Hi Reddit! Garrett Graff here. Today, I'm talking about the 20th Anniversary of 9/11 and the release of my audio series exploring that day's legacy Long Shadow

I’ve spent most of the two decades since 9/11 covering the legacy of that tragic day. Both the human experience as well as the way it changed our government and our society. From the rise of homeland security to the War on Terror to its effects on our politics.

What happened on 9/11 and how it changed our world is the most important story of the modern age. It’s the hinge on which so much changed. The dividing line between the 20th Century and the 21st. But since I started reporting on September 11th and speaking to people across the country about it. I’ve realized many still don’t really know all that happened.

Today, a quarter of Americans are too young to remember the attacks at all. And in chronicling how these attacks changed our lives. I’ve realized the history we now teach of September 11th is a simple one. We recall the surprise attack that shot across the blue sky of a back-to-school September day. Buildings fell down. Flags popped up. Lives are changed. But that telling is too tidy. And that's why my new podcast series Long Shadow is here. It recreates the events of the day and explores the lingering questions we're still left grappling with.


I'm here with Lead Producer Max Johnston and my production team at Goat Rodeo and Long Lead, to answer your questions.

Comments: 644 • Responses: 18  • Date: 

frawq289 karma

Now that we're two decades past 9/11 it feels like nothing is all that different from where we started. Terrorism is till everywhere and the Taliban is back in power in Afghanistan. Is it fair to say our whole adventure with the War on Terror was a bust?

garrett_graff_LS515 karma

Short answer: YES. I wrote about this yesterday in The Atlantic:

"As we approach the 20th anniversary of 9/11 on Saturday, I cannot escape this sad conclusion: The United States—as both a government and a nation—got nearly everything about our response wrong, on the big issues and the little ones. The GWOT yielded two crucial triumphs: The core al-Qaeda group never again attacked the American homeland, and bin Laden, its leader, was hunted down and killed in a stunningly successful secret mission a decade after the attacks. But the U.S. defined its goals far more expansively, and by almost any other measure, the War on Terror has weakened the nation—leaving Americans more afraid, less free, more morally compromised, and more alone in the world. A day that initially created an unparalleled sense of unity among Americans has become the backdrop for ever-widening political polarization."

The full piece is here: https://www.theatlantic.com/ideas/archive/2021/09/after-911-everything-wrong-war-terror/620008/

My original draft of that article was actually even 3,000-words longer, more detailed, and more damning.

despalicious229 karma

With the benefit of hindsight, how much should we care anymore, and is the “never forget” mindset a constructive one? In other words, sure we made it that “most important” story, but should it be that way?

Obviously the loss of 3,000 lives is a grave tragedy, but it’s highly debatable whether our collective responses have been good for anyone — systematic dismantling of civil liberties, ineffective security theater, bigotry masquerading as patriotism, domestic terror groups, arbitrary unending wars, civilian deaths and human rights abuses, immense concentration of power and wealth in the MIC, creation and emboldening of even more dedicated and elusive enemies…

We now hardly bat an eye at the 600k Americans who have died needlessly from COVID-19, whereas 9/11 proved to be an anomaly. Foreign terror threats, we now know, are low on the list of things that put Americans at risk. It’s hard to believe our national “immune response” wasn’t more toxic than the original stimulus.

garrett_graff_LS390 karma

This is a great and important question — and actually one I've thought a lot about over the 18 months of the pandemic.

The complicated answer is that the two are actually inseparable. America's mismanagement of the Covid-19 pandemic is directly linked to the political forces unleashed by 9/11 — there's a super straight line from 9/11 to the election of Donald Trump, who remember came to power on the back of "birtherism" and the ugliest form of anti-Muslim, anti-immigrant nativist/nationalist politics that grew up out of the War on Terror.

Similarly, there's a really straight line from 9/11 to 1/6 — our nation's response to 9/11 unleashed the fear and hatred that led to the storming of the Capitol on January 6th.

