To Erik Bell it sounded like a low thud, similar to an electrical transformer blowing in the distance.
In that moment, he didn’t realize the noise was actually the sound of a Boeing 767 slamming into the north tower of the World Trade Center on Sept. 11, 2001. The Louisville financial advisor was in the south tower that morning to attend a training session. When he and his colleagues saw papers fluttering past their 65th floor window, they knew something was terribly wrong.
That’s when Bell decided it was best to leave the building, so he started to long trek down flight after flight of stairs. He was about two-thirds of the way down to ground level when the south tower convulsed. Bell says the stairway he was on swayed, and the plaster on the walls cracked.
“I didn’t know if I was going to have to run through fire because I didn’t know if the explosion was below me or above me,” he says.
Bell made it out of the tower and away from the building before it collapsed just before 10 o’clock that morning. He says he was blocks away before he learned that the explosions he experienced were not bombs as he had thought, but rather airplanes striking the skyscrapers.
In Arlington, Va., it was a regular workday for Army Sgt. Major Tony Rose at the U.S. Dept. of Defense. He had watched news coverage of the Trade Center attacks on a colleague’s television before returning to his second-floor office in the middle of the Pentagon’s five rings. Suddenly, the entire building shook like an earthquake.
The impact of a Boeing 757 plowing into the Pentagon at more than 500 miles an hour threw Rose to the ground. Shrapnel and debris penetrated his chest and back. His hearing was nothing but a muffled roar. As he struggled to help colleagues with worse injuries, he discovered the remains of a jet liner nose cone resting against an interior wall of the building.
“That’s when we knew it was an airplane, that’s when we really realized someone had attacked our country,” recalls Rose. “That’s when the real sense of anger began to boil.”
The ripples of that day touched Kentuckians far and wide. Marine Corps pilot Amy McGrath, originally from Kenton County, was in the cockpit of a F-18 fighter jet over San Diego with a payload of six air-to-air missiles. She and her crew had orders to shoot down any commercial airliner that may be about to strike critical targets on the west coast.
Fellow Marine Matt Koch of Bourbon County was still in training on 9/11. In the days that followed he would help guard the FBI Academy in Quantico, Va. Months later, both he and McGrath would be deployed in the War on Terror: McGrath flew combat missions over Afghanistan and Iraq. Koch went to Afghanistan to serve as an intelligence officer searching for enemy combatants who would eventually wind up in Guantanamo Bay.
“When you’re boots on the ground, you don’t have the luxury to think about what’s going on,” says Koch. “We had a job to do and we did it.”
“Those early days, we felt like the fight was justified, that we as Americans wanted to make sure that we got the people who did this to our country,” says McGrath. “I was part of that and was proud to be a part of that at that time.”
Changes in Policies, Changes in Values
9/11 was not America’s first experience with terrorism. There was the 1993 truck bombing of the World Trade Center by a group of Middle Eastern terrorists linked to Al-Qaeda. There was also the first major act of domestic terrorism: The 1995 bombing of the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City.
But 9/11 unfolded on a vastly different scale. In the immediate aftermath, Americans felt a strong sense of patriotism and national unity. Now 20 years later, the nation continues to struggle with deeper ramifications, including politically divisive wars in Iraq and Afghanistan that dragged on for years, debates over torture and detention, and the creation of a vast new homeland security agency.
“We have a dilemma that the government at its highest levels also uses the strength of the country being unified to go and do some things we shouldn’t,” says former Ambassador Carey Cavanaugh, who served in the Clinton and George W. Bush Administrations. “We started to moving away from things that we cherished, American Law, American justice, international agreements that we were part of, and started doing other things.”
Enemy combatants would be locked away in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, or in clandestine “black sites” hidden across the globe. Operatives used “enhanced interrogation techniques” on detainees in hopes of prying information about 9/11 or potential future attacks out of them.
American forces did wrest control of Afghanistan from the Taliban, kill 9/11 mastermind Osama Bin Laden, and capture many Al Qaeda operatives. But along the way, there were strategic errors, says Cavanaugh, who is now a professor at the University of Kentucky Patterson School of Diplomacy.
At the same time, though, he says American leaders have learned they have options beyond military force.
