionally gratifying for a moment, but it rightfully leaves us insecure about our leadership. A thoughtful debate should be ahead of us about our near-term security at home and abroad, and also our long-term security as a nation in the modern world.

Why does bin Laden have the sympathy of millions of Muslims throughout the world? The slaughter of a purely civilian population and destruction of vital institutions remains outside our moral pale and what civilized twenty-first-century society should accept. The methodology is deserving of the crushing blow of extinction, but the message has extraordinary resonance; and it must be listened to and understood if we are to deal with the full long-term threat that he and his allies and his followers represent.

Why are we about to go to war in the Arab world for the second time in ten years? Is it plausible that the United States – as Britain once was – is perceived as an imperial, colonial power occupying impoverished Islamic lands and appropriating their oil riches in collusion with corrupt monarchies and dictators?

Would that it was as simple as a war against terrorism, a fight of civilization against evil. We have to ask ourselves which side of history we are on and make sure we are on the right side, so that we survive with our own freedoms intact, not in the grip of a national-security state under siege from constantly renewed terrorism.

It is terrorism, but it is also an authentic political movement with widespread support and sympathy, grievances grounded in a legitimate historical record and extreme economic inequality. History tells us you can not end the rebellion without addressing its cause.

In a recent issue of The New Yorker, Susan Sontag wrote, "Let's by all means grieve together. But let's not be stupid together. A few shreds of historical awareness might help us understand what has just happened, and what may continue to happen. 'Our country is strong,' we are told again and again. I for one don't find this entirely consoling. Who doubts that America is strong? But that's not all America has to be."

President Bush's speech to Congress was stirring – what was him and what was the moment is hard to know; they were inseparable. It had a passion far different from his usual robotic, scripted appearances. He described a vision of the American Empire at its fullest and most awesome, an eagle with its wings outstretched and talons poised to strike from the heavens, and declared – "You are with us or you are with the terrorists" – a new global war.

It felt reassuring that night, but today we feel no wiser, no safer.

New York, September 21st, 2001

This is from the October 25, 2001 issue of Rolling Stone.

Related:
• 'The Word on the Street is Run': Legendary NYC Newspaperman Jimmy Breslin Reports from a Still-Smoldering Downtown
David Foster Wallace on the 9/11 Attacks As Seen from the Midwest
My Decade of Bin Laden: Michael Hastings, in May 2011, Calls for an End to the Chaos Unleashed by the Just-Killed Terrorist Leader


From The Archives Issue 880: October 25, 2001