September 11, 2023
Marcia Kramer: So, Mr. Mayor, you know we're doing a special on 9/11. I wonder, where were you when the first plane hit and when 9/11 happened?
Mayor Eric Adams: I was actually helping Norman Siegel. He was running for public advocate. And I was up in Harlem… up in Manhattan on the Upper West Side, and we were out early morning.
Kramer: It was Primary Day.
Mayor Adams: That's right, Primary Day, a lot of people forgot that. And I think it changed the course of elections, to be honest with you.
Kramer: In what way?
Mayor Adams: Because people were afraid and they were unsure about the economy and what the normal liberal city all of a sudden said, hey, we need a businessman, we need someone that was very moderate in thinking. There was a different shift in what New Yorkers felt at that time.
Kramer: So, 9/11 made Michael Bloomberg's career?
Mayor Adams: I think so. I think that he was a solid visionary in business. We were dealing with the tough economic times days after. Everyone was forecasting what was going to happen to the city. People were unsure. So, the liberalism of the city said, hold on a moment. You know, we need a real steady hand at the wheel.
Kramer: So, before I get back to what...that day, did 9/11 change your thinking as somebody who obviously had a political career and would go on to be mayor of the City of New York?
Mayor Adams: Not really. I was already on a trajectory of, you know, fighting for reform. I already had in my mind that, you know, this is a pathway of using everything that we learned to one day lead this great city. So, it didn't change it at all. I was always still a believer in public safety. Terrorism was an extension of the harm that could come to the city, and I always just felt justice and safety goes hand in hand, and that was our...the stability of the city.
Kramer: So, here we are 22 years later. Do we still have to be worried about a terrorist attack?
Mayor Adams: Yes. Yes, we do. Yes, we do.
Mayor Adams: Well, you know, the term "sleeper cells," you know, that is very important. You know, there are those out there who want us to feel comfortable and feel as though we don't have enemies that want to hurt our way of life. And we have to be concerned on many levels.
Trust me, their goals would exploit even this migrant issue coming through our southern border. They see this is an opportunity to come here and harm our country. We must have vetting in place. Our combination of all of our law enforcement and intel agencies must continue to look at information data. We cannot get comfortable and believe that is going to go away.
Remember, there were several years' gaps between the attack on Trade Center attack number one to actually taking down the Trade Center. We fell into a sense of comfort, and you cannot do that. They are out there, they was still hurt America.
Kramer: So, the fact that we rebuilt Ground Zero, is that a target still?
Mayor Adams: I don't know. The experts know better than I. We have some amazing men and women who look at where the major targets are. We look at some of the soft targets here in our city, some of the high tourist attractions, some of our major religious institutions. But when you look at what actually is perceived that Ground Zero as being a target, the greater experts greater than I would make that determination.
Kramer: So do have… The thought of a possible terror attack, is that one of the things that keeps you awake at night?
Mayor Adams: I'm very concerned about it. And you know, it's so interesting you ask that question, because even in the midst of a potential school bus action, migrants, dealing with crime, in the midst of that, you have to have a mental dashboard that says, states how are we doing? You know, I use the analogy of flying the plane: I need to know those instrument panels. I need, there's an instrument panel that says "terrorism," there's an instrument panel that states, you know, "migrants" and "school opening."
I cannot say, let me just focus on this one instrument panel; no, I have to develop a full ability to know everything that is happening to this aircraft called New York.
Kramer: I just wondered if the fact that we're approaching 9/11 makes you not refocus but brings terrorism back to your mind, because we all remember that day.
Mayor Adams: It never left. It never left. I'm always, when I start in the morning speaking to the police commissioner and the team, I am asking, are there any notable threats out there? I'm getting ready to come up on Rosh HaShanah, you know, a very important high holy day for the Jewish community. I'm getting ready to come up on other very significant holidays.
So, I'm constantly asking, are we dealing with any threats? What are we dealing [with]? Once I get that foundational no real credible threats, now I can shift and deal what all the other duties of running the city.
Kramer: So, 9/11 has turned that into a constant concern for you as mayor of the City of New York.