“Some of our strongest tools [are] diplomatic influence, European partners, economic levers, our culture, and our values,” says Cavanaugh. “What you’re seeing under President Biden and in part [Secretary of State] Antony Blinken is a recognition we need to use those tools now.”
Even with the American lives lost and the trillions of dollars expended, the War on Terror accomplished a critical mission, according to Koch, who is now a Republican state representative in central Kentucky’s 72nd House district.
“It was worth it, absolutely,” he says. “For 20 years we kept Americans safe.”
‘No Easy Answer’ in the Continued Fight Against Terrorism
But the Biden Administration’s withdrawal from Afghanistan and the swift takeover of that country by the Taliban have led some to question whether the U.S. will be safe from foreign-based terrorist attacks in the future. Eastern Kentucky University Homeland Security Professor Ryan Baggett says studies indicate there are four times as many terrorist groups active in that region now than there were 20 years ago, although he adds many of them have been weakened.
“Certainly, we can’t let our guard down,” says Baggett. “We can’t let those folks rebuild and we have another situation on our hands.”
Given political and economic constraints, the professor says the United States will need to be more strategic in choosing what military and counter-terrorism actions to launch in the future.
“The fact is we don’t have all the resources in the world,” Baggett says. “We’re going to have to be able to plan those resources a little bit more efficiently. We’re going to have to not go into every country who’s having some type of disturbance.”
Koch says he is saddened by how the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan unfolded. He contends America could have maintained a small force in the country, perhaps fewer than 2,500 service members, to help stabilize the Afghan government and protect the Afghani people who worked with the U.S. troops.
“Your presence being there is a powerful thing… having troops on the ground is a great morale [boost] for your average Afghan army commander,” says Koch. “We owed it to them to stay there with some kind of force and give them some backbone to help them defend themselves.”
McGrath says the American exit and the swift Taliban takeover is “tragic,” but she says President Joe Biden, like President Donald Trump before him, made the calculated decision that American security could be maintained without having to keep U.S. troops on the ground there. She also says the Biden Administration has a moral obligation to help the Afghanis who helped the American forces.
“There’s no easy answer in Afghanistan,” McGrath says. “There never was.”
The future is also uncertain for the Taliban. Baggett says the military organization is trying to redefine itself, but questions remain about whether it can evolve into a legitimate governing body that gains international acceptance, or whether it will rule Afghanistan with brutal and repressive tactics.
Cavanaugh says the Taliban is taking control of a different Afghanistan than the one they dominated before 9/11. He says Afghanis have experienced two decades of American involvement and investment to advance things like education and women’s rights. The Taliban may also face challenges from other terrorist groups like Islamic State Khorasan or ISIS-K that may seek greater influence now that the U.S. has left the scene.
“China and Russia didn’t pop champagne bottles when we left because they’re afraid of terrorism out of Afghanistan,” says Cavanaugh. “They’re worried these guys will be upset about how China treats its Uyghur population, how Russia treats its Chechen population.”
Future threats to the United States won’t just come in the form of traditional terrorist attacks. Baggett and McGrath say domestic extremism, vulnerable cyber-systems, natural disasters, and life-threatening pandemics pose new challenges to American security and stability.
“These are things that the next generation of leaders have to really think about,” says McGrath.
Lives Forever Changed
Twenty years later, Erik Bell and Tony Rose continue to live with the memories of what they experienced on 9/11. Bell says he tells his teenage daughter there are no certainties in life, that good and bad things can happen every day. He says he now tries to treat everyone he meets with dignity and respect, and to take nothing for granted.
“If we’re living life and cherishing the ability to be alive and to be amongst our loved ones, we will all treat each other better,” he says.
Rose retired from the Army in 2003 and settled with his wife in Elizabethtown. Although he lost 29 friends in the Pentagon on 9/11, Rose says he no longer holds any anger towards the terrorists. In 2006, he visited the detention center at Guantanamo Bay and saw several of the people involved in planning the attack. He says he realized then it was better to forgive them than to continue to hold anger towards them.
Rose also says the losses he suffered on 9/11 taught him to be less driven, to slow down, and make time for friends and colleagues.
“One moment I was talking with some of my soldiers and fellow workers that day, and the next minute they stepped into eternity,” says Rose. “Now I realize that the moments I have with people are irreplaceable.”