Remembering 9/11: The World Stood Still

(On the evening of September 11, 2001, I sat in my apartment in Midtown Manhattan and wrote the following, which reflected my immediate thoughts on the terrorist attacks on the United States earlier that morning.)

The day, 11 September 2001, began with attending the Sixteenth Annual International Prayer Breakfast, marking the opening of the Fifty-Sixth Session of the United Nations General Assembly. As stated in the program, the objectives of the Prayer Breakfast included:

  • To acknowledge the sovereignty of God over all peoples and nations;
  • To invoke God’s wisdom and blessing on those involved in the work of the United Nations.

Also included in the program was a solo rendition of “The Peacemaker’s Prayer”  (Prayer of St. Francis of Assisi) by South Korean Sookyung Ahn.  The words of the first stanza struck a chord:

 “Lord, make me an instrument of Thy peace.  Where there is hatred, let me sow love; where there is injury, pardon; where there is doubt, faith; where there is despair, hope; where there is darkness, light; where there is sadness, joy.”

No sooner had I left the Prayer Breakfast and approached the Security Council Consultations room I was met by one of my colleagues on the Security Council, the Deputy Permanent Representative of Colombia, who, with a small gathering of people, was standing in the adjoining lounge watching the terrorist attack on the World Trade Centre in New York as it unfolded on the television screen.  I was in time to see the attack on the second Tower, as the airplane flew through the building and a burst of flame filled the screen.  This was soon to be followed by the Towers collapsing.  There was obvious pandemonium as people ran from the area in panic to escape the conflagration and collapsing buildings.

Was this for real or was this out of Hollywood?  Could terrorism hit home in the underbelly of the United States with such devastation?  Could all of this planning and execution escape the sophistication of US intelligence apparatus?  These are questions which no doubt engaged the thoughts of millions of people around the world.  I also wondered: could humanity be so cruel to one another as to take the lives of so many innocent people to further a political objective or to avenge an act or perceived wrong?

I thought about the words of St. Francis of Assisi, which moments before blessed my spirit and inspired me to do more for the cause of peace.  I remembered the words of the main speaker that there can be “no justice with reconciliation”. I questioned whether the principle of reconciliation and justice were mutually exclusive of each other.  I remarked then to the ambassadors of Nigeria and Ghana, sitting at the table with me, “There can be no peace without justice”.

There was stunned silence in the small group watching what, undoubtedly, was the most outrageous terrorist act of our time.  There was speculation and disbelief that these terrorist acts were taking place in the city in which we lived and worked.  I wondered what this would mean for America, the Security Council, the United Nations, indeed for humanity.

Ironically, we were about to meet in the Caucus of the Non-Aligned Movement to discuss a resolution lifting sanctions against the Sudan.  The draft resolution was to be introduced in the Security Council consultations immediately thereafter, with a view to a vote being taken in a few days. This sanctions regime had been imposed on the Sudan for harboring terrorist groups in that country.  Several years ago terrorists operating from Sudanese territory had botched an attempted assassination of Egypt’s President Hosni Mubarak in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. It wasn’t lost on us that Sudan also had harbored Osama bin Laden, and the plot to attack the US embassies in East Africa in 1998 were hatched and carried out from Sudanese territory.

The United States had, for quite some time, blocked the lifting of the sanctions despite the fact that it was agreed the Sudan no longer harbored terrorists.  Other issues, not the least of which was the reports of slavery being practiced in Sudan, as well as other bi-lateral issues between the United States and Sudan, prevented action in the Security Council.  Less than a week earlier, a change of strategy in Washington was made public and we were told that the United States would no longer oppose the lifting of the sanctions.  The timing of this terrorist attack on the United States could not have been more politically untimely with regard to the lifting of sanctions against Sudan.

As the UN building was ordered evacuated, I left the area to call my family in Maryland and my daughter who lived in New York.  As must have been the case for thousands across America, the call on the cell phone wouldn’t go through.  I was reminded of the advertisement that what’s important is that the call goes through when you need it most.  Only this time, the call didn’t go through.  Cell phone service was severely interrupted.  I later went to my office and used the land line phone to contact my family.  There was relief all around.

As I thought about the events that were being reported – the attacks on the World Trade Centre and the Pentagon, and the hijacked plane crashing outside of Pittsburgh – I began to wonder and speculate as to the possible source of these terrorist acts.  My thoughts kept going back to the international terrorist, Osama bin Laden, who had vowed to destroy America.  His hatred of America was well documented.  Bin Laden was the subject of action we had taken in the Security Council with imposition of sanctions on the Taliban rulers of Afghanistan for harboring him.  He was known to operate terrorist camps in Afghanistan and from there controlled an international network of terrorists with the main target being the United States.

I recalled my own statement in the Security Council during the debate on terrorism in which I denounced terrorism in all its forms and condemned those who would take innocent lives so wantonly. As recently as August 20, 2001, speaking in the Security Council on the Middle East, including the Occupied Palestinian Territories, I had denounced all forms of terrorism, implicitly also condemning state terrorism.

This attack against the United States was despicable.  It was an attack against the civilized world, against all of humanity.  My heartfelt sympathy went out to all the families who lost loved ones in these attacks.  Indeed, man’s inhumanity to man could not have been more manifest.  There is no justification for acts of terrorism, and should be condemned.  The international community must marshal all necessary resources to put an end to terrorism.

I thought of the sophistication involved, and speculated on the difficulties that it would entail for a terrorist organization to plan and execute these terrorist acts, I wondered how much, if any, of the planning might have occurred on American soil. I remembered the circumstances immediately following the bombing of the Federal building in Oklahoma City, just a few years earlier.  I remembered that the initial suspects were targeted because of their ethnicity and religious background.  I did not want to fall into that trap.  At this point of my thinking I decided to wait on the facts before forming a conclusion as to culpability.

(The rest is history.)

Ambassador Curtis A. Ward