Mayor Adams: The vigilance and the preparedness must be real, and it must be constant. And it is part of our everyday routine. 9/11 has made it any mayor, any police commissioner that does not constantly remain vigilant that there's a threat still out there...and New York City is one of the top targets in this country. It's a huge profit prize. The media market, what happens here cascades throughout the entire country if not the entire globe. And that is one of my primary responsibilities as I start my day.
Kramer: So, let me take you back to that day, 9/11. You're in Harlem.
Mayor Adams: It was Upper West Side.
Kramer: Upper West Side. What happened?
Mayor Adams: We were out going for another round of campaign literature. I walked down the block, there was a store and I saw a bunch of people looking around at a television set with a plane sticking out of it. And you know, many people thought it was an accident. Right away I said, this is hard. You know, I felt terrorism right away; and then moments later, another plane flies in and it's like, we have a problem.
And the train system shut down. There was no way of getting downtown. I knew immediately that, you know, whenever a major incident that we have to mobilize. Even if we're not officially notified, we were trying to go to either your local precinct, your home precinct or you have to get in and check in because there was a major issue happening in the city.
Kramer: You were a police officer then.
Mayor Adams: Yes, I was a lieutenant at the time in the 88 Precinct. And so I started my walk across downtown. We were roughly in probably the eighties or the nineties, and we walked downtown. I first tried to take the train, but the service was closed off and we just started to walk downtown towards it.
And when I started to get across the bridge, the Manhattan Bridge at the time was closed down. I just saw people in all sorts of dust and particles of, you know, the realization that the buildings collapsed had not settled in yet, I just thought it was the smoke and the soot coming from the airplanes hitting the buildings.
Kramer: What were you thinking?
Mayor Adams: I was afraid. You know, it was just a level of uncertainty of, you know, what was happening to our city. And you know, were we under more threats? We were unclear of what the next round of threats were going to be or the next round of attacks. Remember, we are foreign to attacks on our soil not only in America but in New York City.
So, this was a huge hit in the gut for this city, that wow, we...you know, you could do the drills, you could do the tabletops. You could do everything else, but this was real. This was not a test.
Kramer: But you were a police officer then.
Mayor Adams: Yes.
Kramer: You were trained to look for threats.
Mayor Adams: Yes.
Kramer: Is that what's going through your mind?
Mayor Adams: You know, it wasn't...you know, it's one thing to go through the reenactment; and you know, it's so important what the Police Department does with muscle memory: if you do something over and over again you get trained for it. And there were some incidents where there were threats that were foiled and stopped.
But the actual realization that in the heart of our city terrorism took down the symbol of our empowerment. Those Trade Center towers were the first thing you saw when you flew into New York City. That was a game‑changer in our shift and in our mindset of how we need to really become proactive as well as reactive to fighting terrorism.
Kramer: But as a law enforcement person, did you think we let down our guard and that's why it happened; or, like what were you thinking?
Mayor Adams: I think it was a combination of things. At that moment I was not saying and doing an analysis of, you know, how did it happen, you know, did we drop the ball? I was looking at, how do we provide services right away? How do we do the search and recovery? How do we secure the area? How do we look at the manpower?
I was a platoon commander at the time in 88 Precinct. How do I do, you know, motivate my troops to get out there, make sure that we remain vigilant? We still had a city to save. Even as we deal with the crisis at 9/11 we still had to deal with the everyday crises of keeping the city safe. Crime did not go on hold because of that, and we still had a role to seek out if there were any other terrorist acts taking place.
Kramer: So, was there a thought that we have to see if there are any other terrorists around or any other things that could happen?
Mayor Adams: There was a combination. When you think about it and look back through those days, it was amazing how the Police Department units shifted into gear. Hats off to Mayor Bloomberg at the time and all the other law enforcement leaders. They shifted into gear of ensuring that the everyday criminality was handled, but at the same time, they had to shift into gear to find out what was happening across the globe, and they did an amazing job of making that shift.
Kramer: When was the first time you went to Ground Zero?
Mayor Adams: That evening. That evening. I took a trip over that evening. When I was a transit police officer of Chambers Street on the A, the 2 and the 3 was one of my posts. And I remember the vastness of the Trade Center. And if you never visited there, the visuals from the TV cannot give the full scope of what happened.
