Special: How 9/11 Changed American Life

Sep. 10, 2021 AT 9:15 p.m. EDT

The panel continues the conversation, reflecting on the 20 year anniversary of 9/11. The panel also discussed how the attacks shifted American life, politics, and the impact the event had on Muslim Americans.

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GWEN IFILL: (From video.) Joining me tonight to take stock of today’s terrible events are four reporters who –

YAMICHE ALCINDOR: Twenty years ago, on September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks rocked America. On that day the nation watched the horror unfold. The loss of life was profound. The U.S. would never be the same.

MARTHA RADDATZ: (From video.) There is a new security problem in this country.

MS. ALCINDOR: Soon after the carnage, U.S. troops invaded Afghanistan to hunt down those responsible. They stayed there for 20 years. Thousands were killed at war and in the war that followed in Iraq. In the years since others, including many first responders, died from 9/11-related illnesses, military and political leaders scrambled to prevent America from being vulnerable to terror again, a generation came of age with leaders focused on surveillance and secrecy. Some also unfairly targeted Muslims and people of color.

DONALD TRUMP: (From video.) Donald J. Trump is calling for a total and complete shutdown of Muslims entering the United States.

MS. ALCINDOR: Two decades later, we explore how the nation is still reeling from the impact of 9/11 on a special edition of Washington Week.

ANNOUNCER: Once again, from Washington, moderator Yamiche Alcindor.

MS. ALCINDOR: Good evening and welcome to a special edition of Washington Week. I’m Yamiche Alcindor.

Twenty years ago, the 9/11 attacks dramatically changed America. It was a tragic and emotional day. This evening we look at how the attacks impacted American life, politics, and national security.

Joining me tonight to take stock of the horrific events are five top reporters who covered 9/11 and its aftermath: Peter Baker, chief White House correspondent for The New York Times; Pierre Thomas, chief justice correspondent for ABC News; and joining us here in studio, Asma Khalid, White House correspondent for NPR and co-host of the NPR Politics podcast; Martha Raddatz, chief global affairs correspondent for ABC News and co-anchor of This Week; and Vivian Salama, a national security reporter for The Wall Street Journal. Thank you so much, all of you, for being here.

Martha, I want to start with you. You were here in D.C. when this attack happened. You had a husband who was working in the Pentagon, you yourself working at the State Department. I wonder what sticks in your mind both personally but also professionally because, of course, you were reporting that day.

MS. RADDATZ: Well, I think first of all it can’t help but be immediately personal when you have an attack on your homeland. And you can go through the day, you can be a journalist, you can do your job that we all did, and when you go home at night you’re a scared American. I had – my husband, Tom Gjelten, was in the Pentagon that day, a correspondent for NPR, I was at the State Department for ABC that day, and Tom and I had driven in that morning together right after the first plane hit and started heading in immediately. And you know, just today looking at the timeline again and when the planes hit, and I remember being on Memorial Bridge, and I called my daughter who was a freshman in college – rather, sophomore in college, and my son was in the fourth grade. So I immediately called my daughter, obviously didn’t call my son, told her to turn on the news, went to the State Department, Tom went to the Pentagon, and the second plane hit. And then the State Department was evacuated and there were fears that there was a bomb in the parking lot. There were so many rumors going around that day.

I spent the entire day on Memorial Bridge, and when the Pentagon was hit I think I really put on my journalist hat then because I really couldn’t think about Tom. And I’m not a huge worrier, so I’m just, he’s fine, it’s a huge building, I know it’s a huge building; obviously, he was fine. But to see the smoke rise from that building all day and see the fighter jets going down the Potomac River, and hearing all day – because we had walkie-talkies because the cellphones were pretty much down that day – and hearing that there was another plane headed for D.C. And I remember saying to my cameraman, oh my gosh, they’re going to, like, hit the Washington Monument. He’s like, no, no, no, they’re going to hit the Capitol, they’re going to want mass destruction. And then in between, you know, you’re trying to manage your personal life, and I’m worried about my son and is he OK at school, and is my daughter OK, and is Tom OK – and I finally – Tom finally got through to me – is my mother OK. You go through that, but you do have to just keep doing what you’re doing, and you also think of all the people who have lost their lives and then you just know you can keep doing what you’re doing to report on that story.

