A decade later, a variety of voices recall where they were and how 9/11 has changed security, society and government


City Councilman Bill Rosendahl was getting ready for his early morning cable television show. State Sen. Ted Lieu (D- Marina del Rey) was on his honeymoon. Nancy Castles was out of the country.

What binds all three is they remember clearly where they were on Tuesday, Sept. 11, 2001, a date that has been seared into the collective memory of the United States. It has become a defining moment for a certain generation of Americans, much like the 1941 Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor that led to the United States entrance into World War II, and the assassinations of President John F. Kennedy and civil rights leader Martin Luther King were to past generations in the 20th century.

The Argonaut examined how Los Angeles, politics, the country’s security and its psyche have been reshaped by 9/11 through the prisms of legislators, the lead law enforcement officer of the Los Angeles International Airport and a psychologist. They offered their views not only on how the nation was affected by the terrorist attack but also how it has coped with seismic cultural and societal shifts.

Lieu said he felt “shock” and then “anger” when he learned that the United States had been attacked by terrorists flying airplanes into the World Trade Center in New York. He believes that the government overall has responded well in the aftermath of 9/11. “The government’s first priority must be public safety. We have killed (former Al Queda leader) Osama bin Laden and I think we’re safer than before,” said the senator.

LAX Airport Police Chief George Centeno learned of the attacks on the Twin Towers from his sister. “I watched in awe and shock as the Towers crumbled.

“I remember thinking that I was witnessing the equivalent of Pearl Harbor,” Centeno, who was with the Santa Monica Police Department at the time, added.

LAX Public Relations Director Castles was attending an airport executives conference in Canada when she first learned about the terrorist attack. “We were all incredibly shocked. There was no sound in the room as we watched the image of the planes crashing into the Twin Towers,” she remembered. “As soon as we saw the second plane hit, we were on the phones calling our respective airports.”

Castles said the airport executives were forced to use email and satellite telephones due to the high frequency of phone usage, which jammed the lines for hours.

“It was quite frustrating not being able to get back to our respective airports,” Castles recalled.

Rosendahl, who at the time of the attacks was moderating a cable television shows on Century Cable, which later became Adelphia cable, used many of the same adjectives as Lieu and Centeno. “It seemed surreal at first, but it very quickly became a very tragic, poignant moment for all of us,” said the councilman, was first elected to the council in 2005. “My prayers go out to the families who have lost their loved ones and who have suffered greatly from this tragedy.”

Santa Monica psychologist Shelia Forman said the legacy of tragic events are constant reminders of the damage that was done and the grief that at times can linger for long bouts of time.

“Anniversaries of loss can be very important,” noted Forman, the chair of the Los Angeles County Psychological Association’s Media Committee. “It’s not uncommon for people to have a lot of emotion during these times.”

Centeno said that after 9/l1, he and others had the sense that the world had irrevocably changed. At LAX, the date of the attacks is a constant reminder for the airport police to always be vigilant. “We recognize that LAX remains the number one target on the West Coast,” the chief said. “Aviation is always a terrorist target because of its impact on the economy.”

Castles agrees that safety and security are always never far from the thoughts of airport personnel. “The constant training and education awareness programs keep it in the back of our minds,” she said.

Lieu, who served four years of active duty in the Air Force and is now a member of the Air Force Reserves, feels the armed forces has been at its best in battling terrorism since 9/11. “The military has done a fantastic job in responding to the threat of terrorism and I think President (Barack) Obama should be commended for his sustained prosecution of terrorists,” said Lieu, an attorney who belongs to the Judge Advocate General Corps of the Air Force.

Rosendahl has a different view of the war on terror, particularly regarding how he feels the Iraq conflict has affected the U.S. economy.

“Our entire economy was reshaped by Sept. 11,” he asserted. “We need to reinvest in our infrastructure and healthcare system and bring our troops home from these wars that have cost us billions of dollars that we could have used to reinvest in America.”

Forman has been thinking about the tragic event recently and had what she called a “flashbulb memory” of where she was when tragedy and chaos struck. Flashbulb memories are described as highly detailed, exceptionally vivid “snapshots” of the moment and circumstances in which emotional arousing news was heard.

“I was walking along Wilshire Boulevard with my radio at 6:30 in the morning when I heard the news,” Forman recalled. “And since Sept. 11 I have tried to make myself available to my patients as much as I can because of the anxiety that we saw in the aftermath.”

Rosendahl, a former psychiatric counselor who worked with veterans after the Vietnam War, said many of the traumas affecting returning veteran from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan are the same emotional ailments that he saw almost 40 years ago.

“The physiological and psychological impact on our troops has been overwhelming,’ said the councilman, whose district includes the Veterans Administration Hospital in Westwood. “The killing of Osama bin Laden was laudatory, but like President (George W.) Bush I think that President Obama has overreached (in the war in Afghanistan).

“This is why we need to bring our troops home.”

Anxiety is the most common symptom that Forman has seen in the last 10 years among her patients and their families. And what makes the events of 9/11 even more ingrained than, for example, the explosion of the Space Shuttle Challenger on Jan. 26, 1986 is the 24/seven news cycle that was not in existence when the aforementioned tragedies occurred, she pointed out.

“People see the images on television all the time,” the psychologist said. “People often are searching for answers and information and seeing these images on a constant basis is like a secondary trauma.”

Officials from law enforcement agencies at LAX held a news conference Sept. 7 at the airport to talk about how air travel has changed since the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11 and provide an overview of the numerous security measures that have been implemented at LAX during the past 10 years.

Reporters were invited to view a LAX and LAPD K-9 explosives detection demonstration, a Transportation Security Administration checked-luggage security screening and passenger security screening station, Customer and Border Security Global Entry kiosk demonstration and perimeter fence upgrades.

“Each and every day, our officers and the support staff at LAX understand that today could be the day that someone tests our airport security,” Centeno said the day before the press conference. “I tell our officers, ‘don’t rationalize; investigate.’”

As the 10th anniversary of 9/11 approaches, introspection and reflection will be at the forefront of many people’s minds, said Forman. The loss of life, of invincibility, the emotional scars that some bear and the toll on the nation’s collective psyche in the aftermath of the most devastating event of the 21st century are still present, sometimes just beneath the surface.

“It is a tragedy that affects us all,” Forman concluded. “I haven’t met one person whose life hasn’t been changed by 9/11.”