But I knew how vast it was, how tall the buildings were, just the whole of the area where people shopped and dined. And I remember going there that night and the ground was smoldering. You still saw the smoke. You saw officers and Marines and National Guard all covered in soot. There was this eerie stillness, and it was something that I have never felt or experienced before, and I don't know if I will ever experience it again.
It was a clear indication of almost a war zone of watching, those buildings were gone. For as far as you could see you just saw a paper, quiet. There was this eery stillness of walking around and people just feeling as though they were in a state of shock, that this was the reality that happened to our city.
Kramer: Were you shocked? Were you angry? Were you… What was going through your mind when you saw this? Like, it couldn't really be real?
Mayor Adams: Mixed emotions, and I fully understood those who decided that they wanted to go join the Armed Services, those who decided they wanted to go into law enforcement, those who decided they wanted to change their careers. People went through a great level of anxiety and depression. It was a challenging time for many.
And there was a combination of anger, outrage of the number of innocent people that died there. I had friends, and you know, those who were close to me who I lost during September 11th. I think all of us in one or two degrees of separation lost someone, a neighbor, a loved one, a family member. It would never dissipate. It will always be permanently carved into our spirits of what happened that day.
Kramer: Did you want to change your career?
Mayor Adams: Not at all; in fact, I felt as though there was an obligation, you know, to continue to serve and protect the people of the city. And I felt it was an honor here I was as a career law enforcement person, it just made it real for me. With an attempted attack at Atlantic Avenue that we were able to foil, you had other attacks that really the public was not even aware of that we were able to stop. But to be on the front line of that, it meant a lot to me that I was in a career that we were on the front line.
Kramer: You didn't think that at that point that you were going to be running for public office?
Mayor Adams: It was always in my mind. Bill Lynch at the time really motivated me and gave me a blueprint on how to become the mayor of the City of New York. I was inspired by David Dinkins. And just to be able to have this city and use the observations and experiences to one day govern this city meant a lot to me and I was on the pathway to doing that.
Kramer: I just wonder if your experiences at 9/11 have in some way affected how you govern the city today.
Mayor Adams: It has. It has, because I know the stakes are high, and you know, oftentimes in this country we balance between liberties and public safety. And oftentimes during peaceful times, we romanticize the joys of liberty. But no matter what we do, the foundation must be public safety. We have to be safe.
And that's a challenge sometimes during peace times. People tend to believe we should have extreme liberties. But I saw what happened over 20 years ago when those liberties can actually get in the way and allow dangerous people to harm us, and that's why what is happening right now at our border, we need to be vigilant not to allow those who hate America to enter America and harm us from the inside.
Kramer: So, are you really saying that the lessons of 9/11 should be remembered by the president and the federal government in terms of determining border policy?
Mayor Adams: Yes, it should. As we allow people to come in to experience the American dream, we have done that for years, there's a reason the Statue of Liberty sits in our harbor. But as we romanticize that, we have to also see exactly what does that mean and how do we do it, to filter out those who are not coming here to pursue the American dream but to destroy the American dream.
Everyone that attempts to enter our country is not coming here because they believe in America. Some are coming because they want to harm America. And that's the smallest number, but we cannot ignore them because it only took a certain small number of people to take down our center of trade.
Kramer: It seems like 9/11 is a good time to remind the president of that.
Mayor Adams: Well, to remind the president and Congress [of] real border and immigration reform, and no city should be impacted by this: El Paso, Brownsville, Texas; Los Angeles; Chicago. No cities should have to burden the national crisis on its own, and we should think about that.
Kramer: So, after 9/11, there was an attempt in New York City to ramp up its anti‑terror activities by the NYPD and also the FBI and other federal agencies, and there were a lot of focus on of people who were Muslims who may have had...come from the countries in the Middle East. Did we overstep our bounds when we put a lot of mosques under surveillance?
Mayor Adams: Look, I think we went too far in some areas, and we've witnessed this before. We saw what happened to the Japanese during the war in Japanese encampments of, you know, history has many examples of when we were afraid our actions that we took. I believe some of the actions we did in our mosques were unwarranted.