MS. ALCINDOR: Harrowing, really, to listen to. Pierre, you happened to be in New York on the – on the day of 9/11. You happened to find yourself then on set with Peter Jennings. Talk to us about what it was like to report, to see Peter Jennings lean into his instincts as he was anchoring the news, but also what were you hearing from your sources at the FBI?

PIERRE THOMAS: Well, you know, just thinking about that day, it just brings up a wealth of emotions. You know, I had been in New York to meet some of the ABC News brass. I had been at ABC News at that point nine months and there were some people in New York I had not met. And that morning, after a thunderstorm kept us in New York overnight, my wife called me a little bit after nine and said, did you see that plane hit the World Trade Center. And immediately I thought it was a small propeller plane, and then I turned on the television and saw that it was much worse than that. And as you said, the next thing I know I’m on the set with Peter Jennings, John Miller who was then an ABC News correspondent and a former public affairs director for the NYPD. And there’s this moment when the first tower comes down, and Peter immediately knew that there were no words so he raised his hand on the set just like that, which was a signal to all of us to say nothing. And in that moment, you’re horrified for the people that are in the building and you just cannot believe what is unfolding.

And when that first tower came down, it was if something biblical was happening the way that smoke and debris sort of moved through the city, and my sources were shellshocked. They knew that this was an epic failure, they knew that this was something that they would have to answer for in terms of the law enforcement community, but their immediate response was just stunned and anger. And among the first tips that I got was that the FBI was going to descend on those airports because, my sources said, the flight manifests will be the key to understanding who did this and who directed them. They immediately were telling me about al-Qaida and Osama bin Laden being their primary suspect because, as you recall, the CIA director, Tenet – George Tenet – hair was on fire worrying about that al-Qaida was planning something. So they were suspicious that it was al-Qaida, but my sources said we have to get to the airports, we have to find out who was on those planes. And it just was a searing, grotesque day is the best way to describe it.

MS. ALCINDOR: A searing, grotesque day. Asma, you – like me, you weren’t a reporter yet. We’re around the same age. But you experienced something that became distinct and a distinct consequence of this attack, and that was targeting of Muslims. I want to know from you, what was your experience and how did it inform your reporting later on? Because you ended up in Pakistan after the capture and kill of Osama bin Laden.

ASMA KHALID: Yeah, I mean, you know, I think there’s been a lot of talk as we approach the 20th anniversary about the legacy and the enduring legacy that it’s had on Muslims in the United States. You know, I don’t know that just in conversations I’ve had with Muslims – I grew up in Indiana, a fairly small town in a fairly red state of the country. It was not very diverse, and you talk to people, there is really not a Muslim I’ve come across who will say that they don’t see a clear demarcation of a before time and an after time, after 9/11. I think we were all very aware of that the moment that the towers were hit. I would argue that, you know, instinctually many of us also were aware of that even before we knew who was responsible for the attacks because there had been a number of terror threats throughout kind of the late ’90s.

You know, I think, though, the challenge is to figure out how to use some of that fear, and I would argue anxiety, and turn it into something that is actually, like, powerful and useful, right, because I do think fear can be very debilitating. You know, I talk about the fact that every Muslim knows there was a before and after time, and the reason I say that is, like, there’s – I was thinking back to what life was like. I grew up in this fairly small town, I mentioned, in Indiana. This is not a unique, isolated experience, but I remember that the neighbor of our local mosque came and put, like, mounds of dirt up so that he could build a physical barrier so that he would not need to look at the mosque. And then on top of the mound of dirt, he put an American flag and, you know, would tell folks who came onto his property that he would shoot anyone who came onto his property, and this was kind of a more rural area of the town. And these were not, again, isolated experiences – (laughs) – or isolated incidents.

