In the hours and days immediately after the 9/11 attacks, we saw America united as it had not been since Pearl Harbor. Then the reaction set in.
Sept. 11, 2001, launched a generation of demagogues, fear-mongers, charlatans, frauds, and finger-pointers. It also launched two wars — neither of which has ended — and Fox News. Yes, Rupert Murdoch’s right-wing propaganda machine had been around since 1996, but it was young and still trying to find its way. With a Republican in the White House after the 2000 election, Fox seemed to be wandering, out of focus, looking for someone to attack. Osama bin Laden was the answer to their prayers.
In the wake of 9/11, many Americans hoped that we might use the moment to examine ourselves and our attitudes toward Israel and her Arab neighbors. For over a half-century we had given the Jewish state a veritable blank check, militarily and diplomatically. We had supported authoritarian regimes in the Middle East to quench our insatiable thirst for oil. We had turned a deaf ear to popular movements in the region, including the quest for Palestinian independence. As a result, millions of people felt powerless to affect U.S. policy and that their problems were ignored by Americans. On Sept. 11, 2001, a desperate group of Muslims committed a violent and shameful act. But they got noticed.
What might have been a moment of introspection and self-awareness was instantly hijacked by the worst elements in the country to frighten voters and boost ratings. George W. Bush declared that Muslim radicals attacked us “because we love freedom” — hardly the biggest lie he would tell in his eight years in the White House, but one of the most telling. He warned the world that “you are either for us or you are against us,” a rhetorical flourish guaranteed to kill any diplomatic or military nuance.
Pat Robertson and Jerry Falwell, the unofficial chaplains of the Republican Party, came out within days to declare that the 9/11 attacks were God’s vengeance on a wicked nation. “I really believe that the pagans and the abortionists and the feminists and the gays and the lesbians who are actively trying to make that an alternative lifestyle, the ACLU, People for the American Way — all of them who have tried to secularize America — I point the finger in their face and say, ‘You helped this happen,'” Falwell said, as Robertson nodded approval.
And yet there were heroes on 9/11 — lots of them. They were simply not to be found in the halls of political and corporate power. The heroes, of course, were the first responders — the firefighters, EMTs, police, and others who risked their lives. And, of course, many of them lost their lives that day, rushing into the burning World Trade Center towers to save others.
Those heroes are too numerous to mention here, but I will name one. Rick Rescorla was a highly decorated infantry officer in Vietnam in the early years of that war. On leaving the Army, he earned bachelor’s and master’s degrees in creative writing, but finally went to law school. After a brief stint in academia, he moved into high-end corporate security, eventually landing with Dean Witter Reynolds (later merging with Morgan Stanley), which occupied 20 floors in the WTC Tower 2.
As director of security for Morgan Stanley, Rescorla warned of the first attack on the WTC, which occurred in 1993. He helped evacuate the towers when a truck bomb was detonated in the basement and was the last man out.
He reasoned that the next attack would be an airplane flown into one of the towers and strongly urged Morgan Stanley executives to leave the WTC and go to New Jersey. It was to no avail. He spent the next eight years preparing and drilling Morgan Stanley employees to be ready for the worst. When the moment of truth came, he personally oversaw the evacuation of 4,700 employees from the WTC. He was last seen returning to WTC Tower Two to search for others. He never came out. His remains were never identified.
In that short time between taking his law degree and getting into corporate security, Rescorla taught criminal justice at the University of South Carolina. That was more than 30 years ago, and he is almost forgotten there. A search for Rick Rescorla on the USC website shows only three items. Rescorla deserves better than this. I would hope the university would use the 10th anniversary of 9/11 to remember a man who meant so much to so many. It would be fitting for the criminal justice department to create a scholarship or endow a chair in his name. If they will, I would write the first check to the cause.