Most Americans past 30 recall exactly where they were on Sept. 11, 2001, when they heard that hijacked airliners had brought death and destruction to the World Trade Center, the Pentagon and a field in Shanksville, Pa.
With shocking details of that dark day unfolding by the hour, Washington Post journalists — eyes half-glued to TV sets, and between desperate phone calls to reach loved ones — scrambled to put out a newspaper telling the story of one of the greatest domestic calamities in American history.
I was among them as a member of the Post editorial board, which managed during that frenetic day to fill the page with two attack-related editorials. The first, headlined simply “September 11, 2001,” captured at length the dimension of the horrific terrorist attacks and evolved into a national call to action.
The second and much shorter editorial, titled “Washington’s response,” addressed the ferocity of the terror that momentarily disabled the nation’s capital, concluding: “But despite the cruelty of the hour, the explosions, smoke and fire, and the hastily arranged veil of security over Washington’s senior officials, the capital region was not brought to its knees. . . . Yes, there was confusion and emotional trauma — how could there not have been? — but people in the area did not give in to full-scale panic. That alone denied the terrorists the victory they sought. And it revealed a core of strength in our region that will prepare us for whatever may come next.”
Since contributing those words to the second editorial, I’ve seen much about the world of terror cross my screen. Too much to really remember. Some incidents, however, too stark to forget.
There was Richard Reid, a few months after the 9/11 attacks, boarding a flight from Paris to Miami on Dec. 22, 2001, with homemade bombs hidden in his shoes. The “Shoe Bomber” was discovered only because he was caught trying to light the fuse and was restrained by crew and passengers. Had the bomb detonated, bomb techs said it would have blown a hole in the plane’s fuselage, causing it to crash.
And Ahmed Mohammed Al-Shamrani, a Saudi national trained and supported by al-Qaida, shooting and killing three people at the U.S. Naval Air Station in Pensacola, Fla., on Dec. 6, 2019 — marking the first foreign Islamist terrorist organization attack inside the United States since 9/11.
Looking back, terrorist attacks have been virtually unrelenting since that September day when our world was turned upside down.
The difference, however, is that so much of today’s terrorism is homegrown (to use the FBI’s definition: “violent, criminal acts committed by individuals and/or groups to further ideological goals stemming from domestic influences, such as those of a political, religious, social, racial, or environmental nature”). Deadly, to be sure, and 100% made in the U.S.A.
The broad numbers tell a small part of the story. For example, from fiscal 2015 through fiscal 2019, approximately 846 domestic terrorism subjects were arrested by or in coordination with the FBI. They include:
- Dylann Roof, who in June 2015 killed nine Black parishioners worshiping at Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, S.C.
- Curtis Allen, Patrick Stein and Gavin Wright, who in 2016 plotted to attack an apartment complex and mosque in Garden City, Kan., where Somali immigrants lived and worshiped.
- James Fields Jr., who in August 2017 drove a car into a crowd of counterprotesters at the “Unite the Right” rally in Charlottesville, killing a woman and injuring dozens of other people.
- Richard Holzer, who in 2019 plotted to blow up the Temple Emanuel Synagogue in Pueblo, Colo.
Then there’s the outrageous domestic terrorist attack against our very nation — the Jan. 6 insurrection, when mobs of President Donald Trump’s supporters stormed and pillaged the U.S. Capitol to disrupt a joint session of Congress assembled to formalize the election of President-elect Joe Biden.
That was no spontaneous outburst of rage by a ragtag bunch of thugs. Jan. 6 was a deliberate attack on revered democratic institutions and was as evil in intent as Osama bin Laden’s launch of hijacked airliners at the heart of America’s symbols of economic and military power.
Review the record. The litany of domestic terrorism attacks manifests an ideological hatred of social justice as virulent as the Taliban’s detestation of Western values of freedom and truth.
But again, another profoundly different distinction.
The domestic terrorists who invaded and degraded the Capitol are being rebranded as patriots by Trump and his cultists who perpetuate the lie that the presidential election was rigged and stolen from him. Respect for the vision of democratic government has sunk so low that 21 members of Congress objected when the House voted to honor Capitol and D.C. police officers for their heroism on Jan. 6.
The “core of strength” cited in the Post’s editorial on Sept. 12, and so evident in the response to the Jan. 6 insurrection, is needed now more than ever.
The taste for despotism, stimulated by Trump’s unraveling of American political culture, is loose in the land.
Be on guard. Because more post-9/11 attempts at domestic terrorism are surely yet to come.