I think I always knew I wanted to be a journalist, so fast forward, and as you mentioned, I was with my colleague Steve Inskeep; we went to Pakistan after bin Laden had been killed and I think understanding and having some level of cultural fluency is important. You know, we’ll talk, I’m sure, more about this later in the show, but overall, 9/11 has a long legacy in terms of the war on terror, and you look at civilian casualties, U.S. troops lost. Brown University’s Costs of War Project estimates that, I believe, about a million people have died in the subsequent 20 years. That’s a lot of death.

MS. ALCINDOR: And following the attacks, former President George W. Bush in stark terms urged world leaders to join the U.S. in fighting terrorism.

PRESIDENT GEORGE W. BUSH: (From video.) Every nation in every region now has a decision to make: Either you are with us or you are with the terrorists. (Applause.)

MS. ALCINDOR: That call to action led to the longest war in American history, the war in Afghanistan. Peter, I want to come to you because you were one of the first reporters in Afghanistan. Talk a bit about what those early days of reporting was like, and also, how did this mission change? Of course, the war just ended a few weeks ago, but what was the mission and how did it evolve?

PETER BAKER: Yeah, Yamiche, it was an extraordinary time. I was based in Moscow at the time for The Washington Post and decided after 9/11 that I would go down to Central Asia, which was part of our territory, Tajikistan, Uzbekistan, to write about Islamic, you know, extremism there and their fight to control it there, and it turned out that Tajikistan was the only way to get into Afghanistan at that point. Pakistan was closed off, but the Northern Alliance, which was this rebel group that the Americans were planning to ally with, had an embassy in Dushanbe and so I got on a helicopter there that they flew over the Hindu Kush, an old, rickety Soviet helicopter that was flying well above its height ceiling to get to the Panjshir Valley north of Kabul, and that’s where the Northern Alliance had their base. And I got there basically a few days after 9/11. The CIA wasn’t there yet. Special Forces weren’t there yet. It was just me and eventually a group of reporters who were trying to figure out what was going to happen and learn a lot about Afghanistan overnight.

I didn’t know anything about Afghanistan. A lot of us were new to the territory. We were learning a lot on the fly. And what we saw there, Yamiche, was a country of enormous, enormous suffering. It was a biblical scene. You know, it was almost like transporting yourself back to the 1500s or something. It was dusty and no electricity and no running water and people had been brutalized by the Taliban for years, women only allowed to emerge in public in full burkas from head to foot with a male escort, young girls not allowed to go to school, and to then see, you know, the American war begin there was this idea that there would be something better – right? – that the Americans would take out the Taliban and then eventually something better would emerge. And that’s of course where we began 20 years of rather frustrated efforts to remake a country that didn’t want to be remade. And all the people who have benefited from these last 20 years in terms of more freedom, more opportunity, more economic possibilities are now 20 years later, of course, thrust back into the same kind of repressive regime that we saw there on the ground 20 years ago. And that’s a little hard to imagine. It’s really something we would not have pictured when we went in there in this – 20 years ago this month.

MS. ALCINDOR: Twenty years ago this month. Vivian, you were working in New York City, that – you later became Baghdad chief of the AP, the Associated Press. How did what you see that – how did it lead you to covering the Middle East, and what understanding did you come away with when you think about what you covered?

VIVIAN SALAMA: So I was living and working in Manhattan. I’m also a New Yorker, so my whole family was there and here we were; it was a primary day in New York, and so we were all going to be working late. I was a producer for NBC News, the local NBS News, WNBC, and we had planned a late day that day and so I was sleeping in and I had to rush to work, and I got there before the first tower fell. But of course, we were, you know, in Midtown Manhattan seeing plumes of smoke all the way from downtown and just knowing that this was such an extraordinary event, but I was two years out of college at that point and had really my whole future ahead of me and suddenly, like, in one shot, it was just changed forever. A, my career just sort of took a different direction than I never would have anticipated because all of a sudden this horrible event opened my eyes to this reality of there are people out there who want to do bad things to us. And so all I could think of was why? Why would anyone want to do this? I had to understand because I felt like just “they hate us” wasn’t a sufficient answer. I needed to know.