I look at Coney Island Avenue, it was once a thriving community, it disappeared overnight. Many of those young men were rounded up, placed in federal penitentiaries. And I just thought that some of the things we did was out of fear and not out of facts.
And we have to be very careful, because this is America and we believe in due process. And I think because of what we saw on September 11th, we did not stay true completely to what we represent.
Kramer: You recently had to add some names to the 9/11 wall, these are people who contracted 9/11 illnesses. How did you feel having to do that, that people 20‑plus years later are still losing their lives because of it?
Mayor Adams: You know, those planes took down the buildings, and we often focus on those we lost on the day. I always point to the fact that I think the greatest thing about New York City and America was not what happened on 9/11 but what happened on 9/12. You know, we got up, teachers taught, builders built, and we continued to show that we were not going to bend or break.
But the reality is, is that throughout these 20‑something years there were many people who did not lose their lives in the attack itself but they were dying slowly because of the results of the attack. And we cannot forget them. You know, "never forget" is not a bumper sticker or a slogan, it is what we did yesterday of making sure that we placed their names on the walls and also look after their families.
I participate in many 9/11 related incidents to show that those heroes that we lost on that day and the heroes that we lost after should always be remembered in our consciousness.
Kramer: Did we make we make a mistake listening to Christie Whitman who was head of the EPA at the time who said that the air was safe?
Mayor Adams: I don't know what happened there. I thought it was a big mistake. Many people took down their face masks, they do not take necessary precaution, because you want to believe government. And government should give us the accurate and knowledgeable information. It should not be politically correct, it should be the correct information so people could make the right decision. I saw many men and women without their face masks in that toxic dust; and later, it impacted their lives.
Kramer: So, how much longer do you think New York City is going to continue to have these remembrances of 9/11 every year?
Mayor Adams: I hope it never goes away. I hope those young children who were one-years-old that are now 20‑something would always reflect on that moment, and I hope it will be a constant reminder that we love this country, this country stands for a great level of opportunity. I think it's the greatest country on the globe, because this is one of the greatest cities on the globe.
But we do have those out there that hate our way of life. They hate the fact that we believe in equality for women. They hate the fact that we believe in religious freedom. They hate the fact that we believe that we have a capitalist economy.
They do an analysis of our country and it is in contrast to what they believe and they feel the best way to stop our beliefs is to destroy our beliefs. We're going to always have that threat.
Kramer: So, as mayor of New York City on this 9/11 in 2023, what will that ceremony mean to you and what will go through your head as you participate in that ceremony next Monday?
Mayor Adams: Listening to the names. I think about that day the towers went down. The antennas and the cell receptions were challenging. I could not speak with my brother for some time. My mother was unsure if my son...my brother and I were okay. Bernard was a sergeant in the Police Department.
And there was a relief when I finally was able to reach him, but the reality was I could not exhale because hundreds of our fellow colleagues in FDNY, the Police Department and other services we lost. And it just started a long chain of funerals and mournings and tears and uncertainties and black bands that's just followed for that entire year.
Kramer: And so as you stand there and hear the list of names, what's going through your head?
Mayor Adams: How fortunate we are to have those men and women in particular who decided to run towards the danger and helped assisting others, how fortunate we are that everyday New Yorkers were helping each other, we responded.
And that's what's great: they thought they were going to break our backs; and instead, they gave us an opportunity to say we will bend but we will not break, and the flags and the patriotism became a reality again. It reminded us how much we love this country. And "I pledge of allegiance to the flag of the United States of America" is just not a quote, it's a realization.
I love this country, and every time I hear the polls of people say they won't defend this country if it's attacked by foreign enemies, some polls say 52 percent; well, I'm a 48 percenter. This is our country. With all the flaws, this is the greatest country on the globe. And I think about that when I'm down at Ground Zero.
Kramer: And on September 12th, we got up.
Mayor Adams: We got up, and we will continue to get up, because we are Americans and we are New Yorkers.
Kramer: Thank you, Mr. Mayor.