Twenty years after 9/11, US feels embarrassed, despondent, torn

New York Letter: The attacks united Americans, briefly, in a way that is long since gone

United Airlines Flight 175 approaches the South Tower of the World Trade Center in New York, September 11th, 2001. Photograph: Kelly Guenther/The New York Times

It is just before 9am on Tuesday in New York in 2001, and Peter Murtagh, then foreign editor of The Irish Times , calls me.

“JB. What is this? Are you watching CNN?” he says, using the nickname he has hung on me for a “jungle boot” expense receipt I filed when covering 1998’s Hurricane Mitch in Honduras.

I instantly turn on CNN. A plane, assumed to be a small Cessna, has hit the World Trade Center at 8.46am.

“Peter, Jaysus. I’ll call you back.”


What should I do? Okay. I will call a source I know. When I covered the Kosovo war in 1999, this guy, David Russell, father of a good friend, owned a small private plane outfit and spoke Arabic.

I call him. “Hey David. So a small plane ... ”

“Okay. The US is under attack. There is no question.” He has a screen up on his office wall showing every plane in the sky in US airspace at that moment.

“We will not be safe in US airspace for another eight to 10 hours. This is according to how much fuel is in the planes.”

“But David,” I sputter. “How do we know ... ” He interrupts me.

“Elaine, we are under attack. I’ll talk to you later.”

My apartment is 2.1 miles from the World Trade Center. There will be no subways or taxis. But listen, David could be wrong.

I call an old friend, Anita, who works at Prudential Insurance headquarters opposite the Twin Towers. She and her colleagues are looking out the window at the fire and smoke the first plane has caused. We stay on the phone. Suddenly she sees another plane flying towards the tower.

“Oh my God, he’s stepping on the gas!” she says. I hear the acceleration of the plane, heading towards the second tower. It is 9.03am. “I have to hang up, Elaine.”

Fleeing crowds

I run to a nearby bicycle store, buy a cheap bicycle and head down the West Side highway along the Hudson river.

Crowds are fleeing, in the opposite direction from me. Grey people, covered in dust and debris, coughing and crying. The air is acrid.

I get to the World Trade Center in minutes. Debris is all over, chunks of concrete. There is chaos, screaming, sirens. Debris and bodies, still falling. I look up. The towers are standing. But I can see what will happen. These things are coming down, I think.

I am not going to be standing underneath this when they do. I turn my bicycle around and head back to my apartment, and turn on a police radio scanner. By September 19th, I am in Pakistan and Afghanistan for the next six months.

It is now September 11th, 2021, 20 years on. I write this from the same apartment on Jane Street in the West Village in New York. Life has gone on. New York adapts.

In Covid’s plague times, every restaurant has adopted quaint and charming outdoor seating. Overall New York city crime has decreased from 2020, but 2021 gun arrests are way up, as are crimes against Jews and Asians.

Real estate prices are fine. Sex and the City actor and local Sarah Jessica Parker, whose presence made neighbourhood values soar, has sold and bought again, nearby. Word is Jennifer Lawrence now lives across the street.

But the US is not fine. It is a country now culturally splayed, divided, frustrated and angry. Factories have closed, at an alarming pace, as jobs have shifted to China. Some five million manufacturing jobs in the US have been lost since 1997, throwing working people into despair and into war with the so-called privileged. Wall Street globalist elites versus the main street “Deplorables”, as Hillary Clinton sadly and memorably called Trump supporters in 2016.

Moment of unity

After 9/11, there was an extraordinary moment of unity in the US. But that moment came to an end as President George W Bush rushed into Iraq in 2003 on the false pretence that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction. A lie that cost more than 15,000 American lives.

Barack Obama didn't save us, or transform us, much as so many hoped he would. President Donald Trump's policies were largely successful on paper and in policy – no new wars, and the economy added 6. 7 million jobs. Unemployment fell to the lowest rate in half a century, according to But the tweets, the abrasive personality and the relentless hostility of the media was almost too much for Americans to bear.

And now, President Biden. The Afghanistan departure, or fiasco as it is more commonly called here, has finally united Americans. Who defends this chaos and ineptitude, leaving Americans and Afghan allies abandoned and unprotected on the ground? Not Republicans and not Democrats. And the women, exiled again to the constraints of the burka and prohibited from any version of freedom as we in the West know it?

As free people who struggled and fought for independence, in Ireland and the US, do we not have have better choices? Today America feels embarrassed, despondent, torn. Godspeed.