But what was also really striking – and Asma just really kind of touched upon it – it was also, I’m an Arab American and I never really knew that until 9/11. I’m a New Yorker, born and raised, and I never thought of myself as anything else. And suddenly I was a hyphen. My family members, relatives were all of the sudden getting criticized in public for no reason, you know, just because of their names or the way they look, and suddenly everything that I knew to be true about who I was seemed different. And so everything about it, from my experience as a journalist having to rush down as a kid, you know, in my early 20s down to Ground Zero with people still covered in dust, the smell in the air that will never leave me, and having to do that and work around the clock. We were sleeping on couches at 30 Rock; 30 Rock was a target. We were told to evacuate it. We chose to stay, even though the NYPD told us to evacuate because it’s a landmark, and we decided that we were going to go, and it changed my life.

MS. ALCINDOR: And you decided that you were going to go into that building.

Martha, you also covered the war extensively and decided to go to Iraq and Afghanistan. I wonder, for you, when you think about – of course, we’ve had a lot of conversation about the war in Afghanistan, but the war in Iraq – what lessons do you think we should take away from that, given what the administration said but also how reporters reported on that information?

MS. RADDATZ: Well, I think there are so many lessons learned from Iraq and we have gone over them and we have looked at them and there’s so much to talk about this week because of what we’ve learned. Iraq was a huge mistake. I mean, I remember at the time being at the U.N., and thinking, if Colin Powell comes out and supports this, it’s done. And Colin Powell came out and supported it. It was shocking. I actually – I’m a little bit proud of myself because I remember saying this sounds like circumstantial evidence and not much beyond that. But once they got into Iraq and, you know, there was such joy and we’ve done it and we’ve overtaken this place, there was simply no planning. I, you know, watched Donald Rumsfeld for years and years and years kind of perform at these press briefings, and I think I was probably one of the few really grumpy people in the briefing room because it seemed a performance to me, and there was no way getting at it.

Now, the lessons reporters can learn? We don’t have access to super-secret classified reports all the time. Hopefully, if we’d seen them, we would have said this is a huge mistake. But I do think – I mean, it is our job every day. It’s not just the lessons from the Iraq War, it is our job every day to try to find out the truth and try to find out who’s telling us the truth.

MS. ALCINDOR: And after 9/11, thinking about learning the truth, billions of dollars were poured into Homeland Security and new departments focused on immigration and security, and vast powers were granted to surveil Americans. That fueled profiling and discrimination of Muslim Americans, as Asma was just talking about, and people of color, and that set off a wave of hate crimes targeting Muslims in particular. Pierre, I want to come to you. How do you – can you connect these two for us? There’s the issue, of course, of the way that the law enforcement agencies in this country changed, but there was also the surveilling of Muslim Americans. How do they connect? What was the good that came out of it but also, of course, the bad?

MR. THOMAS: Well, one of the things that happened as a result of 9/11 is the law enforcement and the intelligence community, but particularly the FBI, had to admit that they were caught completely flat-footed. And I can recall a meeting with a very senior official at the Justice Department in the days just after 9/11 and this official basically admitted that the United States had no sense of what other al-Qaida operatives might be inside the country, and there was this desperate attempt to figure out, OK, we know the countries we think that al-Qaida operates from; we need to figure out all the people that came from those countries, and there was a huge issue of overstays and people who were – had stayed in the country longer than was allowed by their visas, and the FBI and the Justice Department was saying we don’t know if there’s another wave. There was great fear of another wave, and I think those were the seeds of the Patriot Act in terms of the government being granted these vast powers of surveillance all in the name of we need to protect. It was out of fear that those things developed.

