20 years ago, 19 terrorists murdered 2,977 innocent people- but they failed in their ultimate goals.

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Photo by Lerone Pieters on Unsplash.

20 years ago today, on an idle Tuesday which started out normally enough, the landscape of the U.S. was changed suddenly and forever.

Everyone remembers where they were when they first heard the news; everyone remembers how they felt when they saw the first shocking pictures.

In a collective and growing horror, we all watched as first one and then the other of the massive twin towers of the World Trade Center, so long dominant in the New York City skyline, fell from the sky in a crumbled heap. We watched, some of us much closer than others, as our fellow citizens ran for their lives.

Most of us saw the second plane hit, trained as we were at the time on the shocking sight of one colossal tower burning black against the sky.

The worst fever dreams of Hollywood horror movie directors didn’t prepare us for what we witnessed that day. Michael Bay, James Cameron, Steven Spielberg and George Lucas collaborating together on the same disaster movie couldn’t have prepared us. Art may imitate life, but it is still only an imitation.

On this day 20 years ago, as Rep. Ilhan Omar famously pointed out during a 2019 campaign event, “some people did something”.

They did indeed. What they did was complicated. It had taken years of meticulous planning, audacity, and a level of stealth theretofore unknown to U.S. intelligence agencies.

But the result was very simple, as evil often is: The mass murder of 2,977 innocent people by 19 terrorists.

According to the official police report filed 16 days after the attack by then-NYPD Commissioner Bernard Kerik: “There are 4,007 unidentified pieces of human remains and 8,786 individuals reporting injuries of varying severity, including 1,182 members of the NYPD.”

The report went on, in the clinical language of battlefield triage, to note that 5,960 people were still missing. “The NYPD is utilizing DNA samples to help in the identification process and, as of 3:30 pm today, a total of 7,728 samples were received (2,679 swabs and 5,059 personal items.)”

“In addition to the two commercial airliners deliberately flown into the World Trade Center, two other airliners were hijacked by other members of a yet unidentified terrorist cell, one crashed into the Pentagon in Washington, D.C., and the other into a field in Shanksville, Pennsylvania,” the report went on to note.

The report clarifies what Rep. Omar meant by “did something”. Who the “yet unidentified” “some people” were who had perpetrated and orchestrated such a terrible act, we would soon learn.

The NYPD report is important for what it says about what happened on 9/11 and in the immediate aftermath- but it is also a record of incredible courage. It proves that while “some people did something”, other people did something else.

They rushed into danger when everyone else was fleeing, they put themselves at risk to save others. Many heroes lost their lives that day. Even more heroes charged into the breach in the hours and days and months, and even years, that followed during the recovery effort.

As soon as the first plane hit, first responders and the NYPD coordinated an unbelievably successful rescue effort.

The terrorists had hoped to kill many more people that day. Thanks to the selfless, courageous actions of ordinary people, many of whom sacrificed their very lives, many were saved.

After the towers collapsed, local, state, and federal authorities, volunteers and aid organizations worked tirelessly to rescue the painfully few left alive in the rubble and recover bodies from the wreckage.

Rep. Ilhan Omar (D-IL) was absolutely right; 20 years ago today, some people did indeed do something- but it wasn’t what they were intending to do.

The hijackers from Saudi Arabia hoped to destroy the relationship between their country and the United States. That didn’t happen. The U.S. and Saudi Arabia are still good trading partners, still allies in the fight against radical Islamist terrorism to this very day.

Perhaps the terrorists hoped the U.S. government would take steps against it’s Muslim-American population on par with those taken against Japanese-Americans after Pearl Harbor. If so, they were likewise disappointed. The U.S. still maintains a robust and growing population of practicing Muslims who still enjoy the same imperfect benefits of citizenship extended to all.

“We also witnessed the dark forces of human nature,” U.S. President Joe Biden said in a message pre-recorded for the 9/11 20-year memorial. “Fear and anger. Resentment and violence against Muslim-Americans — true and faithful followers of a peaceful religion.”

“Unity,” said Mr. Biden, “ultimately prevailed.”

Most of all, the Al-Qaeda terrorists of 9/11, like the ISIS terrorists after them, wanted to provoke the U.S. and its allies into a Holy War against the practitioners of Islam worldwide. They are religious fanatics. They believe in a prophecy which says that doing so will bring about the apocalypse- or they claim to.

That didn’t happen either.

The world’s leaders still fight about many things, and bitterly; trade imbalances, corporate espionage, the law of reciprocity, embargoes, tariffs, environmental policy. A “Holy War”- or to use Al-Qaeda’s preferred term “jihad”- thankfully, is never mentioned.

At least, something so oxymoronically named as a “Holy War” hasn’t become more likely in the years since 9/11. True, 3,000 people lost their lives on 9/11- but the terrorists wanted to kill far more than that.

They did make it harder to fly. And, while by and large U.S. and international intelligence agencies have done a good job of preventing other attacks like this in the years since, there have been a few close calls.

There are reasons we have to remove our shoes and carry limited liquids, and good ones.

“Our war on terror begins with al Qaeda, but it does not end there,” President Bush told the American people when he addressed the nation after 9/11. “It will not end until every terrorist group of global reach has been found, stopped, and defeated.”

In retrospect, it wasn’t a threat against America’s enemies so much as a warning to those of us at home still reeling from a national tragedy. After 20 years of failed nation-building in Afghanistan, followed by an ignoble exit, the global reach and threat of terrorism remains as real as ever.

(contributing writer, Brooke Bell)