J. Samuel Walker’s The Day That Shook America: A Concise History of 9/11, offers a long perspective and draws on recently opened records to provide an in-depth analysis of the approaches taken by the Clinton and Bush administrations toward terrorism in general and Al-Qaeda in particular. The book is a passion project for Sam and we are honored to offer the Introduction below.
When Charles Falkenberg, his wife Leslie Whittington, and their daughters Zoe, age eight, and Dana, age three, boarded United Airlines Flight 77 on the morning of September 11, 2001, they were embarking on what promised to be a once-in-a-lifetime family adventure. Their flight from Dulles International Airport, which served Washington, DC, to Los Angeles was the first leg of a trip to Australia, where Whittington had been awarded a two-month fellowship at the Australian National University in Canberra. She was a professor and associate dean at Georgetown University in Washington and had played a key role in building the school’s public policy program. She was an economist whose research interests centered on the impact of tax policies on families. Leslie was a “fun person” with an easy laugh who was exceptionally warm and outgoing. She was a highly regarded teacher who, a former student recalled, “could find humor in economics—which can be rare.”
Charlie Falkenberg was a software engineer who designed programs for analyzing scientific data, especially on environmental issues. One of his projects was collaborating on a study of the long-term effects of the massive Exxon Valdez oil spill that occurred in Alaska in 1989. While in Alaska, he had developed a taste for sockeye salmon, which he enjoyed cooking for friends and neighbors at the family home in University Park, Maryland. Charlie was as outgoing as his wife and was well-known as an organizer of community events, including work parties that periodically cleaned up the creek that ran through the town.
Charlie and Leslie were devoted parents. Zoe’s third-grade teacher, Michele Rowland, remembered her as a “delightful child.” She was an excellent student who loved ballet and participating in school plays. She was highly competitive in the sense that she always wanted to do well. On one occasion, she fell from her scooter and broke her elbow. She had an important standardized test coming up, and as she was being wheeled into surgery, she yelled at her mother, “What am I going to do about taking [the test]?” Dana was a curly haired charmer who customarily wore a smile that filled her face. She liked to dress up in outfits that ranged from a tutu to a feather boa with large sunglasses. She especially enjoyed riding on her father’s shoulders to the nearby elementary school to meet Zoe at the end of the day. Charlie and Leslie stood out among parents as strong supporters of the school. They were active in the PTA, and Leslie often provided crayons, pencils, and other supplies for all the children in Zoe’s class. The entire family was eagerly looking forward to exploring Australia, and the girls were excited about the prospect of seeing kangaroos and koala bears.
Also boarding Flight 77 on the morning of September 11 were five Saudi nationals who were embarking on an adventure of their own that was emphatically sinister. They were operatives of the terrorist network called Al-Qaeda, led by an exiled Saudi living in Afghanistan, Osama bin Laden. They intended to hijack the plane and smash it into the Pentagon building, just outside of Washington, as a way of expressing their hatred of the United States. Between 8:51 and 8:54 a.m., about a half hour after the plane took off, the men moved to carry out their plan. Brandishing knives and box cutters, they herded the flight attendants and passengers to the rear of the plane. They seized the cockpit and disabled—or, more likely—murdered the two pilots. One of the terrorists, Hani Hanjour, was a trained pilot, and he took over the controls. He turned the plane around from its westward course and headed east toward Washington. As he neared the Pentagon, he gunned the engines. At 9:38, the plane hit the ground floor of the west side of the building at a speed of about five hundred and thirty miles per hour. The impact of the crash killed everyone on board instantly and one hundred and twenty-five Pentagon workers.
In the wake of the disaster, a close friend of the Whittington-Falkenberg family, Patrice Pascual, lamented: “They were the kind of people who had no prejudices. That’s part of what makes this so horrible, because they spent their last minutes with people controlled by hatred.” Years later, Judy Feder, a colleague of Whittington at Georgetown, reflected on the fears that must have prevailed on Flight 77 and especially for Zoe and Dana Falkenberg. “I think from time to time—and then try not to think—what it must have been like to be on that plane,” she told a reporter. “I think about those intelligent and inquisitive little girls asking questions and how horrifying it must have been.” Recovery workers at the Pentagon never found Dana’s remains in a condition that could be “individually identified.” They recovered remains that were almost certainly those of Zoe, along with pajamas and a Barbie doll.
On the morning of September 11, I was on a research trip and, at least for a time, oblivious to the tragedies that were taking place at the Pentagon and the World Trade Center in New York City. I was driving from Davidson, North Carolina, to Atlanta, Georgia, by way of Aiken, South Carolina. I planned to have lunch in Aiken with friends and talk about the subject of my research, the Three Mile Island nuclear accident. As I drove through lightly populated areas of South Carolina, I found to my annoyance that there was nothing on the radio I liked. I turned it off and cruised in silence toward my destination. When I got bored enough, I decided to try the radio again in hopes of finding something interesting.
As soon as I turned on the radio, I knew from the tone of the announcer’s voice that something dreadful had happened. She was saying that President George W. Bush had been informed and had left the school he was visiting in Florida. Informed of what, I wondered? I soon found out when the station switched to reporters in New York who were describing the attacks on the World Trade Center. Information was sparse at that point, but it seemed clear that planes had deliberately smashed into the twin towers. As I tried to assimilate this story, the station switched to the news of the strike on the Pentagon. Within a short time, I listened with horror to the live account of the sudden collapse of the south tower. Beset with anxiety and incredulity, I tried to call my wife, who worked in downtown Washington, from a pay phone at a gas station (I had no cell phone). But phone lines were jammed and I could not get through.
There I was in the middle of nowhere, worried and helpless, with nothing to do but drive on. When I reached the home of my friends in Aiken, I was able to reach my wife. She had made it home safely, though her eight-mile trip had taken a very long time. She had talked with our children and other members of my family, and she could assure me that everyone was fine.
After lunch, I drove to Atlanta. I spent the evening watching news reports of the sorrowful events of September 11. The following day, I conducted research at the Jimmy Carter Presidential Library and then retreated to my hotel to catch up on the news. The television networks ran streamers that listed the names and hometowns of the victims of the terrorist attacks, and I was unpleasantly jolted to see that the list included a family from my hometown. I live in University Park, Maryland, and although I did not know Charlie Falkenberg, Leslie Whittington, or their girls personally, it was shocking and saddening to see their names. University Park is a small and close-knit community, and the deaths of neighbors who lived just two blocks away added a personal dimension to the melancholy story of 9/11.
At the time and in later years, I have been troubled by a number of questions about the disaster that occurred on “The Day That Shook America” (as the cover of People magazine labeled it). What were the purposes of the attacks? Why did US intelligence agencies and the Defense Department, with annual budgets in the hundreds of billions of dollars, fail to protect the country from a small band of terrorists who managed to hijack four airliners and take the lives of thousands of American citizens? What did responsible government agencies and officials know about Al-Qaeda and why did they not do more to head off the threat it posed? What were US policies toward terrorism, especially under Presidents Bill Clinton and Bush, and why did they fall so far short of defending against a series of attacks? Was the tragedy of 9/11 preventable? And what was the long-term impact of the strike against America on that terrible day? Those are the most important questions that this book tries to answer.
J. Samuel Walker is a professional historian and the author of, among other titles, Three Mile Island: A Nuclear Crisis in Historical Perspective; Prompt and Utter Destruction: Truman and the Use of Atomic Bombs against Japan; Most of 14th Street Is Gone: The Washington, DC Riots of 1968; and The Road to Yucca Mountain: The Development of Radioactive Waste Policy in the United States. He lives in the Washington, DC, area.