Tuesday, September 11, 2018

Who Can Ever Forget? September 11, 2001

Those still alive from my parents’ generation will remember where they were when they first learned that the Japanese had attacked the US Pacific fleet at Pearl Harbor on the morning of Sunday, December 7, 1941.

Those old enough of my generation remember where we were when we were told that President John F. Kennedy had been assassinated in Dallas on Friday afternoon, November 22, 1963. I was in 7th grade and the principal came on the squawk box and summoned the faculty to his office. A short time later our math instructor returned to tell us the sad news. School was dismissed and we were sent home to be with our families. I still recall like yesterday the spectacle of mourning in Washington, DC and the burial ceremony and the lighting of the Eternal Flame at Arlington Cemetery. I would visit his grave for the first time eight months later.

My son’s generation joins my own and survivors of his grandparents’ generation in remembering where he was when we all learned of the September 11 terrorist attacks on New York City, Washington, DC, and the ill-fated attempt of a second attack on Washington which ended in a field near Shanksville, Pennsylvania as the result of the actions of brave passengers who thwarted the terrorists’ plans at the cost of their own lives. It has been almost another generation . . . 17 years . . . since that tragic morning when we watched the attacks on our country being carried out live on television.

Who can ever forget what happened that day? Since then I have visited the memorials at each of the sites where almost 3000 lives were snuffed out in a few brief moments of insanity. Each one is sobering in the extreme and is difficult to find words that adequately express the impression they leave on one who remembers this fateful date so well. I was in central Washington, DC that morning, but strangely it is the monument in Shanksville – some think of it as the "forgotten part of 9/11" that touched me the deepest, and on a very personal level. I did not know any of the forty passengers and crew on United Airlines Flight 93 from Newark to San Francisco. Since the attacks there has been speculation and debate surrounding the intended target of the hijacked jet although surviving planners of the attack have suggested that the White House was the primary target, the secondary target being the US Capitol. On the morning of September 11, 2001, when the attacks against the World Trade Center and the Pentagon occurred, I was working in my Department of Justice office just three short blocks from the White House. How would my life have changed . . . would it have also been snuffed out had Flight 93 made it to its intended target?

I arrived at my office just about the time the first jet hit the World Trade Center. Those of us in the office quickly gathered around the television in our conference room where we followed the reports out of New York. And we were watching when the second jet struck the second tower. It was then we knew this was not an accident but a concerted attack on the United States. As we discussed how we should react or respond to this national security crisis there came the report that a third hijacked aircraft had struck the Pentagon just across the Potomac River. Soon sirens were wailing across downtown Washington as rumors of other attacks began to come in. All were, in fact, only rumors . . . except for one . . . that of a hijacked jet approaching Washington from the northwest; its intended target unknown. In the meantime we continued to follow as the events in New York unfolded and watched with horror as the two towers collapsed.

Once word had arrived that all of the hijacked aircraft were accounted for (Flight 93 had in the meantime crashed near Shanksville), we were instructed to evacuate our building and central Washington as quickly as possible. I joined a sea of people as we walked through the streets of the city as all public transportation had been suspended. We returned to our families and friends as all quickly realized that America and our lives in it would never be the same again. It seems we are reminded of that fact every day over the past 17 years. Who can ever forget?

In putting our best face before the world in the days and weeks following the attacks, the world watched and respected our courage in confronting naked terrorism. We showed the world what has always made America great; our ability to stand together when the chips are down; to put petty differences aside and work together for the common good. Yet somewhere along the way we also lost ourselves in our attempts to seek revenge rather than justice, to point our finger indiscriminately at any country or person who did not agree with us. And soon that came to include other Americans just because they look different, or speak a different language, or pray to a different god. In many ways it seems we have forgotten what happened that morning and how Americans responded to it. Consensus through diversity is what has made this country great.

Who can ever forget? September 11, 2001 was a day when everything changed. It is up to us how we make that change work to our common advantage and for the fate of our great nation. Seventeen years later it is time we finally put our best face forward again.

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