A week after Sept. 11, 2001, I was looking out the window of the apartment Mohamed Atta and Marwan al-Shehhi had shared in Hollywood, Fla., and trying to square that sunny, tree-lined view with what would have been their final one, crashing planes into the World Trade Center.
Apartment 3A contained tangible, everyday relics of the hijackers' lives while they were attending flight school to learn to fly, but not to land, and planning the attacks that killed more than 3,000 people. That ordinary living space told of neither monsters nor martyrs, nor people with the power to so fundamentally change the global landscape. It spoke of ordinary individuals carrying out a suicide mission as dispassionately as if they were delivering the mail. Both are said to have been personally recruited by Osama bin Laden.
When people say "never again" about an event like the Holocaust, it means humanity can't stand idly by in the face of the systematic extermination of a people. But what lessons have we learned from Sept. 11, 2001?
Our intelligence agencies have amassed reams of information, including on every American's cellphone use. Yet 12 years later, what do we understand about preventing something like it from happening again? The 9/11 Commission chided our government's failure to heed the Aug. 6, 2001, presidential briefing titled "Bin Laden determined to attack inside the United States," and other information-sharing efforts. The Bush administration tried to make up for those by overreacting. Rather than focus on getting bin Laden, we attacked Iraq, opening up that country to becoming a terrorist haven, with new recruits taught to hate America.
On our end, torturing detainees suddenly was deemed acceptable, along with spying on citizens and holding people for years without charges or access to counsel. Today, 160 non-Americans remain that way in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, though 86 of them were cleared to leave.
Sept. 11 triggered responses as far-flung and long-lasting as the mere presence of a turbaned man with a beard inciting fear and suspicion -- and even killings. It's the backdrop every time an air traveler accidentally puts a bottle of shampoo in a carry-on and gets nabbed. It dried up visas to science and engineering university students from China and India. Now we're competing with other countries for their talents.
In a backlash against Muslims, some communities took to passing anti-Shariah laws, protesting mosque openings and burning Qurans. They ignored that Muslims were Sept. 11 victims, too.
Two weeks after the attacks, I visited the widow of a waiter killed in a restaurant inside one of the Twin Towers. They were Bangladeshi Muslims, living in a Queens walk-up apartment not that different from the hijackers'. In the span of a few days, this woman had lost her husband and given birth to the baby they'd been awaiting. But she refused to hate anyone.
At a New York seminar on terrorism a few years ago, experts shared information about particular terrorist groups. But the most memorable line was a warning that we're so obsessed with "the things that blow up" that we fail to understand and deal with the human motivations behind them. We need to stop feeding the terrorists' narrative of humiliation and revenge, one of the leaders said.
Now, as the Obama administration makes another case for attacking another nation, there's a grim sense of deja vu -- and a reminder to be wary of what our leaders tell us, no matter who they are.
That day in that Florida apartment, I was overwhelmed by the sense that Atta and al-Shehhi were once ordinary people, just like Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, the alleged Boston Marathon bomber, and Nidal Hassan, the Army psychiatrist-turned-killer at Fort Hood.
Just like the white-supremacist-connected gunman who shot up a Sikh temple in Wisconsin. Just like the 20-year-old would-be school gunman in Georgia, who told a school employee he had no reason to live because no one loved him.
The employee told him she did, urging him to hold off the gunfire. Because of that, many lives were spared that day.
If our responses at the global level were more like that -- listening, understanding, reasoning -- with more diplomacy and fewer bombs, maybe we would finally have learned something meaningful from Sept. 11.
Rekha Basu is a Des Moines Register columnist.