But you know what they say in the South and my mother used to say, haste makes waste, and critics would say that they were granted too many powers. People were rounded up, assumed to be terrorists when there was not much evidence indicating that they were. And so I can tell you that it was born out of this sense that the United States government had no clue as to whether, OK, is there going to be another wave, and they had a very clear sense that al-Qaida was not done. And you recall a few months later Richard Reid tried to blow up a plane with a shoe bomb, and I just remember law enforcement saying over and over these people, these terrorists are incredibly creative. Who would have ever thought that they would use a plane and turn it into a missile? So I think part of what your question belies is this notion that there was fear, and the government started just acting very quickly to resolve what it thought was a huge vulnerability.

MS. ALCINDOR: And Peter, this idea of civil liberties and fear, it also really turned into a political issue. When you think about modern politics, the rise of former President Donald Trump, talk a bit about how the Patriot Act and really the fear of Americans, it turned into a sort of political movement.

MR. BAKER: Yeah, it’s really remarkable if you think about it what a difference we have seen over these last 20 years. You know, for all of the excesses there were in that post-9/11 period in terms of targeting Muslims who had nothing to do with anything in the United States, you had a president at the time who at least said that was the wrong thing to do, right? President George W. Bush went to a mosque three or four days after 9/11 to make the point that this was not a war on Islam, it was not a war on Muslims; it was a war against extremism and against violence, but not against a part of the American public. And that was a theme he repeated throughout his presidency, even if there were examples of his administration taking actions that would seem to belie that. He at least believed or spoke to the notion that this was not supposed to divide us in the way that, ultimately, it would.

And you fast forward to see Donald J. Trump, you know, in that clip that you showed at the beginning of the show speaking during his campaign in, I think, 2015 saying we should ban all Muslims coming into the country; what a radical change. What a radical change in message from the very top leadership of America from 2001 to 2015, you know, and rather than the other way around – rather than, you know, taking the rhetoric too far at first and then moderating it, we’ve gone the other direction where it became more fashionable later in this 20-year cycle to target Muslims who had nothing to do with anything that was violent whatsoever. It was suddenly acceptable and rewarded politically by the election of President Trump, and he then of course enacted this travel ban that he had talked about in the campaign. That’s a – that’s a remarkable evolution, and it’s what was – I don’t know is we’ll see where will this go from here. You know, will we, you know – where will this attitude, you know, take us at this point in terms of our views of each other? The notion of other, which was so, you know, taken by Trump as a political tool, will that continue to be –

MS. ALCINDOR: And Republicans – taken by Republicans as a political tool. Asma, there was – there’s a poll from NPR and PBS that shows that Americans are split on how the threat of terrorism presents itself. Republicans see it as a(n) international threat; Democrats see it as a domestic threat. We only have a couple seconds here, so I want to come to you: What does that tell us about the way that America sees and the politics of this, if you can in about 10 seconds?

MS. KHALID: Sure, just real quick, I mean, I think there is a clear partisan divide, and that’s established and developed and metastasized, I would say, over the last two decades. Republicans were no different than Democrats in terms of how they thought of terrorism immediately after when you look at polls from 2002, or marginally different I should say.

MS. ALCINDOR: Martha, you get the last word. You were here 20 years ago. Again, in about 10 seconds, though, reporters feel – Gwen Ifill said this. She said that this made her look at the talk of war and peace differently. That’s what she said before she passed away. I wonder if you could – if you could talk in just a couple seconds of what you think of that.

MS. RADDATZ: I think it should. I think it should. I think all Americans should look at why we go to war, when we go to war, and how we go to war, and ask themselves questions all the time. We don’t want this to happen again.

MS. ALCINDOR: Yeah, we don’t want it to happen again. We’ll have to leave it there tonight. Thank you so much to Peter, Pierre, Asma, Martha, and Vivian for sharing your reporting, and thank you for joining us. It’s hard to believe it’s been 20 years since these attacks. So many lost so much on that day and in the years that followed. My heart breaks for every person and family touched by this tragedy. We will never forget.

And tune in Monday to the PBS NewsHour for “Fresh Faces,” a report on the mayoral race in Boston that includes a more diverse field of candidates than ever before.

And our conversation on how 9/11 changed American life will continue on the Washington Week Extra. Find it on our social media and on our website.

I’m Yamiche Alcindor. Good night from Washington.

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