Today, we have to remember 9/11 both to honor the sacrifice and bravery of that day but also to understand how we got to today.

chunkalicious84156 karma

As you did your research, what was one thing that surprised you the most?

garrett_graff_LS683 karma

The thing that I was most captivated by in my research on 9/11 is how the theme of luck (or fate or faith or whatever you call it) played out that day — how so many little decisions that people make on a daily basis without thought about the alternate universes you may be unlocking (when you get a cup of coffee, when you send a fax, which bus to catch, when you run an errand, which flight to book) ended up that day determining the difference between life and death.

I tell the story in THE ONLY PLANE IN THE SKY of Monica O'Leary who on September 10th was the unluckiest person at Cantor Fitzgerald — the financial services firm atop the north tower — and was laid off. She boxed up her desk, said goodbye to her colleagues and went home — and then the next day, she watched from the roof of her apartment building as the tower fell and 638 of her colleagues died.

Michael Lomonaco, the chef at the restaurant Windows on the World, also atop the North Tower, would have normally been at his kitchen by 8:30 but that morning of all mornings he stopped to get a new pair of eyeglasses at LensCrafters.

You see it too at the Pentagon — one of the conference rooms that was hit, full of Army personnel, explodes amid smoke and fire, and everyone evacuates. Everyone who turns left dies, and everyone who turns right lives.

I wrote a longer essay about this in The Atlantic if you want to see more: https://www.theatlantic.com/ideas/archive/2019/09/september-11-blind-luck-decided-who-lived-or-died/597688/

garrett_graff_LS44 karma


Beneficial_Drop3940111 karma

Do you think Khalid Sheikh Mohammed will ever be brought to justice for his role in 9/11?

garrett_graff_LS214 karma

Wow — this is one of the worst chapters of the legacy of 9/11 to be sure. The fact that here on the 20th anniversary of the attacks none of the key plotters have been brought to justice in US courts is a stunning testament to the wrong, dark choices we made after 9/11. Given how the process has played out so far, I think it's dubious that the US is ever able to complete the trial successfully — I mean the best case scenario seems like it's still 2-3 years away, if then. But the US military seems pretty clear-eyed about Gitmo: It's beginning to install geriatric care and readying nursing home and hospice care, anticipating that the 39 detainees will start dying of old age before they're brought to justice.

When I was editor of Washingtonian, we published a piece about KSM's murder of WSJ reporter Daniel Pearl and the quest for justice, written by the WSJ colleague he was staying with when he was kidnapped, that I'd recommend: https://www.washingtonian.com/projects/KSM/

Frankyagain75 karma

Why do you think building 7 fell ?

garrett_graff_LS178 karma

This is actually quite an interesting question in terms of how we found the answer — but the answer itself is pretty straightforward: The building burned extensively inside, FDNY lacked the water and resources to tackle the fire in a meaningful way, and it was structurally compromised by debris falling from the collapse of the two neighboring towers.

The backstory here is that one of the main conspiracy theories surrounding 9/11 is that the 47-story neighboring WTC 7 fell around 5:20 p.m. and conspiracy theorists believed that it was brought down for some nefarious purpose to hide some sort of secrets, since the building contained some government offices.

But NIST, which was the government body who was brought in to study the collapses of the towers, found that there was obvious extensive structural visible in pictures and video of WTC7 that day and that the unique architecture of the building, built atop a ConEd substation, meant that its load-bearing columns were weaker than normal.

