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OpinionColumnistsWilliam F. B. O'Reilly

If we splinter, 9/11 terrorists win

About 150 people attended a candlelight vigil at

About 150 people attended a candlelight vigil at Tobay Beach in Massapequa on Tuesday, Sept. 9, 2014, during the Town of Oyster Bay's annual 9/11 memorial service. Credit: Tara Conry

No one talks about 9/11 anymore.

At least not for long. If someone brings it up, someone else quickly changes the subject. Often that’s me.

It feels like everything’s been said about 9/11, as if we’re not supposed to talk about it now, other than as an historical marker. Actually discussing that day as it unfolded — actually discussing the trauma of what happened — feels taboo. It has for awhile.

It’s hard to believe it’s been 15 years — 5,479 days — since that awful, clear-blue morning. Seems like more. The night before that day I was hosting a primary-eve rally in Manhattan for then-mayoral candidate Michael Bloomberg. It was the closing curtain on an entirely different era. I don’t care what the calendar says, Sept. 10, 2001, was the final day of the 20th century. The morning those planes took off from Boston was the arrival of the 21st Century.

Thinking of the attacks on this anniversary reminds me of that endlessly repeated post-9/11 phrase: “If we don’t [fill in the blank], the terrorists win.”

I came to loathe that expression for how often it was used. It became a running joke. Even with the terrible grief of lost friends and relatives, I recall being able to put a smile on faces in the months after the attacks by saying things like, “Have another beer, Jimmy. If you don’t, the terrorists win.”

A nagging question I’ve asked only myself in the years following 9/11 grows more haunting with each passing one. I feel disrespectful even thinking it to the people who have sacrificed so much to annihilate al-Qaida as we knew it. Here’s the question nonetheless: Did Osama bin Laden win at the end of the day, even if he lies at the bottom of the North Arabian Sea?

America became a different country after the attacks. At first, it was united and resolute. But as the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq dragged on, as U.S. fiscal policy became more and more irresponsible, partly in response to 9/11, and as U.S. leaders from both parties continued making serious foreign policy mistakes, Americans began to turn on one another. Political rhetoric went from bad to worse to destructively vicious. All that began on a crisp September morning.

America can defeat radical Islamic terrorists. It can recover from any economic downturn in time. But it can’t survive the political and ethnic fracturing of the type we’re increasingly seeing. It has to stop. Because if it doesn’t, yes, the terrorists will win.

My best friend was in the North Tower of the World Trade Center that day and lived. As he and his co-workers filed down its stairs, they had to make way for the firefighters on their way up. The New York City Fire Department guys were young and fit, but straining with their heavy fire and emergency gear. My friend made sure to say “thank you” to each of them as they passed. Many of them wouldn’t survive.

Later that night, I walked him home from my apartment on East 76th Street, where he spent the day after the towers fell. A fire truck was parked on the avenue outside, and dust-covered firefighters aboard stared blankly from its windows. They were devastated. I wanted so badly to say “thank you,” but I was unsure how it would sound, so I didn’t. It’s bothered me ever since.

Funny, the things we think about when we forget to stop remembering.

William F. B. O’Reilly is a consultant for Republicans.


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