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Osama bin Laden and America's long journey from 9/11 to 5/1

The killing of Osama bin Laden means that, for the first time in years, there may be a glimmer of light at the end of the tunnel.

By Kurt Volker / May 5, 2011


In the early morning of Sept. 11, 2001, I walked to my office in the Old Executive Office Building, part of the White House complex. It was a cool, sunny day with a crystal-blue sky. As director for NATO and Western European Affairs at the National Security Council, I was en route to a staff meeting where we planned to discuss, among other things, the agenda for the 2002 NATO Summit in Prague, Czech Republic.

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Passing a television screen on the way, I saw one of the World Trade Center towers in a smoky fire, and a secretary explained it had been hit by an airplane. Strange. When I stepped out of the meeting, I stood and watched as another plane hit the second tower. This was no accident.

I went to my desk, and an e-mail from the security office blasted in red letters – “Leave the building immediately.” In the stairway, colleagues talked about a plane having hit the Pentagon. The rest of the day was a mixture of shock and struggle: watching images of the collapsing buildings; realizing I was alive only due to the heroism of passengers on the fourth aircraft, which crashed in Pennsylvania; trying to communicate with my wife through jammed cellphone lines; gathering our young children.

Anger and overreach

The events of that day changed the world. Americans felt vulnerable and fought back. We showed our great patriotism, but also our susceptibility to anger and overreach.

A new Bush administration, which had hoped to focus on domestic policy and reducing America’s role in the Balkans, suddenly found itself in a major war on terror. The administration dusted off underground bunkers and revived cold-war plans to assure the continuity of government in case of a major attack on Washington. The skies above America were closed to airplanes for nearly a week, and subsequent air travel would never be the same.

Sept. 11 opened a gateway to an unexpected future: The war in Afghanistan, which threw NATO’s previous reluctance to go “out of area” out the window; bombings in London and Madrid; the war in Iraq, which descended into brutal sectarian warfare and divided the West; Guantánamo; the surge in violent Islamist extremism globally; and even, most recently, the democratic revolutions of the Arab Spring.


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