Popular Mechanics has done a great job tackling 9/11 conspiracy theories head-on and debunking them: https://www.popularmechanics.com/technology/design/a3524/4278874/

Heypeach772 karma

Would you tell us about a personal affect you have come across that has made you kind of stop and think/affected you?

garrett_graff_LS143 karma

The stories of luck that I mention always hit me hard — but it's story of Will Jimeno, a PAPD officer who was one of the only two people rescued from underneath the Towers after their collapse, that to me is the personal story I find most affecting. We're devoting the final episode of the podcast to his story. You can listen to the podcast here and his story on Saturday: https://podcasts.apple.com/us/podcast/long-shadow/id1577471264

garrett_graff_LS63 karma

Thanks everyone for coming to my AMA and all the great, thoughtful questions. You can check out my book here: https://bookshop.org/books/the-only-plane-in-the-sky-an-oral-history-of-9-11/9781501182211 and check out the podcast here: https://podcasts.apple.com/us/podcast/long-shadow/id1577471264

as I said, the final episode Saturday, on the anniversary, is a pretty special story and I hope you'll give it a listen.

giantsfan9762 karma

Hi Garrett:

First of all, go Solons! (Class of '02 here)

What is something you find difficult to explain about the pre-9/11 era to a young person who only knows life in a post-9/11 era?

garrett_graff_LS171 karma

HI HI HI! Go Solons! (For others: This was our high school mascot at Montpelier High School, in Vermont, where I grew up. What's a Solon you ask? Well "Solon" was a wise old lawmaker, but our mascot was an owl with glasses.)

I think the hardest thing to capture pre-9/11 is just how innocent America was on the morning of 9/11. Whenever I talk about that day, I talk about the most interesting moment of that day — the 17 minutes between the first crash and the second, 8:46 to 9:03, when you see America assume, because it's innocent, that the first crash was an accident. Everyone goes on about their day — from New York commuters to the President of the United States. Then the second crash and America realizes it's under attack and at war.

It's hard to explain that innocence to people who have grown up and only known the security culture — active shooter drills! — of the post-9/11 era.

I wrote some about this in the New York Daily News in 2019: https://www.nydailynews.com/opinion/ny-oped-transporting-ourselves-back-to-this-day-20190911-aanljlofrvdjjchaisytcr5glu-story.html

SonofSniglet52 karma

Hi Garett!

I know it's almost cliché to ask this, but where were you when the second plane hit on September 11?

Max, same question.


garrett_graff_LS58 karma

I have a very boring 9/11 story — I was at breakfast in college when a friend came by and told me about the first two crashes. But even then, as boring as it was, the memory is burned into my mind: I could walk into that dining hall tomorrow and tell you exactly what table I was at and who I was with. Similarly, I remember exactly where I was that morning when I saw the photo on TV of Osama bin Laden and first heard of "Al-Qaeda" and being so confused about how everyone on TV seemed so sure that this was the guy who attacked us because I'd never heard of him.

Here's Max's answer, which he just sent me: "I was in first grade, so I don't remember much. My mom picked me up from school out of concern, and I played with my toys while everyone else in the house was worried and nervous about something happening on TV. I remember people behaving weirdly, but not much else. In many conversations with ppl around my age (I was born in '95) many of them also have vague recollections."

DianaElbasha28 karma

Hi, Garrett! Thanks for doing this. You've been researching and reporting on 9/11 for a decade. I'm curious: did you learn anything totally new (to you) in the course of creating Long Shadow? Do you find that you continue to uncover new and/or surprising information as you dig into the story more?

garrett_graff_LS47 karma

So each episode of my new LONG SHADOW podcast tackles a "lingering question" of 9/11, something where the answer has evolved with time and/or where we misunderstand something in that day's history.

The episode that I learned the most reporting is about the question of "Who was the 20th hijacker?" which was one of the most pressing questions after 9/11 — three of the four planes all had five hijackers aboard, and the fourth, United Airlines Flight 93, had just four. Was there a 20th hijacker out there ready to strike again or lead a second wave of attacks?

As it turns out, the US pursued multiple "20th hijackers" after 9/11 and the story of that dark quest for justice is actually key to understanding why we haven't been able to bring the true plotters of September 11th to justice: https://podcasts.apple.com/us/podcast/who-was-the-20th-hijacker/id1577471264?i=1000534654575

power-cube26 karma

Holyfield or Belfort?

