From Ground Zero to D.C. to Pakistan: First responders, congressman and Muslim activist offer perspectives on how attacks and aftermath hit home

  • Joshua Shanley, left, and William Dunn, right, at Ground Zero in the wake of the Sept. 11 attacks in 2001. Both were members of the Amherst Fire Department at the time. —SUBMITTED PHOTO

  • A photo of the wreckage left in the wake of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks taken by Dan Constantine, a captain with the Easthampton Fire Department who deployed to the scene in 2001 as a firefighter-paramedic member of one of the two federal Disaster Medical Assistance Teams, or DMAT, from Massachusetts. —SUBMITTED PHOTO

  • A photo of the wreckage left in the wake of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks taken by Dan Constantine, a captain with the Easthampton Fire Department who deployed to the scene in 2001 as a firefighter-paramedic member of one of the two federal Disaster Medical Assistance Teams, or DMAT, from Massachusetts. —SUBMITTED PHOTO

  • Members of one of the two federal Disaster Medical Assistance Teams, or DMAT, from Massachusetts that responded to the Sept. 11 attacks in New York City. Easthampton Fire Department Capt. Dan Constantine, standing at center in red shirt and white hard hat, was one of the members of the team. —SUBMITTED PHOTO

Staff Writer
Published: 9/11/2021 3:49:50 PM

Like many people across the country, Dan Constantine stood in front of his television in Easthampton in shock on Sept. 11, 2001, watching the footage of two planes smashing into the World Trade Center towers.

But Constantine wasn’t there for long. As a firefighter-paramedic member of one of the two federal Disaster Medical Assistance Teams from Massachusetts, he was sent on his first deployment to New York City with a cadre of other medical professionals who arrived the next day to what had then become known as “the pile” at Ground Zero.

“I still remember walking by all the firetrucks, ambulances, police cars and civilian cars that were just crushed … mangled to shreds,” said Constantine, who is now a 51-year-old captain with the Easthampton Fire Department. A pile of rubble some 15 stories tall sat on the site as first responders tried to find survivors.

“Sometimes there’s some smells that will kick in those memories of those days I was there,” Constantine said. “Sometimes some images. Of course, always at this time of year it’s very somber.”

This year is a particularly poignant time for many impacted by the 9/11 terrorist attacks and everything that came after. Two decades after that day, the world has been divided into pre-9/11 and post-9/11 realities, the effects of which continue to impact people locally and across the world.

Constantine, who helped run medical stations at Ground Zero, couldn’t bring himself to return to the site until a few years ago. And as the 20-year anniversary approached, he began poring over his old photographs from the time.

“It brought back some difficult memories,” he said. “And some warm memories of the camaraderie and the togetherness and the warmth of the people down there. Just the wonderful human spirit that does exist.”

For some first responders and many others who were in southern Manhattan in the aftermath, psychological and physical health effects remain today. Many of those who were exposed to the toxic debris of the collapsed towers suffered from debilitating and often fatal illness.

“We’re 20 years in and for a lot of the responders who went, it is not over,” said Josh Shanley, 54, a firefighter-paramedic in Northampton who also works as the city’s assistant emergency management coordinator.

Shanley, a New York City native, also traveled to the city in the wake of the attacks, providing emotional support for first responders dealing with the immense stress of their work. Because of his knowledge of his hometown, he was quickly recruited to drive clergy around to pop-up morgues across the city as they administered last rites to those whose remains were found in the rubble.

It wasn’t the first time Shanley had responded to a crisis at the World Trade Center. He was there in the aftermath of the 1993 World Trade Center bombing, transporting scores of people to hospitals across the city. He has not visited the memorial to the attacks, however.

“The place is not as important as the feeling,” he said. “Being there doesn’t really matter as much as just connecting with people who were there.”

An initial unity

A relatively new member of Congress who had been elected in 1996, U.S. Rep. Jim McGovern, D-Worcester, was at the Capitol building when he heard about the attacks. It wasn’t long before the building was evacuated and he walked the several blocks to his son’s day care, returning home with his family and others from his office and the day care to take in the news. Lawmakers soon returned to the Capitol steps to sing “God Bless America,” he said.

“In the immediate aftermath, everybody was trying to not behave in the usual partisan way but to show that we were together and that Congress was not afraid,” he said. “We were united and standing together, and I think that was an important message as well.”

In their unity, however, U.S. lawmakers spent little time before going to war — first in Afghanistan and then in Iraq. Twenty years later, the so-called “war on terror” has resulted in 900,000 deaths and cost the United States some $8 trillion, according to Brown University’s “Costs of War” project.

Every single member of the U.S. House and Senate, except for California Rep. Barbara Lee, voted in favor of the war in Afghanistan.

McGovern said he and others didn’t understand at the time how the war in Afghanistan would evolve. McGovern voted against the war in Iraq and subsequent bills that approved sweeping surveillance inside the United States, such as the USA PATRIOT Act. But he said the consequences of those votes and other actions taken in the wake of 9/11 are still with us today.

“It led to an embrace of more militarism and a decrease of the civil liberties of American citizens,” he said. “And we’re still dealing with that.”

McGovern said that the country needs to reflect on how its “forever wars,” increased military budgets and tightening domestic surveillance were a result of what the country did in the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks.

“The debate that we need to have is how do we create a less violent and a better world. I think there’s a tendency in our politics to believe that increasing military operations, increasing weapon sales, increasing military budgets is a way to protect the American people,” he said. “I think there’s enough evidence that it may have the opposite effect.”

In particular, McGovern pointed to the Muslim community in the United States as one that has suffered the repercussions of the country’s reaction to Sept. 11.

Rise of Islamophobia

Mehlaqa Samdani is the founder and executive director of the western Massachusetts organization Critical Connections, which seeks to improve understanding of Muslim communities in the United States and abroad. She said she was preparing to leave her home in Pakistan for graduate school at Tufts University when the attacks happened, forcing her to delay her arrival to the United States until January 2002.

In Pakistan, Samdani saw the wave of refugees fleeing after the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan. When she eventually arrived in Massachusetts, she said, the larger Boston community made her and other Muslims feel safe and welcome. But as the war drums began beating ahead of the U.S. invasion of Iraq, anti-Muslim sentiment began to rise, she said.

“I personally experienced it, my family members experienced it, community members experienced it,” she said.

As the FBI and other law enforcement agencies began sending informants into mosques and spying on Muslims, Samdani said, people in the Muslim community in Massachusetts and elsewhere began censoring themselves — what they said in public, over the phone and to their friends and family abroad. She and others had the sense that they were always being listened to, she said.

“All of these initiatives, they really created an environment where the entire Muslim community was cast under suspicion, and that created the space for interpersonal Islamophobia to manifest itself,” she said.

Samdani said that thankfully, no similar attacks have taken place since 9/11. But she said that U.S. foreign policy in the Middle East, facilitated by leaders in those countries, has helped create ISIS, for example, and other horrors that make people less safe.

“I’m hoping that the debacles of the past 20 years will give pause to liberal interventionists, conservative interventionists … who believe they have the right, or the tools, to change societies in their own image through military means,” she said.

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