The unfolding meaning of 9/11

For anyone who lived through it, 9/11 will always be one of those “I will never forget where I was” moments. Four crashed planes, nearly 3,000 dead. After twenty years, the poison of the time-release horror is still as toxic as ever, is still spreading, is still history-in-the-making.

A Pearl Harbor moment, with the expectation of a World War II kind of victory to follow. Was it WW2? Or Vietnam?

“Our war on terror begins with al Qaeda, but it does not end there.”

With those words, President George W. Bush, on Sept. 20, 2001, launched a war with no end date, taking the fight first to Afghanistan to topple the Taliban regime, which had harbored al Qaeda and 9/11 mastermind Osama bin Laden. [We’ve watched, in real time, how that just ended … in chaos.]

Eager to right a wrong, Elliot Ackerman, who was 21 years old 9/11, became a decorated Marine and intelligence officer, and deployed five times to Afghanistan and Iraq..

“September 11th happens, we’re telling ourselves these stories about the Second World War, and when we go to try to fight a war that’s in that type of a paradigm, the paradigm doesn’t fit,” Ackerman told correspondent Martha Teichner.

He writes about war now, as a veteran who sees the last 20 years as sacrifice squandered. “There’s an old bit of gallows humor amongst Marines and soldiers: ‘Knock knock.’ ‘Who’s there?’ ‘9/11.’ ‘9/11 who?’ ‘I thought you said you’d never forget.’

“That’s a bit of gallows humor when you’re sitting there in Afghanistan in 2012 and 2013 getting shot at, and you know the country doesn’t care.”

The War on Terror has been fought far away, in Afghanistan and Iraq, but also in Syria, Pakistan and elsewhere, fought by an all-volunteer army, not an entire nation’s sons and daughters. So, invisible to most Americans, although 7,000 service members have lost their lives.

Ackerman said, “How do you fight a War on Terror? You’re basically fighting for something to not happen.”

Another 9/11 has not happened, and in 2011, we “got” Osama bin Laden. But here we are, at twenty years and counting.

“Sunday Morning” first met Lee Ielpi five years ago at Ground Zero, before the 15th anniversary, as he showed us his son’s name on the memorial to those who died.

Lee Ielpi places his hand on his son’s name, at the 9/11 Memorial at Ground Zero.  CBS News

For Ielpi, the meaning of 9/11 is, and always has been, personal … about this place on that day.

He told Teichner, “My son, Jonathan, a New York City firefighter, called and said, ‘Turn the TV on.'”

The first plane had hit the North Tower of the World Trade Center. “Jonathan said, ‘They’re sending us to the World Trade Center.’ I said, “OK, buddy, be careful.’ And he said, ‘OK.’ And that was the last time I spoke to my son.”

By the time the North Tower collapsed, Lee Ielpi, a retired firefighter himself, was racing to the site: “I asked everybody, ‘Have you seen my son?’ The answer was, ‘No, no, no.’ And then I started meeting Dads; ‘Did you see my son?’ ‘No.’ So, we walked together, eventually there were eight of us that would meet up every day.”

For nine months, together they clawed through the rubble searching for their firefighter sons. Lee Ielpi kept going back, even after Jonathan’s body was recovered.

Three-hundred-and-forty-three New York City firefighters died on 9/11. A symbolic stand-in for all of them is Jonathan Ielpi’s battered gear. 

Jonathan Ielpi’s firefighter equipment, at the 9/11 Tribute Museum. CBS News

Lee Ielpi gave his son’s coat and helmet to the 9/11 Tribute Museum, which he helped to found, so the next generation would understand.

In 2021, do they? He thinks no.

“I love talking to the young people,” Ielpi said. “And I’ll ask a student or two or three or four, ‘What does 9/11 mean to you?’ And the answer is, ‘What is 9/11?'”

“Sunday Morning” checked; only 14 states require 9/11 instruction. How it’s taught, or if it’s taught at all, Is mostly up to individual districts and schools.

Little, Brown

Young adult author Jewell Parker Rhodes said, “One of the things that I discovered is that a lot of adults were still so traumatized, are still so traumatized, by 9/11 that they don’t want to talk about it. So, in fact, when I was writing ‘Towers Falling,’ it was a very hard journey.”

Rhodes sees herself among the writers and educators finally beginning to grapple with 9/11. “If you look at 9/11 literature, we’re building a canon that you can start in elementary and all the way up, move to more increasingly complicated, well-told stories about the legacy of 9/11 and the time that we spent in Afghanistan,” she said.

“Towers Falling” was one of two 9/11 books assigned as summer reading to middle school students at Queen’s Grant Community School in Mint Hill, North Carolina, outside Charlotte. For an entire week in nearly every class, kids who weren’t born yet on 9/11 tried to grasp what happened.

Because it’s the 20th anniversary, that’s why Queen’s Grant took its deep dive into 9/11 this year, something it hasn’t done before, but may consider continuing.

Students in Mint Hill, N.C., study the events of 9/11.  CBS News

An instructor addressed the class: “Do you think your parents are ever going to forget 9/11? What happens when your parents are gone? Who’s gonna remember?”

Lee Ielpi lives in Florida now. A memorial, not far from his home, has his son’s name on it. “It makes me cry, but it’s good,” he said. “It keeps them alive. It keeps Jonathan alive.”

But will names on granite and a mangled hunk of World Trade Center steel be enough? He can only hope so.

Teichner asked, “Why does having steel bring meaning?”

“Because we have nothing else,” Ielpi replied. “This tells a story, a powerful story.”

The 9/11 Memorial  at Patriots Park in Venice, Florida. CBS News

Wauseon, Ohio firefighter (now chief) Rick Sluder had never been to New York City when he and several colleagues went there to collect a nearly-two-ton piece of North Tower steel from Hangar 17 at JFK Airport, where the awful wreckage of 9/11 was kept. “A big forklift brought it out to us, and so we secured it to the trailer and covered it with an American flag and started our journey home,” he said. “You’re in awe of, you know … Man, that’s a big piece of steel. That’s a big responsibility.”

How big a responsibility became clear as the men drove the beam across northern Ohio: “You get groups of people around it in different towns we stopped in, that would just stand and touch it, hug it,” Sluder said. “They were along the route with flags, cheering, and fire departments from that jurisdiction would escort us, and it was like that the whole way back to Wauseon.”

The steel is part of a monument Wauseon and neighboring fire depts built in the middle of the county fairgrounds, surrounded by corn and soybean fields, 600 miles from the World Trade Center.

“People just say it was just really emotional, you know, seeing it, being able to touch the beam,” Sluder said. “They just want to walk up and feel it.”

The Fulton County 9/11 Memorial, located at the Fulton County Fairgrounds in Wauseon, Ohio.  CBS News

Teichner asked, “Why did you feel so strongly about wanting a piece of that in Wauseon?”

“Because it didn’t just happen in New York or Washington, D.C., Pennsylvania. It happened to the nation,” he replied.

And in this riven piece of steel – and the nearly 500 others like it all across the country – the violence of that day lives on.

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Story produced by Mark Hudspeth and Michelle Kessel. Editor: George Pozderec.