And while we are on the topic, how do you feel about a former President of the United States MC'ing PPV fight on the 20th anniversary of 9/11?

garrett_graff_LS153 karma

It's exactly as disrespectful and self-centered as you'd expect from a man who, on 9/11, bragged about how the collapse of the Towers made his building the tallest left in New York City — then lied about seeing "Muslims celebrating the attacks on the roofs of Jersey City" and then won the presidency on an anti-Muslim, un-American platform of "birtherism," implemented a "Muslim travel ban" as his first major presidential action, and then tried to invite the Taliban to Camp David on the 18th anniversary of 9/11.

MongolianMango25 karma

Hi Garrett!

Whenever I read posts on reddit about 9/11, there's always a commenter who talks about the Saudis or another arab country. I can't tell if this is an unsubstantiated conspiracy theory based in racism or if there is genuine evidence. To your knowledge, what extent were sovereign states and organizations involved in Al Qaeda and the attack? If the answer is "none", how do you feel about the spread of these conspiracy theories?

garrett_graff_LS36 karma

What a perfect question! This is literally the entire episode of tomorrow's LONG SHADOW podcast. We dive deep into the "Saudi Connection" and what it means and the suspected ties. It'll be here tomorrow: https://podcasts.apple.com/us/podcast/long-shadow/id1577471264

Greners22 karma

How much do you think the government both FBI, CIA or other departments knew about 9/11 before it happened. I know there are a lot of conspiracy around 9/11 and I can’t say that I’m subscribed to any of them but for the US Government to know nothing also would surprise me?

garrett_graff_LS71 karma

There actually was a fair bit of awareness that an attack was being planned. CIA Director George Tenet said that the summer of 2001 "the system was blinking red."

The CIA, FBI, and NSA all dropped the ball with specific portions of the missed-intelligence leading up to 9/11, but I place the most specific blame on the CIA, which knew that two known al-Qaeda operatives were inside the US and failed to tell the FBI that to investigate them.

jxj2421 karma

Has anything positive come out of this 20-year-long fiasco?


Anything at all?

(Other than for Haliburton et al.)

chunkalicious8415 karma

I try not to dive into conspiracies, but I just don't understand how WTC 7 fell. Can you expand on this?

Did you have a difficult time staying away from conspiracy theories?

garrett_graff_LS75 karma

It's really sad and vile how 9/11 has gotten so wrapped up in conspiracy theories in the last 20 years — but it's also an important part of that day's legacy in today's world, because you see the roots of the Covid-19 anti-vax conspiracies and even the roots of QAnon in those early eras of 9/11, the idea that there's a Deep State working to advance their own interests at the expense of "regular" Americans.

I wrote about this in the WSJ last year actually: https://www.wsj.com/articles/9-11-and-the-rise-of-the-new-conspiracy-theorists-11599768458

But what's the REALLY worrisome legacy of the 9/11 conspiracies is how they demonstrate that once something takes root, it's hard to dislodge. Here we are 20 years after 9/11, 15 years after effectively all the major conspiracy theories were authoritatively and demonstrably debunked by thoughtful engagement from Popular Mechanics, NIST, and others, and we're still talking about it. That's bad news for the idea that we might be living with QAnon as a core part of GOP politics for years — or decades — to come. What if we start thinking about QAnon as a 20-year threat to our democracy???

KillRoyTNT13 karma

One straight and simple question: Do you believe 100% the official story ? Or what is you percentage?

garrett_graff_LS24 karma

The thing I'm most dubious is whether we ever got to the bottom of the Saudi involvement and knowledge of the 9/11 attacks ahead of time. Obviously this is a still open question — Biden's trying to encourage some further revelations and declassification — but there's a lot of smoke still there. The Sarasota family??!!

junkerfes2-7 karma

If the Universe was born at the Big Bang, what existed before then?

HGMIV92623 karma

I can answer that:

We don't know. And we're not afraid to admit that, and we'd love to find the answer, no matter what it is.

garrett_graff_LS21 karma

I love and endorse this answer. The world is fascinating and mysterious and anyone who studies history has to be humble about what we know and what we don't.